New technology or imagination: Finding that balance

By KATE BASSETT

HARBOR LIGHT NEWSPAPER

Luke Baker bounded into the kitchen holding two pieces of red and white rope, asking his mom for help untying a knot. There was, he explained, an important mountain climbing expedition taking place. When they talked about the knot– a well-tied fisherman’s– and determined it could not be undone, the Harbor Springs second grader jogged off, plotting other ways to work toward the summit that sprang up in his backyard.

It’s a scene most parents are familiar with– the rich world of a child’s imagination– although it is one that Luke’s parents, Josh and Molly, have intentionally established as the norm in their home. In a society where imaginative play is increasingly pitted against the tools of the digitized generation, the Baker’s opt for baskets of books, wood blocks, and lots of time outdoors.

“When kids are outside playing in an unstructured way, something magical happens,” said Molly Ames Baker, advisory committee member of Getting Kids Outdoors, a community- wide initiative in Emmet County. “You can watch it unfold: as all their senses become engaged, they become more curious, creative, inventive. They are experiencing the world on their own terms.”

The vast majority of adults can recall this sensation; childhood was a time when forts became castles, sticks were swords, and elaborate adventures took place without ever leaving home. Imagination reigned as king of all playtime, and the television– with its cartoons and family shows– was the only kind of “screen” available. Today’s children are growing up in a much different world. There are fancy toy smart phones, computer games for playing with stuffed animals, and enough social media to make face-to-face friend time less relevant than in generations past.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization dedication to major health care issues facing the United States, technology use is sky-rocketing among eight-18-year old Americans. A 2010 study found that children and teens are, on average, spending seven hours and 58 minutes on entertainment media each day. That’s 53 hours a week, up more than seven hours from the same study in 2004.

“It is a research supported fact that technology is consuming every angle of childhood,” said Ali Berry, education specialist with the Little Traverse Conservancy and chair of Getting Kids Outdoors. “Taking the technology away isn’t the answer, but there needs to be some sort of balance. We’ve reached a tipping point.”

Berry said the time has come for parents, teachers, and community members to begin a dialogue, to start looking at the pace, and ages, in which children become consumed with technology. As a way to start the conversation, Getting Kids Outdoors is sponsoring a showing of the movie, Play Again, on February 9 at the Harbor Springs Middle School. The movie documents a group of media savvy teens who unplug for a wilderness adventure. Its message is important to middle school principal Wil Cwikiel, so much so that he’s making a venison chili dinner (along with chicken noodle soup and salad) to entice a crowd.

“There are dangers, and it is a delicate balance,” Cwikiel said of our electronically-driven world.

Within his school walls, Cwikiel said he knows technology is a critical part of education today. Middle school students do everything from research topics on-line to use social media programs designed to keep learning communities active even after school hours. Cwikiel said schools “are not in the business of telling parents what they can and can’t do.”

“This is 2011,” he said. “There are amazing forms of technology and communication out there and we would be foolish to not see that. However, I do feel both parents and students need to be aware of potential drawbacks. Also, there is nothing in technology that beats a well-constructed sentence, or the face-to-face contact that allows us to experience the full element of human emotion.”

Or the development of those emotions, noted Gesell Institute executive director, Marcy Guddemi, in a phone interview. Founded in 1950 by Arnold Gesell after his retirement from the Yale University Clinic (now the Yale Child Study Center), the Connecticut-based Gesell Institute works with educators and parents in understanding child growth and learning so that children may be “nurtured, encouraged, and empowered” throughout their formative years.

“Even 20 years ago, studies showed social skills suffer if children spend too much time in front of screens. They need to interact with people– and not via social media–but in real time, with real communication,” Guddemi said.

“Technology is not going to go away, but balance is absolutely the key,” Guddemi added, saying the biggest problem with technology isn’t in school. It’s being “just plugged in” at home.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics has said children require 60-minutes of unstructured free-play everyday for optimal health and well-being, the reality is young people spend half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago, and most “down” time is dominated by video games, computers, and mobile devices.

“Playing on a DS, watching Youtube videos, texting on cell phones, or posting on facebook – this is the framework through which kids experience life. Today’s youth are spending more time interacting with electronic media than anything else except sleeping,” Baker said.

