Tuesday, 8 April 2014

technology overload: a journey towards finding balance

Parenting is not easy at the best of times, but when you've made a decision to embrace good old-fashioned style play for your children instead of constant exposure to screen time and electronic devices- be it the television, iPad or games on the iPhone, it can sometimes feel like climbing a never-ending uphill mountain. The truth is that it can require a lot of effort and patience to provide guidance and get them started in their creative play- whether it's helping them source items and fasten buttons and ties on their dress-up outfits when you feel like there are a hundred and one other things you should or could be doing, or baking with them when it takes three times as long and generates at least double the mess than if you were to just do it by yourself. It is time consuming to set up and supervise a creative project then clean it all up again or get them all geared up for a walk or some outdoor play, prepare the necessary snacks and locate drinks bottles only for it to rain ten minutes after setting off. It's undoubtedly easier just to turn on the television to keep them occupied or get half an hour of guaranteed peace but I can say with my hand on heart that it has been an effort so worth making for this family.

I'm sure a fair few of you reading are probably thinking "What's the big deal? We live in the modern world, it can't be avoided and children should surely be embracing modern technology." I realise that we are probably in the minority of most people we know and for some people this can be a touchy subject, but for me, the bottom line is that they have the rest of their adult lives to be attached to an iPhone or sat in front of a computer all day long. We didn't grow up with mobile phones or other devices as children but we all still learnt to use them pretty quickly once they showed up in our lives. I'm all for my little ones experiencing a childhood spent developing skills for interaction with each other and their imaginations. I'd much rather they engage with what is actually happening around them instead of with a virtual world and I know with great certainty I don't want them to waste their youth and precious childhood years in front of a screen instead of simply playing, exploring nature, getting creative or experiencing the joy of losing hours whilst enthralled in an un-put-down-able book. 

Since we've run a much tighter ship in terms of tech exposure over the past year or so, it has been amazing to see how quickly they have adapted and that playing (together and on their own) often without guidance or any adult direction, happens very naturally and organically now there is no expectation that the TV will be turned on or the iPad produced in the mornings, during any mealtimes or various other points throughout the day. Persevering with this approach is definitely paying off. Obviously we still get a fair amount of bickering and disagreements but they are figuring out a little more each day how best to get along with each other. I've witnessed with my own eyes that when children are simply allowed to get bored, this is when the magic and creativity really happens. They then embark on a role-playing game for hours, be it setting up an entire hospital in their bedroom for their dolls and soft toys or building an obstacle course in the living room or outside, all entirely led by their own imaginations. Sometimes they construct an entire intricate city out of blocks, populated by Sylvanian Families creatures or Playmobil people, complete with a train set built around it. When we go out to a restaurant or a cafe, we've made a conscious effort to use the opportunity to actually talk as a family rather than shoving an iPhone in their face to keep them quiet and I take colouring books and pencils to bring out if they do get restless. I know that I am setting them an example with everything I do myself so it's made me more conscious of keeping a check on my own online and screen time. I've never been much of a TV viewer but I don't want them to see me pick up my phone every free second to check emails or Facebook. This is something I know many of us struggle with and which I definitely could do better at.       

Of course we haven't completely banned all technology from our children's lives, they watch twenty minutes (typically one episode) of a kids series on DVD before bed. They choose these from our local library where we go to borrow books and DVDs once a week. If we have no other plans, we usually have a movie night on a Friday late afternoon/evening where we make a pizza together then watch a classic family movie. Lila loves The Secret Garden and Mary Poppins. They do also watch a couple of shows for half an hour on a weekend morning but that is pretty much it. We have an iPad with a few educational apps on it which they occasionally use or is brought out if they are ill or when we're on a very long journey (I will definitely be grateful for it when we will be boarding the twenty-something hour flight to the UK in a couple of months!) Curt or I take Lila to the movies to watch a new release a couple of times a year as a special outing and if the TV is on when stop by at a friends house, it's not a big deal. 

I will say though that one of the major factors in choosing a small, rural primary school this year was the fact that aside from having an amazing community and great teachers, it places a really big emphasis on reading, maths, and writing skills and the children don't use iPads until the later primary years. It shocked and saddened me a little when I went to look around some other much larger, more 'modern' schools to see a class of five year olds, each with an iPad in hand and completely absorbed in the apps and games they were playing, oblivious to each other and certainly not interacting and learning from their teacher who was just sitting at the front of the class doing something else. This post definitely isn't intended to sound preachy or make anyone else feel guilty about their own choices, just to document our journey and experiences and maybe it might offer some suggestions for anyone else who has been thinking about or wanting to find more balance where technology is concerned. There's no doubt that this means different things for different families and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, just a process of trial and error, perseverance and the knowledge that a childhood where they are given the chance to create their own fun, make real connections and explore, enjoy and observe the world around them is something worth fighting for. 

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