A few weeks ago, I stumbled into a conversations among three children. Their conversation unfolded something like this:
Child 1 – Siri lives inside my dad’s phone.
Child 2 – Siri lives inside my dad’s phone too!
Child 3 – My dad yells at Siri because she tells him the wrong directions.
Child 2 –Siri makes my dad get lost and then my mom yells at my dad.
Child 1 – Do you know what Siri looks like?
Technology in today’s world is, for many of us, reminiscent of what was forecasted on the Jetsons TV show: robots that vacuum, cars that can drive themselves, virtual assistants who answer many of our questions and give us directions when we’re lost. Today’s world is saturated with technology and media. According to Diane Levin, in her book, Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood, ever since the 1950s, when television became a regular feature in family life, the influence of technology and media on children has been the subject of study and debate. The quickly changing landscape of the tech-world keeps researchers studying its impact and scrambling to keep up; and for this reason, there are conflicting theories and research conclusions. What we do know is that American children between the ages of 0 to 8 average 2 hours and 19 minutes of screen time each day;children under age 2 spend about 42 minutes, children ages 2 to 4 spend 2 hours and 40 minutes each day, and kids ages 5 to 8 spend nearly 3 hours with screen media daily (pbs.org).
Now, let’s consider a different side of technology and media that forever impacted children – the release of Star Wars in 1977. This movie brought with it the debut of action figures that were tied to a predetermined script or role. Think about it… Darth Vader never comes home from his work on the strengthening the dark side of his empire to cook dinner. Similarly, Han Solo, Luke and Leia all have things that they do and do not do. The introduction of this type of action figure taught children to stick to a predetermined script in their play, and, as a result, over time their ability to think creatively while playing became increasingly difficult.
The combination of screen time and scripted toys and has caused a phenomenon that Diane Levin refers to as “Play Deficit Disorder.” This means that when given an opportunity to engage in open-ended play, children find it hard create their own play scenarios and often say they are bored. Furthermore, the screen time plus scripted play combination has made it more difficult for children to learn how to play cooperatively with others or how to resolve social conflicts without aggression. Yikes!
Our preschool teachers recognize that most of the children enrolled in our program likely get plenty of exposure to technology and digital media and they do not need extra instruction in this area at preschool. Instead, we strive to nurture children’s ability to think creatively in real-world, hands-on experiences that focus on the type of wisdom that is learned in the sandbox, in the block area, at the art easel, and while dressing up. Play in its truest form encourages children to master experiences and skills, try out new ideas, and build communication and language skills. However, what children learn is impacted by HOW they play, and fostering these skills often requires some intentional teaching, modeling, and adult support.
We create opportunities, activities, and spaces that nurture cooperative play and collaboration skills. This includes learning to share materials, space, friendships, conversations, resources, skills and ideas. However, learning these skills is hard for children (for adults too!) and requires intentional teaching by both teachers and parents. Below are examples of ways we support children with developing these skills in the classroom. These practices are backed by Ann Epstein in her book The Intentional Teacher.
- We provide opportunities for children to try out different social roles through ever-changing dramatic play spaces.
- We create classroom learning spaces that are full of open-ended materials such as blocks that can be used in a variety of ways.
- We keep the wagons and other equipment that inspire children work and play together, out and available at all times.
- We provide time and opportunities for collaborative interaction. We partner children together to work on activities and create learning opportunities for large and small groups of children to tackle together.
- We provide one-on-one social coaching for children who have trouble joining a group. For example, if a child is hesitant to join a group of children who are playing “house,” we model for the child how to stand back for a few minutes to determine what the other children are playing and the roles that that they’ve established. Then we talk about and suggest a role for the child. This might look like this: I can see that the kids are playing house. Carroll is the mom, Kath is the baby, Honor is the sister, and Jillian is the cat. I notice that the cat is sick. Maybe you can be the veterinarian?
- We provide one-on-one support for children who are aggressive in their play and guidance on how to make different choices. This guidance is coupled with an explanation of why a different behavior is important and how a different choice will help them in to participate in play. We also model cooperative play strategies and stick with the child to provide consistency and support as they’re learning.
- We allow children to experience the logical consequences of their actions (provided no one is being hurt). Experiencing social consequences is often what is necessary to get children to adjust their behavior. Children often need concrete experience with conflicts in order to learn how to resolve them.
Through these intentional teaching experiences, children learn to play with greater joy and social connections, which in turn, nurtures their sense of confidence and competence. Our ultimate goal is to help children learn to walk through the world with a sense of “I am – and I can,” while experiencing satisfying interpersonal relationships along the way. Think about that the next time your child asks for an action figure or your phone. I wonder what Siri would say if you asked her how to teach your child to be a success in our world today?