Technology and great outdoors, can kids have both?
Author Richard Louv underlines the importance of adults helping children 'detach from electronics long enough for their imaginations to kick in'.
One year ago, I was part of an audience at a Jumpstart panel discussion, where game designer and writer Anshumani Ruddra pointed out that children today are growing up surrounded by more screens than books. I couldn't help but remember that searingly honest statement about our gadget-dependent lives, when I saw the latest New Yorker cover.
The magazine's June 22, 2015 cover takes a look at the modern-day definition of play date. Dolls and books lie forsaken, while two girls play Minecraft with each other, ignoring the compelling fine view outside, complete with a garden and swings. Cartoonist Chris Ware wrote an accompanying essay to his illustrated cover, talking about his ten-year-old daughter's love for the video game. In his opening sentence, Ware writes, "Any parent of a four-to-x-year-old will likely understand this week's cover."
My eight-year-old nephew would definitely empathise with Ware's daughter. He intersperses between watching videos of Minecraft and playing the game with his friends on play dates and breaking and placing blocks to build imaginative worlds, such as his own version of Hogwarts.
We have all ranted about kids being addicted to technology, when - let's face facts - from the television to the smartphone and the laptop to the tablet, our fingers are glued to some screen most of the time. And we forget that children look towards us adults for cues.
For instance, Richard Louv writes in his book Last Child in the Woods about how a "bored child often needs to spend more time with a parent or other positive adult". Essentially, adults tearing themselves away from their smartphones to take kids for nature walks, to the library, any activity that helps them "detach from electronics long enough for their imaginations to kick in". His most poignant point, when he talks about the nature-deficit disorder as the "human cost of alienation of nature" is made as he quotes Paul, a fourth-grader in San Diego: "I like to play indoors better, 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are.'"
I hear Paul. After all, I am constantly paranoid that my iPhone battery will drain away and I will be left without a cell phone. And that explains my new found appreciation for electrical outlets. I walk into a friend's house, a restaurant or a meeting, and my eyes first scope out the plug points in the room.
Recently, author Sophie Kinsella wrote her first young adult novel, Finding Audrey, a truly wonderful book that looks at bullying and mental health. But in typical Kinsella fashion - she wrote the bestselling shopaholic series - the story is generously laced with humour, mainly in the form of Audrey's brother Frank who is addicted to playing the "Land of Conquerors" computer game. The book starts with their mum standing at her bedroom window about to throw down a 700-pound worth of computer to the ground.
Kinsella takes a jibe at parenting in these digital times. For instance, Frank's parents decide to cut him off all technology, while being glued to their own BlackBerry and television series. For a moment, mum and dad wonder if they should be better examples by giving up technology as well, but quickly dismiss the ludicrous idea. And that's precisely the point Louv makes - we say one thing, asking children to get off their screens, but our actions and messages show something completely different.
There is plenty of debates and science out there - about the benefits of technology, de-natured childhoods, the wealth of educational apps out there, the different parts of the brains that get stimulated with games and outdoor play. But beyond a point, it's all about striking a balance between healthy screen time and doing other things. If we are not going to step outdoors, go for a long ramble, to literally smell, er... pollution or say read a book or do something without a screen; then who can blame the kids?
And really, who am I to talk? After all, I wrote this story on my netbook, referred to the New Yorker cover I had had saved on my iPhone, while music piped through my iPad as I thumbed through my Kindle looking for my highlighted notes in Finding Audrey.