Safe in a leafy embrace.
I remember children at our wedding six years ago, finding themselves in this great outdoor celebration surrounded by cousins and other kids, choosing to sit on the front step of the cabin playing handhelds. Or at a family reunion a couple of years ago, saying jokingly to my cousin's son, "Why don't you put that thing away and come hang out with all your cousins?" He snapped at me (again, without looking at me), "I've been away all week and haven't played with it at all!" After grandma died and my cousins arrived, many of the kids were so engaged with their games that they didn't even talk to each other. I had been telling Jude that he'd meet some boys his age and they could play together, and was dismayed to realise that he'd be left out because he didn't have a DS. Do I think it's neat that while playing guitar and singing around the campfire, someone can find the lyrics to a song we're struggling with? Kind of. But I also kind of miss the days of humming and laughing at people's attempts to remember the words.
I'm on a rant. Bear with me...*takes deep breath*...
I'm a kindergarten teacher. At circle time, when we share stories about exciting things that have happened in our lives, I'm as likely to hear "I got a new DS" as "I went fishing with my Grandpa". While assessing one of my Junior Kindergartens on his letter recognition (we've learned 15 so far, reviewing and playing games with them daily) I saw that he didn't know any of his letters. That's okay (*takes another deep breath)...but then he saw capital B and that sparked him to go on a tangent (as they do) about Woo-eegee (Luigi!) and Mawio (Mario!)...this child just turned four. In my quick internet search for information on this topic, I learned that "preschoolers aged two to five play an average of 28 minutes/day. The amount of time spent playing video games is increasing, but not at the expense of television viewing which has remained stable at about 24 hours/week". (see the whole article here).
If a child has a DS at the age of 3 or 4, what the heck do you buy them for their 10th birthday? I imagine by then there'll be some newer "must-have" on his list...
Fresh air and a good book!
I grew up in the 70s and 80s. I remember which friends had microwaves and VCRs (we used to rent a VCR on a rare weekend, and this is why I have certain 80s movies completely memorised: we'd rent two for the weekend and watch them over and over again!). I remember seeing my first CD player in about 1989; it had been purchased in the States, and was likely the first of its kind in the Ottawa Valley.
We just weren't a family that was into gadgets, whether by principle or by budget, I'm not sure. We watched TV, but were more likely to go for walks in the winter forest, Sunday drives with a picnic in the car and a lake-destination in mind, or to just play outside. I never felt deprived or left out. I still think my microwave is pretty darn neat.
Watermelon snack, sun on shoulders.
I'm not afraid of gadgets. I KNOW they're cool. I know there are amazing Apps that are educational and fun. What scares me is how addictive they are. I avoid getting an iPhone because I know I'd be on it all the time. I also worry about what is happening to our brains. I heard of a recent study on CBC radio that stated that our brains are actually changing because of the use of GPS systems. They affect memory and spatial orientation. What? You mean reading maps is GOOD for our spatial sense? Frankly, the idea of our brains evolving in response to gadgets that are younger than me gives me the skeevies.
So the question begs to be asked. If a child learns about social cues, conversation skills, reading body language, and eye contact by interacting with the adults and children around them, what is happening when the children sit around playing on computers and handheld devices all day? There were six children at our gathering last night; two were fighting over a game, one had a DS, and two were watching videos on youtube. That left Margot to climb on laps and make us laugh with her antics. It was quiet; it gave the adults time to sit and chat. But the lack of noise and activity kind of saddened me.
Nanny and Papa's card game finale.
In our family, my nieces don't have games either. So when we all get together, one adult is usually sitting with the kids, colouring or crafting, or the kids are off running wild together, or once they get old enough, they're sitting with the adults and learning to play cards. It takes energy to do this. If we need to get something done, they might watch a movie, but more often than not, they're busy playing.
When I non-judgmentally express my misgivings to other parents, I'm often bemused by their responses. It's as if they agree with me, but are kind of confused about how their kids ended up with a game. They always agree that playing outside or with other kids is better for their child, but feel that their kids are too attached to ever get rid of the thing. Huh? Who's the parent here?
