I’m sure it’s not incredibly surprising that I think about this a lot. I have the tech argument a lot as it is, and when a discussion popped up on Facebook about kids using “screens,” it got me thinking. I’m a very tech-oriented person, and I see so many benefits. (And I get so frustrated when people treat it as a negative!) So I’m excited to introduce my kids to it and help them make good use of it.
Not everyone is so positive about tech. It’s not uncommon for parents who do introduce young children to tech to be met with a lot of judgment. Although this includes parents of children with disabilities, kids who use this tech to communicate or otherwise improve their lives, I don’t think that’s the only time it’s a problem. (Or to put that another way – I don’t think that tablets/screens are okay only for kids with disabilities, they’re good for everyone.) I’ve seen kids without known disabilities benefit from tech (including things like tablets and games) too, and the idea that tech is generally bad or addictive but should be allowed only in particular circumstances stigmatizes it and the kids who benefit from it.
I’m not an expert in childhood development, and I do value the research from people who are. I’m not telling anyone what to do or claiming this is conclusive, just sharing some of my thoughts as a person who benefits from technology and has seen others benefit as well. Since I want to go into religious education and inclusion of people with disabilities is important to me, the inclusion and acceptance of tech is on my mind (and in my reading) a lot.
This article came across my feed a few days ago. Summary – kids learn better when they’re active and you shouldn’t replace active learning and play with tablet time.
Obviously kids need to be active and learn best by engaging with their environment. On the other hand, I don’t actually think most people are using tablets because they think it’s a better learning tool, and they’re probably not replacing active play. Kids today often just don’t get as much active play as experts say they should, tablet or no. Because parents are busy and tired and they obviously can’t just send a toddler out to play by themselves. So it’s not enough to say that screens aren’t as good as active play, if we want to fix that problem we have to find ways for parents to make time for active play.
Things like better pay, less demanding work hours, etc might help with that. For me, one of my biggest priorities with a long term job is hours flexible enough that I can spend several hours a day playing with my kids – maybe even enough time to home school. But I realize that will be hard to find, and if I do manage to find it that doesn’t mean everyone else can do the same. For some, it’s simply not going to be an option.
There are some things you can learn using tech, though. My dad says my mom taught me to read before I was two. I can’t say I remember it in detail, but I know I was reading before pre-school. That meant my vocabulary was pretty high and when I learned to write I was good at it. You can definitely get a feel for grammar and make some decent guesses just by absorption. But a program called VideoSmarts taught me the specific rules and the names for them. I wasn’t going on instinct anymore, I knew why language worked that way. That put me well ahead of my classmates, and the interactive quizzes (and the thrill I got acing them) definitely helped.
I love text-based communication. I’m not sure why, but talking is difficult even absent the extra sensory input of face-to-face communication. Talking takes extra steps, somehow. Like I know what I want to say in my brain, word for word, but getting it to come out of my mouth in the right way just doesn’t work. I have to turn it over and over again, get it perfectly memorized, and then *maybe* I’ll actually be able to get most of it out when I finally get to speak (assuming the conversation hasn’t moved too far past it by then).
But even that’s sketchy, because as soon as I start to talk it’s like all my thinking power goes towards the effort it takes to speak. All I’m thinking of is the sound of my voice, the strain on my vocal cords, the blood rushing to my face, the realization that I’m not making sense.
The speech I spent the last 10 minutes preparing is gone and I’m reaching frantically to pull back threads of it while I stutter out the bits and pieces I remember, never quite in the right order. Very embarrassing, and particularly frustrating when it’s on a topic I love and I know I’m onto something and I want input on it but I can’t get it because no one understands what I’m trying to say.
That doesn’t happen when I write. Even in a large group, even with everyone looking at me, I can usually write exactly what I mean. It probably helps a lot that I can look where I’m writing so things like faces and bright lights stay well out of the way. But even all alone I sometimes have trouble speaking out loud, the sound of my voice throws me off.
Writing is much more natural and doesn’t seem to take any extra effort. My hands know what I want to say much better than my mouth does. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that tablets have become a popular and effective method of AAC (augmentative and alternative communication). Now that they’ve become more (comparatively) affordable, they’re a great option for letting non-verbal kids express themselves.
One form of AAC involves pictures, which could be arranged on boards or cards or whatever. Kids can point to the appropriate picture or hold up a card or whatever works for them. With tablets, that gets a whole lot easier, especially with apps specifically designed for this purpose. So if your kid can’t actually form the words they want to say but want to communicate, they can! And with one simple handheld device. It’s kind of magic.
There are other methods. If a tablet isn’t an option for you or if you just really, really still don’t like the idea of kids having one for some reason, you can try those. The old school picture communication, for example. Or sign language. I love sign language (at least in theory, I’m only on lesson two of an online course so I realize it’s a bit early to say) and actually plan to start there with my kids. But when they’re old enough to handle one without dropping it, and assuming it’s affordable, I think tablets are a great option and more useful in a greater variety of settings.
