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A young college student recently remarked that he is glad his courses are taught by computer, because he does not have to bother with books, and he does not need to speak with his tutor face to face. Everything is accomplished electronically. I think this is an alarming view of learning, relationship, and life.

Unfortunately computer screens have not only infiltrated at college level. Throughout the west, young children are using technology originally designed for adults. This trend is gaining momentum rapidly and is almost universally applauded. One early years article even suggests that children who do not use ICT at home are disadvantaged. This may reflect majority thinking, but I want to raise a question. If our goal for children is to prepare them for a high-tech future, then it seems we are accomplishing it. If our goal is to develop intellectual whizzes, perhaps we are achieving something of this too. But doesn’t this reflect a superficial approach to childhood? There are deep issues.

“We have all of this beauty around us and yet grown-ups often lose themselves in offices and imagine they are doing very important things. Can you recognise the flowers by their names and the birds by their singing? … Young people, I hope you will take a long time growing up!”
Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964)

Many adults are impressed to see three- and four-year-olds using scanners and software to create wonderful images. But is this truly ‘creating’? Aren’t we praising the latest achievements of technology rather than a child’s hands-on exploration with tactile materials – and imagination – to truly create? Certainly, it is amazing how adept children become in their control of a computer – but is this what they really need?

I’m not saying there is no place for technology. But it should be a tool, not a lifestyle, and children do not need it at all.

Even parents with happy childhood memories of modelling clay and mud, skipping to chanted rhymes, and reading books in trees, feel wowed (or pressured) into providing their own children with electronic paraphernalia. One such father recently told me that although he has misgivings about technology for youngsters, he is afraid his three-year-old son will be ‘behind’ in primary school if he doesn’t learn to use a computer now! So this is why we need to ask – What do we really want for our children?

A local primary school asked this question. The teachers began to wonder, ‘Are the children happier with ICT than they were before we had it?’ They discussed the issue with parents and considered that in an age when resources are running low, it might be wise to guide children toward a more natural approach to life. (Judging from the growing Forest School movement, this school is not alone.) As a result they got rid of all ICT for children – in any form – throughout the school. The children are not suffering. They do a lot of hands-on learning. When Year Two studied water transportation for example, the children collected sticks and worked in teams to figure out how to connect the sticks to create small rafts. These they tested in a nearby stream. Their teacher read them excerpts from Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra Expedition and the children were inspired to build miniature reed boats as well. Some drew pictures or composed poems about their boats.

J.C. Arnold, author of Endangered, Your Child in a Hostile World, recently wrote, ‘In the United Kingdom 92% of all students aged nine through nineteen have Internet access and, according to a recent study, schools spend five times more on computer-based resources than on books… The greatest challenge to parents and teachers is not to teach our children reading, writing and arithmetic (which are important) but to see that they do not become spiritually dull.’ If we don’t want our children to be spiritually dull, they must learn to think freely – and care about other people – qualities technology cannot deliver.

The opposite of spiritual dullness is children’s natural sense of wonder. This is what we need to nurture. In her book on this topic, Rachel Carson wrote, ‘A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for many of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.’

“Learning starts with a child’s dramatic imagination. Play is the stuff of life. The logical narratives that develop in the doll corner and the block area, in the sandbox and playground, open the door for all future narratives about friendship and work, about family and community. In the first five or six years, children can’t believe in themselves unless other children want to play with them, unless they learn how to play with others…”
Vivian Gussin Paley (Nursery World 15 December 2005)

How do we support children’s sense of wonder? If we affirm children as active learners, they discover a great deal for themselves. We adults can provide support and discover with them. A child squatting on the pavement observing ants rescuing their brood will probably retain a deeper respect for ants (and be less likely to step on the next ant he sees) than a child who has seen a PowerPoint presentation on the same subject. Children learn gentleness if they are allowed to care for small creatures, which is not necessarily the case if they are presented with information. Isn’t cultivating empathy at least as important as cultivating knowledge? In fact, too much information can have a deadening effect if children are bombarded constantly at a young age. There is no need for children to know more than their carers!

When we allow children time alone in nature, their spirits can breathe and their minds can ponder. A child lying tummy-down in a meadow or garden will absorb many messages through eyes, ears, nose, and sense of feel. We must allow such times and not drown them out with manufactured stimuli.

Physical lethargy is a close cousin of spiritual dullness. A nursery practitioner told me last week she does not want children sitting in front of an Interactive Whiteboard in her nursery because when they go home they continue to sit, this time in front of TVs and play consoles. Obesity is a problem. Perhaps electronic baby sitters are convenient, but we must remember Margaret McMillan’s words: ‘To move, to run, to find things out by new movements, to feel ones life in every limb, that is the life of early childhood!’

Ironically, although technology is supposed to create links between people (we can have instant communication across the globe), in reality it separates us. Riding the tube in London, I observe people who travel together but have zero connection with one another. Each is absorbed in his or her own world, with their iPod or mobile phone. In the village neighbouring mine, a Friday afternoon treat for the Reception Class used to be to run out and play in the small wood bordering the school, but that has changed with the advent of ICT. Now the Friday ‘treat’ is for each child to be given a laptop computer. So these young children spend the last hour of the week mesmerised before a screen, parallel to – but isolated from – their friends.

Many people stress technology’s benefits to children: apart from computer activities, children can interact with amazing images on whiteboards or relax in ‘sensory rooms’ while watching synthetic swirling bubbles, changing coloured lights in fibre-optic strands, and learn cause-and-effect by pressing buttons to activate sounds. However, if we replace children’s inner imaginary worlds with projected images, or their true sensory experiences of light, water, colour, and sound with artificial props, aren’t we depriving them of basic elements of childhood? They may reach a point when they are no longer able to imagine or play without such props.

There is another question nagging at the back of my mind. Who is pushing all the new technology for children? And why? Should government officials or big business be the ones to set the direction for what children learn and how they are taught? In her article ‘Whiteboard Whitewash’ in the Spring 2006 edition of Early Education, Nikki Mellor asks, ‘Has the government decided it’s easier/cheaper to invest in technology than to invest in the project of developing a good quality educare system with practitioners who are encouraged to think and reflect creatively on what they are doing with children?’ I’m reminded of the story of Mary Poppins – young Michael Banks was presented/confronted with all the material glories of the adult world, when all he wanted was to feed the birds!

In the 19th century, children suffered horrifically from the effects of the Industrial Revolution. They were used as a cheap source of labour. Today again children are being used, this time as consumers, in what could be called the Electronic Revolution. They are targeted for advertising campaigns to fill their bedrooms with expensive electronic equipment. (See ‘Screen Addiction’ by Karen Faux, Nursery World 23 March 2006) It is unethical to use children for commercial ends! Just as child advocates of the 1800s defied the attacks on childhood of their day, adults who respect children’s development must stand up for them now.

Joy in life, an active imagination, hands-on creativity, heartfelt relationships with others, a gentle spirit, lively physical activity, exploration of nature, the ability to think independently, a spark in the eye – these are intrinsic to healthy childhood, and preparation for wholesome adulthood. They must not, like the plastic seeds that can be planted to yield plastic flowers, be replaced by manufactured substitutes! We all need to seek a deeper understanding of – and reverence for – childhood.

As I’ve been writing, two of my sons – aged sixteen and nine – are working together outside, assembling frames for beehives. The younger one just ran happily in with some beeswax for me to smell. That’s what I want for my children!

Reprinted with kind permission from Community Playthings UK.
Original post: https://www.communityplaythings.co.uk/learning-library/articles/what-do-we-really-want-for-our-children