“Couple this lure of technology with busy after-school schedules, homework, chores and other commitments – it’s no wonder kids don’t spend much time outside. Even in Emmet County where natural areas are relatively accessible and state parks, public trail heads and beaches are within close range to home – it’s hard to get outdoors and explore,” she noted, adding it can be a daily struggle in her own home.

Though these thoughts may resonate with people, the following question brought the need for community discussion home.

“But at what cost?”

“People don’t want to look at the potentially harmful side of overuse of technology,” said Joan Almon, executive director for the U. S. Alliance for Childhood. “Parents are really stymied about how to raise their children today. They want to do right by them, but have no past to look to how to do that, because the world has changed so rapidly.”

The Alliance for Childhood, based in College Park, Maryland, works with a host of national partners– mainly physicians and education experts– to promote policies and practices that support children’s health, love of learning, and joy in living.

Almon said, although there is strong research to prove children “really learn through their senses,” more and more school districts are edging away from low-technology classrooms in early childhood education.

“People make an enormous amount of money selling technology products to children. Yet, there is no solid research that technology, in the early years, brings a lasting gain. In fact, there are numerous studies that show classrooms very low on technology, but rich in teacher and child interaction, are the truly extraordinary learning environments for children eight and under.”

Even when comparing students in high achieving countries like Japan in subjects such as math, Linfield College professor Nancy Drickey found the middle school classrooms she studied in Tokyo had “colored chalk” as the highest form of technology in the room. The same holds true for South Korea and Finland, countries that score exceedingly well on international testing measures. Instead of technology, it seems something much more organic drives student achievement: high performing teachers.

According to a report on closing the education gap created by the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the countries mentioned above have a teaching force that comes 100-percent from the top-third of academic classes. American classrooms, by comparison, have just 23-percent of teachers coming from that sector of educational prowess.

“There are gains, like multi-tasking capabilities and visual coordination, that come with the use of computers and technology. It’s not that these things are terrible for children– they are not– it is just that too much technology forces something else to be lost.” Almon said. “And what children are losing is critical thinking, verbal skills, concentration, initiative, innovation and creativity. These are pretty important skill sets to be losing in a time when our economy will increasingly rely on exactly what we’re removing from education.”

The innovators of our time still grew up in an education era rich with multi-sensory creativity, Almon added.

Creativity. It is a word that bears a heavy weight in today’s educational society, one Kyung Hee Kim, a professor of education at the College of William and Mary, fears is disappearing at a rapid rate. Kim used the Torrence Tests of Creative Thinking– the most widely used and respected test of its kind– to analyze the scores of 300,000 children and adults. Her findings? Creativity had been steadily rising until 1990, when something shifted, and the statistics began a steady decline. What’s worse, the biggest decline Kim found was in children Kindergarten-sixth grade.

“I don’t want to demonize technology: it is a product of creative minds, and it can in some cases encourage, or at least not damage, creative personalities,” said Kim in an interview granted to the Harbor Light Newspaper. “I use computers now in analyzing data sets, and I am writing you on a word processor, and there is nothing wrong with this. The decrease in creativity measures coincides with several significant trends in American life, and one of those trends is the proliferation of contemporary technologies. These technologies can be- and sometimes are- used to foster creativity, but I fear that more often they contribute to the death of creative impulses.”

Kim went on to offer examples of how she suspects this happens.

“Since books are being set aside in favor of computer research, there is less likelihood of finding and learning the other information that is located in ‘analog’ research, on the pages before or after the specific factoid being researched. The research itself involves less of an investment of time and personal thought, and thus does nothing to encourage or teach intellectual curiosity or persistence. Instead of learning and understanding ideas and processes, I suspect increasing numbers of people rely on technologies to do their thinking for them.

“When I listen to others on cell phones, it seems most of their conversations have to do with where they are, and when they will arrive at their destinations: I do not overhear much intelligent or thoughtful conversation on these devices. Further, I believe all of these devices encourage a mentality of instant gratification, and decrease the need to think ahead, to plan for contingencies, none of which are aspects generally shared by creative people, who necessarily engage in “divergent thinking,” to generate many novel ideas, and then engage in “convergent thinking” to evaluate these ideas and adapt one of these novel ideas to solve a particular problem. It takes time to be creative. It takes practice to be creative. It takes free will to be creative.”

