I’ve found myself thinking more than usual about children and media lately. And by media I suppose I mean screen media. A lot of parents and teachers are rightly concerned about how to deal with media and young children. The reality is that toddlers are gonna see TV and use iPads and all the rest of it—but a lot of caregivers don’t know how to feel about that. Is it killing our children’s brains? Or should we be exposing them early so they’re educated about it? Or is it really not all that important—another in a long line of things that has made every generation feel unique in history? Well, I’ll tell you some things that I know.
My “Introduction to Early Childhood Education” class at CCP started last week, and an exercise I always do the first night of Intro is to pass around index cards and have everyone anonymously write down “one thing you KNOW about young children.” I then read a few at random and we talk about them. Regardless of what people write, the lesson is always that everyone already knows a tremendous amount about early childhood education, and that our personal experiences are relevant to our work in this field. That said, people always write some of the same things.
One idea that always comes up is that children learn by playing and exploring and experimenting. In the field, this notion is called Constructivism. It’s basic learning theory, and when someone brings it up on the first night of class everyone can think of examples from their own life where they’ve seen that happen. Another idea that always comes up is that children learn by interacting with and imitating other people. In the field, this idea is called Social Constructivism, and it’s likewise part of the bedrock of how we understand young children’s learning. Again, everyone can think of a thousand times they’ve seen it happen. Personally, I really enjoy the fact that both of these frameworks for understanding children’s learning are obviously true, despite the fact that in many ways they are completely opposed to each other. A thing both theories share, however, is the idea that children learn through ACTION, through PARTICIPATION, through INTERACTION. And, to circle back to our main point here, those things are absent from screen media.
Okay, fine, yes, computers are getting increasingly interactive, the internet can and does respond to you. But only in a shadow of the way other humans interact with you, responding to your gestures and facial expressions and tone of voice, with responses that change over time according to a variety of things that aren’t YOU. And really, computers don’t respond like the rest of the world either. You bang something and it makes a noise; you push something and it moves. This is what are brains are evolved to respond to, and screen media doesn’t do it. It is utterly clear to me that screen media doesn’t do the things that children’s brains need in order to learn. By these lights, screen media can only be a distraction from actual learning.
And yet. And yet… Equally true is the opposite. My good friend Lauren is the program director at the Center on Media and Children’s Health. She’s guest-lectured in my class when I’ve taught “Health, Safety, and Nutrition for Young Children.” She knows what she’s talking about. And in my class she was asked about her opinion on educational media. The questioner was thinking about Sesame Street and Baby Einstein and what have you, but I’ll always remember Lauren’s response. “ALL media is educational. The question is, what is it teaching?”
Which is absolutely true. Especially mass media, which by its very existence and ubiquity, teaches you what is normal, and what is valuable, and what is funny, and what is cool, and what is weird, and what is interesting (or at least, what the media thinks those things are). Children are extremely interested in those things, and, in my experience, extremely susceptible to those messages. I can’t tell you how many children I’ve seen playing out the plot of Star Wars, or drawing pictures of Lightning McQueen, or pretending they’re a Disney princess. I ask them what a princess is, and they have no idea—they just know that it’s very important to be one. It makes me crazy how successfully media teaches children things we wish they wouldn’t learn.
Okay, fine. So either media doesn’t teach children at all, or it’s really good at teaching all the wrong things. Is there a more hopeful point of view?
I found a little hope, in what, to me, was the unlikeliest place. About a year ago The Hundred Languages of Children came through California and my wife and I went to see it. The Hundred Languages is the traveling (and ever-changing) exhibit about the preschools of Reggio Emilia. In case you’re not familiar, Reggio Emilia is a region of northern Italy whose preschools have had tremendous influence on early childhood education in the United States in the last few decades. Many of the ideas from Reggio really flipped the US approach to preschool on its head: learning through play; planning curriculum around children’s interests; prompting children to spend months investigating self-chosen topics; valuing children’s work (to the point of hiring people specifically to curate it); valuing teachers as expert researchers in their own practices; making community participation a central part of their practice… The list goes on and on.
The most relevant thing to this conversation is Reggio’s emphasis on children’s artwork. They don’t just give kids construction paper and tempera paint—they educate children on proper use of sculpting tools and paint brush technique and carpentry skills, as well as exposing them to great works of art as inspiration. The Reggio preschools do art education at a level rarely seen in the US before high-school-age. So imagine my surprise to see, in the Hundred Languages exhibit, two different examples of children’s art projects where computers were an integral part.
The first project started when they took the preschoolers to the construction site of a new community center in their town. The kids were entranced by a series of gigantic white columns in what was going to be the main community meeting room. When they got back to school they talked about the columns and tried to build them in the block area. The teachers set up miniature columns in the playground and the kids couldn’t get enough. They started drawing the columns, and sculpting them in clay and ceramic, soon beginning to creatively decorate their own columns in exciting ways. The children wondered what the community center would look like if their columns could be a part of it. So the teachers showed the children how to take digital photos of their columns and use Photoshop to add them to photos of the community center. Soon the children were making genuine art using Photoshop as a tool, reconceptualizing both the space they had seen and their own sculptures and drawings. They weren’t just collaging photos—they were using new techniques to keep making art. The work on display at the Hundred Languages was beautiful and surprising, and could not have been made without giving the children access to, and education on, computers.
The second project started with the children’s interest in recordings of classical music. The teachers brought in professional musicians to play for the children, who started creating their own music with the classroom’s instruments (including a real piano and drum set). The children were stymied, though—they wanted to listen to recordings of their own music, like the recordings of classical music they’d been listening to. So the teachers managed to scare up a few microphones, and they showed the kids how to use real recording-studio software to record their compositions. As with the Photoshop example, the children’s work quickly progressed from simply recording their work to editing it, creating tracks with many layers of instruments and voices, enlisting friends to collaborate, listening to their recordings and then going back and making changes and re-recording… The music they made wasn’t exactly Top 40 material, but there’s no doubt that using computers dramatically expanded the children’s creativity.
I was flabbergasted. I had thought of the Reggio approach as being all about hands-on play and creation, and imagined that as meaning clay and collage and such. I thought computers would be anathema to the Reggio approach. What these exhibits implicitly said was, “The hands-on approach can mean more now than it ever has before. Computers can be tools for creativity just as much as hammers and paint brushes we already train children with.”
So, what does this all mean? How do we DO that? Boy, do I not know. I still think that screen media is likely to teach children things we wish it wouldn’t, and that most of the time it is, at best, a distraction from real learning and development. But there is something else there too. There is a way that it can be used to educate and enable our children. There are things kids are gonna do with it that will blow our minds. It’s out there…
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You want resources to help you negotiate children and media? You got it. A friend of mine worked for a long time at Common Sense Media, which has all sorts of stuff you might be looking for. And my friend Lauren, who I mentioned above, is the program director at the Center on Media and Children’s Health, which likewise has lots of useful and informative stuff.
Some things I’ve seen lately that started me thinking… There’ve been some interesting pieces about controlling children’s access to and use of technology—this one, by the mom who gave her son an iPhone, and this one, about the dad teaching his preschooler to code. There’s this interesting talk about the things children learn about gender from watching movies. And the fabulous Teacher Tom wrote a fine piece about what’s lost when children “paint” on an iPad.
If you haven’t read Loris Malaguzzi’s poem, “The Hundred Languages of Children,” you ought to.
Concerned about how your child is interacting with media? I can help with that.