I used to be that mom. You know, the one that insisted her children only play with non-battery toys. The one that didn’t have cable or Netflix and rarely turned on the TV. The mom who only let the children use the computer if they were standing (a chair would make them too comfortable and they’d stay too long) and only for select educational games.
Then my children got a little older. And they started going to school — where TVs, computers and iPads are common learning devices. And they made friends who had not just cable but Xboxes and Netflix and all manner of entertainment at their fingertips.
As they gradually became exposed to these higher tech pastimes, I discovered that my kids — who I had raised to be energetic and curious and to think critically — didn’t change one bit.
We got cable a couple of years ago. Netflix came last year. And still my kids hardly sit still for a full TV show. But at least there’s a lot more choice in what they do watch. There’s no such thing as “passive” watching for them — they interact by adopting storylines into their play, by questioning what they’ve heard or seen, by talking with each other about favourite characters.
This Christmas they each got a tablet. Ground rules were set about the amount of time they could spend on them, what kinds of apps they could download, and how I expected them to treat them. And rules have been stretched to accommodate my new understanding of how these devices work.
My eldest plays Minecraft — sometimes for a couple of hours a day. It’s been a long winter and there’s little play space outside our house, but inside he can create worlds, co-operate with friends in building, and develop his engineering skills. Last week he built an amusement park from a bunch of square pixels. I still have no idea how he did it, but there’s a waterslide and everything.
For a child who always gravitated towards blocks and Lego, this seems to just be the next dimension in play.
The fact is, my fears that higher tech toys would make my children passive consumers, pale couch potatoes or antisocial tech-heads are just not founded. Their brains have developed, not rotted, and their little bodies want to move no matter what they’re doing. And the tablets have allowed them to co-operate, teach each other and play constructively with others (though there’s still enough fighting and arguing that I know they’re still my children).
My children are growing up in a world where tech skills are going to be required for all jobs. I’ve seen older adults, even ones my age, struggle with job changes or returns to the workforce because they just aren’t computer-savvy. Just like when we learned touch typing, speed and accuracy with the touch screen is going to be an important skill-set.
Already, my children amaze me with how quickly they learn and react to changes in their favourite apps. They teach each other and help each other with their favourite games. They play co-operatively and share their skills. And their reflexes are about 10 times quicker than mine in basic runner-type games.
In a world where they’re often too small, too weak or too young to accomplish the tasks adults can, the tablets have turned that around. They can do more and know more than me — though they still need me for troubleshooting and to confirm that apps are safe.
Some parents and researchers think that handheld devices should be banned for young children. I think that’s utterly ridiculous. Though a few years ago, I may have agreed.
The thing is, no matter what tools or toys you use and allow your children to use, they will still be raised by you, not a machine or a device or the TV. Researchers argue that high tech toys can cause children to be sedentary, restricting physical development and encourage obesity. Children, by nature, though, are not sedentary. A child in motion will stay in motion, whether he’s holding a Gameboy or tablet or an apple. As long as a parent encourages movement and makes time for large play, high tech toys can not take away a child’s natural inclination to move their body.
They also argue that digital games can make children aggressive, limit their coping skills and encourage addiction and even mental illness. I expect that if you took a child and raised them with a tablet as a parent these things might happen — but as a parent you are able to and should control what your children are playing and for how long. High-tech toys don’t cause these problems — neglectful parenting is the much more likely culprit. Anything we allow our children to do, taken to an extreme, can cause these same issues — even competitive sports.
Banning or even limiting the use of high-tech toys sets them up as a desirable golden ring for the child who is held away from them. A happy, active child can only play with them for so long before they move on to something else naturally. If children are spending too much time with high-tech toys or becoming immersed in their worlds to the exclusion of the natural one, that is not something caused by the toy, but something the child is experiencing.
In this way, I’ve seen high-tech toys act as an actual alarm bell for parents: for my own son, he withdraws into his tablet when there is conflict with his friends ... for a friend, she realized her children needed drastic changes in their social life when her young son withdrew into his Playstation games. Much the same way that, as a child, I would withdraw into books, I imagine.
Too much of anything is not a good thing. But banning something is not good either. As with everything in life, moderation is key. An observant and involved parent would not allow their child to play with high-tech toys to the exclusion of other forms of play any more than they would allow their child to spend 10 hours a day playing competitive sports.
For children, they can be toys that encourage co-operation, learning, skills development and creativity. For parents, they can be tools, like anything else.
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