When I was in pre-school, way before I ever heard of the term “proprioception” (which to be fair was just a few years ago) and quite awhile before anyone noticed other symptoms, a doctor told my mom my coordination wasn’t where it should be. He suggested dance or video games. My mom, responsible educator that she is, signed me up for dance class.
Here’s the thing about dance class, particularly as a teenager: it mostly just made me feel like a clumsy elephant surrounded by graceful but fragile mice I should probably stay away from in case I hurt them and/or they got angry at me. I didn’t really feel any more in touch with my body, just more and more annoyed with it. Watching videos of my recitals confirmed this – what a mess, and I always looked so out of place. Bleh.
Occupational therapy was much better. As I understand it, though, it can also be very expensive and not always covered by insurance. 😦 The good news is, a lot of the things I did in occupational therapy are easily replicated at home and basically comes down to encouraging sensory experiences. The most memorable thing, the thing I most hated, was a brush the therapist would rub over my arms. Ughhhhhh.
It’s not even that it hurt or in any way really felt bad, I just hated being touched. I kind of walked around in a daze a lot of the time, I wasn’t very aware of my body and my thoughts were always focused elsewhere. Someone touching my arms jerked me out of my mind and made it so that was all I could feel. The brush desensitized me to that a bit while also gradually grounding me more in my body. Also good – balance toys, figet toys, handheld sensory things like koosh balls and play-doh.
I definitely wouldn’t say the time spent on physical coordination was wasted, though I do think the activity should be carefully chosen and match the kid’s interests. Dance was not for me. Running might have been better, if gym teachers had been more understanding of difficulties in proprioception and could have known that I wasn’t standing still in the middle of a basketball court/soccer field/whatever because I was lazy but because I was terrified and confused, and had therefore suggested activities that don’t involve people running in all directions throwing things at my head. I love hurdles. Alas, that was not the case and OT stands out as the most helpful thing for me by far.
That didn’t do much for fine motor control and hand-eye coordination, though. I still missed my mouth when eating sometimes, had to make multiple attempts at putting something in the right spot without knocking things over, etc. And video games. When I first started playing them, which was when I got to college and my roommate had some, I was terrible. The character on screen never moved like I wanted them too, I never made it even halfway through a game and I became convinced that if you hadn’t been playing video games since you were 5 there was just no hope of learning. So I kind of lost interest and didn’t play much for quite awhile.
Since I finished seminary and moved in with my game-loving husband, that’s changed. I still can’t spend much time at once playing them, the same way I can’t binge shows like everyone else seems to do. Usually I can do things for maybe an hour tops before I have to get up and move around, get a change of scenery. But I play them more frequently, and I’ve seen a huge impact on my coordination since then. One of the easiest ways to see that is how much better I’ve gotten at the games themselves – things that seemed impossible when I started are a breeze now.
But also video games are set up to teach you as you go. It starts off fairly easy (by gamer standards) and then gets harder the more you do it, so you wind up building your skills and fine-tuning your control. And that’s carried over to the real world, where I’m nowhere near as clumsy as I used to be and generally feel a lot more confident about things like not cutting myself while slicing vegetables, for example. It’s a good thing.
So I suggest both. Definitely kids need to be active both to develop coordination and for general health. But there are different types of coordination and different skills to learn, and there’s nothing wrong with using a variety of activities. Everything in moderation.
Like it or not, we live in a screen-filled society. Enough so that a lot of people feel the need to take tech “sabbaths” or “fasts” to get away from their dependence on screens. Like they feel compelled to check their screens every five minutes and can’t get anything else done unless they specifically mark time away from it as a sort of spiritual practice. I don’t get that, but others clearly find it useful and I’m happy for them.
I treat my screens like a tool. They’re useful, they’re fun, I’m very glad they exist. But I use them, not the other way around. If you send me a message and I’m not in talking mode, I’m usually not going to respond. It’s nothing personal, I just…don’t want to reach that point where the screen owns me. I focus on the thing I’m doing at any given time, and that means I sometimes ignore the tech world for days at a time without planning it. Not often, mind. Usually I do check in several times a day. But it’s according to my schedule and it’s deliberate and I certainly don’t feel it’s taking away from the rest of my life in any way.
Whatever you’re doing, if it becomes an addiction or otherwise starts to become more of a burden than a gift, then I agree you should stop it or at least dial it back. But I don’t think we should teach our kids that the technology that surrounds them is a burden or an addiction by default. We should teach them moderation and help them use it as a tool without becoming chained to it, particularly because they’re going to have even more advanced tech than we have and it’s going to be even more intertwined with their lives. If they can’t approach it with a healthy attitude, it will overwhelm them the same way current tech seems to have overwhelmed many adults and teens today.