I can’t be the only person who feels uncomfortable when viewing a two year old expertly swiping some screen; to be engrossed in a game on an iPad, to demand electrical devices then casually begin to operate them in a disturbingly familiar fashion. Childhood play is moving, alarmingly quickly, into the technological sphere; all schools and nurseries are kitted out with screens and programmes and apps, which are considered an integral part of education. But with all these mod-cons, where is there space reserved for puppets, for mummies and daddies, for colouring?
My childhood memories centre around play; hospitals built for stuffed toys, tea parties carefully set up with love ready for guests to pretend to consume the plastic cakes and pizza slices we served them, a particularly strange stage of playing ‘Running Away from Nazis’, which prompted my parents to take a little break from ‘The Sound of Music’ at video time, a half hour winding down slot before bed. Today’s reality, however, is very different.
One primary school teacher recently informed me that, when acting as a substitute teacher for a class of five year olds, they stared at her blankly when paper and scissors were placed on their desks. They didn’t know what to do with these odd tools presented to them. Another, told me that she sees, on a daily basis, the truth of recent scientific research conducted by The American Paediatric Society which states that children are loosing their imaginations, as the computer games they play are imagining for them, i.e., providing a visualisation and effectively cutting out the middle man: the creative process. That her students often stand around, confused and unsure what to do with the mountains of props available in their play area, props that would have been fought over but ten years ago.
The “creativity crisis,” as coined by Kyung Hee Kim, who has studied American schoolchildren over the past ten to thirty years, is cause for concern. “Children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesising, and less likely to see things from a different angle,” according to Kim. This applies particularly to Creative Elaboration – when children expand on an idea in their own unique ways, through the use of imagination.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that parenting is HARD. When you’ve been up all night, you’re house is a mess and you have a little person with a big voice constantly whining at you, a screen is your saviour. Putting on a movie will almost guarantee an hour or so of much need silence, and perhaps even an opportunity to wash your hair (for the first time this week). I get it. Technology can be useful, and it should be used when needed. I do believe that our balance is way off. Example: instead of buying a fluffy bear, or a toy car, my brother-in-law made an app for my (then 1 year old) niece, which struck me as simply not right. Instead of putting a focus on technology for children, make it a treat. Instead of tossing an iPad to your child as a default shutting-up cure, try to prevent it from becoming the main event.
Your child is programmed to play, they want to play, they need to develop their own imaginations. If we take away this necessary developmental period away from them, we face raising a generation without writers, actors, painters, creatives. And not only that, but also a generation who do not have the ability to think up the ingenious apps that we offered our children, and relied on to help our daily lives.
With every ‘ying’ comes a ‘yang’, however, and the place between them a happy medium. In this case, the total opposite of children cooped up indoors, the extreme adventure playground. With examples all over Europe and the UK, these play spaces are not for the faint-hearted. They are essentially building sites or abandoned junk yards where children can play freely. Swinging on ropes tied to trees across marshes or streams, cutting materials needed in their play with real saws or machetes, making bonfires in their ‘dens’. Stuff of most parent’s nightmares.
Whilst these playgrounds do have adult supervision, they try not to interfere in children’s play as much as possible. They allow the children to explore risks and learn for themselves the dangers than an unsteady log, or high tree branch offer. Allowing the children to asses risks independently often produces surprising results; when allowed responsibility, they typically embrace it, and learn from their mistakes. For instance, which materials will burn in a fire, and which won’t. The results are fascinating, and heart warming. Children are silly, creative and free. To see more, check out the documentary ‘The Land’ by American filmmaker Erin Davis, which explores a branch in Wales.