Disconnect to Rediscover Playtime

O Tech Talk 004

Babies reach for their parents’ smartphones before they can talk. Toddlers prefer bedtime stories read on a tablet. Preschoolers clamor for interactive games. No wonder a recent study from the Pew Internet Project found that parents are more likely to download apps than other people who own interactive devices.

There’s no question that kids like apps, but are they actually good for them? Some experts in childhood development worry that kids are spending too much time with screens and not enough time with 3-D play. The Kaiser Family Foundation now estimates that the average child spends almost eight hours a day engaged with television, computers and portable devices, squeezing out more traditional play activities.

Experts define play as any activity or game initiated by a child. They believe open-ended, child-led play is crucial to development for at least two reasons:

1. Participating in play allows children to master complex physical, mental and emotional challenges, giving them confidence in their abilities to function in the outer world.

2. Initiating play allows a child to follow his or her whims and fantasies, exploring a unique inner landscape that leads to discovering what’s interesting, motivating and inspiring.

Quality interactive experiences may give children a sense of mastery, but they aren’t particularly good at promoting self-discovery. In fact, some apps may actually stifle imagination. For many years, experts have warned that video games encourage kids to watch and react rather than reflect and create. Now it seems likely that parents should also pay attention to apps that impose an adult agenda on play, turning kids into consumers instead of explorers.

Restoring genuine playtime isn’t simply a matter of keeping kids away from screens. Parents can set the stage and create what the Alliance for Childhood calls “Time for Play, Every Day.” Here are some qualities that make play most rewarding for children and, for that matter, adults.

Multi-Sensory. Technology, by nature, strips down reality. No matter how cute the puppy is on the screen, he isn’t real so what your child learns is inevitably limited. Mess and disorder are often part of quality play. If possible, set aside an area where kids can roughhouse, use art supplies and leave complicated projects in progress.

Physical. Using devices may also cut into the time children have for playing tag, riding bikes and turning somersaults. Make time to locate and visit playgrounds or green spaces in your community.

Open-ended. Interactive devices are programmed. Someone else has already determined what will happen in response to children’s actions. Free play may also have rules, but children create — and change — these rules. Following a child’s lead is often difficult for parents who may be tempted to show a child how to do things “better.” Put your urge to “help” on hold. If you join in your child’s play, ask questions and let your child come up with the answers.

Social. When kids interact more with digital devices, they often interact less with people. Children learn to cooperate by playing with other children. Also, there’s growing evidence that adults who stay in touch with their playfulness throughout life are healthier, happier and more successful.

Interactive devices definitely have a place in the lives of 21st century children — as well as their parents. The trick is finding balance. You may hand your smartphone to your child during a ride to the park, but once you get there, turn off all devices, run through the grass, kick a ball, dig in the sand and abandon yourselves to good old-fashioned playtime.

Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. Visit growing-up-online.com to read some of her other columns.

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