Let's be honest. A handheld game, like the television, is a babysitter. My kids watch a movie each day, for "afternoon quiet time" (which is when I make dinner or do housework). Gadgets can keep kids quiet in the car. It occupies them so parents can do their own thing. God knows I could use a little less whining when we take the kids out for a long drive. But I know that if we get a DVD player in the car, "I Spy", pretending we're in a submarine, singing songs, or looking for farm animals will no longer entertain them. My parents drove across Canada (from Ontario to BC and back) with four kids (aged 6-16) in a CAR in the early 80s. We did scavenger hunts, counted license plates from different provinces and states, had contests to see who could make their Lifesaver last the longest, and weren't bored for a moment. It took energy and effort on my parents' part. And it's one of my best childhood memories. What memories would I have of the Canadian landscape if I'd been staring at a screen the whole way?
The wonder of the human body in movement.
The argument that handheld games improve hand-eye coordination makes me pffft! Playing sports improves hand-eye coordination. Playing an instrument, or learning to knit or draw, or carving with a jackknife improves hand-eye coordination. Don't get me started on "Guitar Hero" or "Rock Band".
It's hard to put my finger on why I find this love of gadgets unsettling. While I worry about the social abilities of children who play with these things, ironically, I worry that my kids will be socially left-out because they don't play with them. I worry that I'm just a paranoid dinosaur, afraid of what I don't understand. But I know that when I go to a live show and see that everyone has what my husband calls "blue face" because they're all watching the show through their cameras/phones, texting to their friends that they're AT a show, or posting videos of the show to youtube, I'm saddened. People are increasingly disengaged from life, experiencing everything through a screen. After I watched my son's first Christmas concert through a screen as I recorded it for posterity (and basically missed the experience of watching it real), I vowed to never film another one. I'd rather be in that moment, seeing it as a whole.
I worry when I read quotes like this: Electronic games are now an everyday part of childhood and adolescence. The debate has moved from whether children should play video games to how to maximize potential benefits and to identify and minimize potential harms, as if we as parents have no control over them. It's the same feeling I get when I hear about the corporatisation (did I make up a word?) of our food sources, overuse of pesticides, and genetic modification in our food, as if we have no choice but to feed our kids fast food.
Playdough alien heads on action figure bodies!
I feel as if I'm a traveler from the past, trying to fit into a future I don't understand. I'm teaching my kids to knit and draw and grow a garden and take care of animals and climb trees. I'm teaching them to swim and write thank you notes and look people in the eye when they speak to them, to give a firm handshake and a strong hug. Am I somehow depriving them of an essential element of modern life? Will they suffer if they can't talk to their friends about the game they just got? Will they not be invited to sleepovers where the activity of choice is sitting around engaged with a DS? I worry. But I know it's a choice I'll have to live with.
Because we do have a choice. It's hard to resist the pull of shiny new things that somehow jar our sensibilities when there's madness all around, and people act like it's normal to answer their cell phone three times during a meal with friends. It's hard to deny our children things that "all the other kids have". As an aside, we don't deny our children access to technology. They get to take pictures with the digital camera. We record music on the computer. I blog and write. We find crafts, song lyrics, games, humour, and inspiration on the internet. We use technology as a means to achieving creative and artistic goals. I know the day will come when a Wii will rock my kids' world on Christmas morning, and when they'll be able to spend money on whatever gadget they want. I can see how an iPad with educational apps will be an exciting addition to our collection of games and activities. But not yet. I still have a choice, and for now, I choose real life over virtual worlds.
Sticky face sees fireworks for the first time.
I'll leave you with this quote: "Video games are natural teachers. Children find them highly motivating: by virtue of their interactive nature, children are actively engaged with them: they provide repeated practice: and they include rewards for skillful play."
I'd like to edit it as follows:
"People are natural teachers. Children find them highly motivating; by virtue of their interactive nature, children are actively engaged with them; they provide repeated practice and they include rewards for skillful play."