Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Be Still, Smartphone

Everyone knows that I love my iPAD.  I bet if you have one, you think yours is pretty great too.  Smartphone?  Don’t have one of those.  I’m way too cheap for a data plan, but I’m sure if I got one I would think it was nifty.  My kids at school use the iPAD.  My kids at home use it too.  This morning I watched as my two year old navigated herself successfully through a coloring game, back to the homepage and onto a new category of pages.  I never showed her how to do it...she just knew.

Mobile and touch technology is simply amazing.  It is also frighteningly dangerous.

As I pushed my cart through the grocery store a few months ago, I ran into an acquaintance and stopped to chat.  Her little boy did not look up from the iPhone in his hands.  He was watching Cars 2.

Sitting on the Fryeburg Fair ferris wheel I watched as the little girl in the compartment ahead of us played a game on the smartphone.  From what I could see, she didn’t look up or out.

Waiting in line to go on the Toy Story ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios I saw an entire family, two adults, two children, each engaged with their own mobile device.  One family, two smartphones, an iPAD and a Kindle.  In a line at Disney!

These are three instances that stick out in my mind but the use of a smartphone as a distraction tool is now incredibly commonplace.

I’m a mom.  I understand.  I leave my kids at home when I go shopping as much as possible, a ferris wheel is not the most exciting ride at the fair, and the lines at Disney are ridiculously long.  Maybe the moms need a break.  I’ve been there.  I hear the whining from my own children, I get it.  But I’m still going to judge.

These places of sitting, of waiting, of watching, these places of long lines and doing what your sister wants to do, these places of not always getting what you want and watching other people and the world going by are the very places where brains grow stronger.  They are places filled with sensory information; sights, sounds, smells, sensations.  They are petri dishes for growing an effective executive function system.  When a child is conditioned over time to dealing with the uncomfortable sensations of waiting, boredom, or want being denied, by being distracted with an intense stimulus, they are not learning to integrate the sensory input and deal with their difficult feelings in an effective way.

The Executive Functions of the brain operate as the CEO, controlling, regulating, and managing other cognitive processes.  Planning, Working Memory, Attention, Problem Solving, Verbal Reasoning, Inhibition, Mental Flexibility, Multi-Tasking, and Initiation and Monitoring of Actions are all processes organized by the Executive Functions of the brain.  When parents distract rather than allow and facilitate these processes to work through a perceived discomfort, the executive functions of the brain are not exercising and getting stronger and more efficient.

I feel strongly that this increasing comfort with disengagement is affecting the level of sensory integration and executive functioning skills that children are arriving at school with.  As parents and educators, we cannot change culture.  We can, however, recognized it.  We can begin to incorporate sensory activities and executive functioning practice into our daily routines.  We need to allow children to wait, let them make mistakes, teach them to look at the whole picture, and give them firm limits.  

Far past preschool we must encourage building, searching, sticking together and pulling apart.  We must actively provide free time where children can explore and get dirty.  When children are having difficulty we must be creative with our response, creating spaces for focus, creating time for thought.

Smartphones and mobile devices are not going away. And like I said at the beginning of this ramble, I love my iPAD. They are terrific learning tools and are a lot of fun too. We just need to be very careful not to use them as a default. A pacifier for our preschoolers. Instead, choose use time wisely, set clear limits, and use the technology together.  

  • Check out BrainPOP each day with your little one for a daily dose of "news". We learn about all sorts of great things from this, from Frida Kahlo to Paleontology, they cover it all.  
  • Practice letter and number writing with iWriteWords.
  • Create a movie with your kids and their toys using the amazing iStopMotion.
  • Your kid can color and learn another language at the same time with 123 Color International.
  • Help a pirate find the treasure through a series of challenges with Pirate Treasure Hunt.