Almon agreed, noting technology cannot serve as a substitute for play. “Even technology that is considered ‘creative’ has already been created by someone else. This is why I tell schools, ‘if you have money for wooden blocks and technology in your Kindergarten classroom, great. If not, I would choose wooden blocks every time.’”

In fact, Almon said the ideal way to foster the aforementioned creativity traits in children– traits Nobel Prize winning economist Alan Heckman has said are critical to the economy of the future– is to keep technology use very low until middle school.

“Obviously in today’s world, if a high school student is not very skilled at using technology, or does not have the capability to use it daily at school, we should be concerned. That being said, it is time we wake parents up. A little technology goes a long way in childhood,” Almon said.

For Elizabeth Goodenough, a lecturer in the Residential College at the University of Michigan and the originator of the documentary “Where do the Children Play?,” if the health benefits of play aren’t enough to turn the masses, the educational benefits should be able to do so.

“A compelling message to combat parents fears of academic competition lies in learning about the positive cognitive benefits of play. Simply put, play makes you smarter, as evidenced in research being conducted at Stanford University and elsewhere,” she said. “TV and the video game worlds are scripted by adults: there is no opportunity to crayon outside of the lines.”

Kim echoed similar sentiments.

“Parents keep telling me they need to introduce their children to technology from infancy, so they are ready for the work world when they grow up. I predict many of these parents will foster automatons who are perfectly suited to the work world, like worker bees in a hive. This is not my interest. No one needs to be raised with computers in order to be proficient in them. Neither Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, nor any of the mavericks who gave us our computer technologies were raised on computers. Technological devices are so ubiquitous now, that I don’t even think you could keep a child from learning how to use them, so what is their hurry? We should resist what is easy, and keep our children from finding the technological shortcuts to quick answers and avoiding understanding. The technology is teaching impatience and laziness.

“Here’s an example. I was raised in a Korean village, with an outdoor toilet and no refrigerator. I got my education, and I learned all kinds of fascinating statistical techniques. In college I learned about computers, and because I really understand data, I am able to get those programs to do the math for me now. If I did not truly understand the hardcore, longhand math behind the programs and the data, then I would not be able to digest these data sets to discover this disturbing trend in creativity,” she said.

The findings of the Gesell Institute back this need for low-technology, high imagination classrooms and home environments in the early years.

“Piaget said ‘play is the child’s work’ and we truly believe in that statement. When children are playing, they are exploring and learning in a way that is meaningful,” Guddemi said.

With technology taking center stage in so many facets of life, it may seem to be a losing battle to try and foster more creative learning opportunities and environments. The answers, however, may be as simple as life before cell phones.

“I like to recommend turning off your television as a start, and thinking of something else to do. There are thousands of ways to start to reverse the trend, and they all begin with an open mind, having freedom to fail, and encouraging curiosity,” Kim said.

Coming together as a community to look at all sides of this issue may also call attention to the elephant in the room.

“Research shows that outdoor play and connecting with nature are essential to healthy childhood development. As parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers and coaches, we need to ask ourselves: ‘What are our kids missing out on by not going out to play?’ This is a conversation that needs to take place – in every family, at each school and daycare and within our community at large. We have the resources at our fingertips; it’s a matter of shifting our focus and making unstructured outdoor play a priority for every child,” Baker said, citing the importance of gathering for the discussion to follow the Play Again movie showing at the middle school.

Parents of all ages of children have to be educated about the importance of play, Goodenough stressed.

“Part of the strategies to do so are not just health (obesity, social skills, etc.) but more and more scientific evidence that play makes you smarter and more creative. You are not losing out in the marketplace but improving chances to be successful. Collaboratives need to be built within communities.”

Like all parents, Baker said her children aren’t free from watching videos or having occasional play time on the computer. Technology– and its future role in childhood, education, and family life– is a bigger issue than individual family choices, and yet, it is tied tightly to the importance families place on screen (or screen-free) time. Perhaps awareness and a growing understanding of the fundamentals of child development will swing the pendulum back to more simple childhoods.

“It’s a matter of letting go and rethinking our parent-driven mindset and structured activities – recognizing that kids don’t need a huge tub of plastic toys on the beach. Let them find a stick and some rocks – it’s absolutely amazing where their imaginations will take them,” Baker said.

 

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