Monday, September 1, 2014

What is "Educational?"

There's a lot of hubbub going on about screen time, educational television, and how much time kids are spending in front of devices "doing nothing." In the last week or so, I've seen several posts about limiting screen time, a solid dozen asking for advice on good educational programming for children, and even more than that bemoaning how children don't go out and play anymore, all they do is sit in front of televisions vegging out.



Capture Queen / Flickr
The recent flurry of news stories of parents arrested for allowing their preteens to go to the park on their own, or that suggest those same preteens be criminalized for playing outside alone at all (psst... that one applied to kids under the age of nine, as well!) makes one wonder just what those kids are supposed to do all day if they're not allowed to play outside without immediate supervision, but I do digress. The notion that screen time is a bad thing is an interesting one to me. We want our children to be literate and able to fully engage the world around them.  Generally, that is the case with the overwhelming majority of parents, I feel it safe to say. My question is, which of us has a profession that doesn't involve at least some measure of time spent using some kind of screen?  The grocery store has screens for cashiers, 99% of people I know have email accounts they use for either personal use or work use... and many for both. Teachers are able to use technology in the classroom to remarkable effect, and I can't think of a single reason it's more valuable to read a physical book than it would be to read its digital counterpart.  And yet, we're insistent that children have as little screen time as possible, and often you'll find people either boasting about how little television their child watches, or knocking down parents whose children watch more than an hour on weekends.

But, I'm living with a very specific subset of the population of children here in the Hatter House. You see, here, I don't limit Mad Natter's screen time.  We have definite bedtimes, and we don't watch during meals, as that leads to more watching and less eating, but otherwise... as long as our schoolwork is done on a given day, I really don't care. Thing is, Mad Natter is learning things like crazy. He's picked up turns of phrase that are very different to my own (he tells me that a drawing is "quite rubbish" sometimes, and will start over again), he picks up words that aren't in our usual vocabulary (did I mention the day he told me he was extruding his Slurpee to make it look like a cupcake's frosting?), and he's able to use these videos to connect with others who are interested in the same things he is. It was rather interesting to watch him connect with a boy several years his senior over their shared love of YouTuber Stampy Longnose

More than that, though, I've noticed that even his "recreational" watching isn't the kind of brain candy you'd expect.  Certainly, there's a level of watching random things just for the sake of downtime - usually things like Thomas the Tank Engine, or Pajanimals, or something similar, but his active watching? The things he seeks out when he's alert and able to engage? Stampy Longnose videos. Skylander Boy and Skylander Dad videos. MarioKart 8 videos. It's all around video games, yes - Minecraft, Skylanders SWAP Force, and MarioKart, respectively - but it's all for a purpose. He's watching these videos and learning how to use wool to build a house in the colors you want, while still having the outside of cobblestone. He's learning what moves and what characters he wants to work on or buy next. He's learning strategies and how-tos that are teaching him logic and problem-solving. He's taking so much more from these videos than the producers must ever guess, than I ever suspected. It's been incredible watching him pick up tidbits, and then go and try to build, design, or just play it himself. It's teaching him confidence, and each time one of these videos doesn't go as the YouTuber planned, he's learning that it's okay to fail. That it's okay to have things not work out the first time, that you just go back and try again, see if you can't fix where you went wrong last time.

The ability to take a moment or two and realize that it isn't the end of the world to place fifth in a race, that it's not All Over if a creeper blows up your house - or you - and that sometimes it takes patience to find and save up for that figure you wanted?  That's invaluable. And it's a lesson that is so hard to pass along, particularly coming from Mom or Dad, and especially when you're six. Truthfully, if letting him have screen time is what it takes to help him learn even just that, I'd be 100% on board.  That he learns so very much more from it is just a bonus.