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Unplugging & Fanning the Fire

of Learning & Creativity

Rory Fleming Richardson, Ph.D., ABMP, TEP

We have reached a pivotal point in our development as a species. Our very accomplishments (such as the television, wireless technology, computers and smart phones) have and are altering our future, and threatening our ability to help

our future, and threatening our ability to help the coming generations grow and develop in harmony with this planet and with the world around them. We created them to be tools that would help reduce time needed for tasks, and make available more information to more people. But, like any tool, they can be misused.

We have entire generations who have been sucked into a screen paying little attention to the life they are living. Rather than learning to work with their hands or developing interests and skills, they spend hours captivated by the televised world and online "being entertained." 

We have entire generations who are being impaired in their development because of our obsession with the "screen." Neuropsychological testing is based on several subtests which measure different functions, such as: three-dimensional problem-solving, sequencing, proprioception, memory, attention span, understanding of the physics, differentiation, and others. 

The overarching assumption is that the individual is from a population who have gone through similar developmental stages which include: the education of the senses, gross and fine motor activities, social interaction, and exposure to various educational materials. With the distraction of the colorful, fast pace screen, the exposure to real life development is retarded.

Even my generation grew up with the "square box babysitter" where children were placed in front of the television to keep them busy and quiet. Today, this has reached new heights as children of all ages become groomed to passively be entertained by the smart phones with bright colors and their favorite movie on demand. Cars are equipped with DVD videos so the children will quietly sit not disturbing parents. An active video or glow of the computer warms almost every corner of our world. Thanks to our wireless technology, we can be "plugged in" to what is happening everywhere, except where we currently are and the immediate world around us. One can hardly be anyplace where people can not be seen looking at a screen of some type. Even as we drive down the road, we have signs that are telling us how we should feel and what we should buy. This is our world. 

So what is the cost?

•     Decreased of creative play,

•     decreased interaction time with caring adults,

•     decreased full peer interaction,

•     decreased development of real-world social skills,

•     decreased attention to life events and learning,

•     increased distraction at school,

•     impaired attention span and promotion of attention deficit symptoms,

•     increased activation of reward system changing threshold for stimulation,

•     decreased physical activity and alteration of metabolism,

•     increased childhood obesity,

•     increased sleep disturbance and deprivation,

•     increased exposure to electromagnetic frequency radiation (EMF),

•     increased health risks,

•     reduction in development of life skills,

•     increased exposure to instant gratification,

•     poorer impulse control.

What is the solution? The answer to this is, in part, in the identification of costs. During childhood, we use activity play and imagination as a way of exploring our world and learning to function within it. We explore and discover new things. We touch, manipulate, and, sometimes, taste things in our environment. When confronted with other children and people, we explore the extent of interaction and learn about the consequences (good and bad) of our behaviors. Hopefully, we have caring adults who help encourage us toward some actions with positive reinforcement (including their time and smiles) while discouraging us from harmful or inappropriate behaviors through guidance and negative reinforcement. We learn patience through these interactions so we can better understand the world we live in, such as watching the behavior of an animal , and being encouraged to pay attention for a longer period of time so we do not miss some events (i.e., a squirrel moving in a tree or a wave coming in and then going back out). As mom does the chores, the child gets to help and do "big people" things. We develop interests in specific areas and hopefully are encouraged to explore them; playing a musical instrument, participating in a sport, creating something with one's hands, woodworking, or art. 

Maria Montessori, M.D., a pioneer in early childhood development, provides an enormous volume of philosophy, principles, and methodology to assist with the transition back from screen dependence. One of these is the concept of "preparing the environment" for learning and growth. She held that children have a natural attraction to order, given the opportunity. She also introduced the concept of "Casa de Bambino", the house of the child, where the chairs, tables and other furniture is sized to the child. This not only provide for the environment being friendly to the child's size, but also lends to the development of skills. If we prepare the environment to promote non-electronic play, learning and interaction, the child will be drawn into new learning opportunities and stimulate new interests.

Play is an important part of development. We may start out playing with little regard for the consequences of our actions (biting, scratching, pinching). The natural consequences of these actions result in others not wanting to include us in play and avoiding us. With the kind but firm guidance of adults, we learn that this is not acceptable behavior, modifying behavior to be more socially acceptable and inclusive. To be accepted by others, we may postpone our own gratification. With guidance and consequences, we learn to share and take turns. We learn to read the emotions of other by watching nonverbal clues. We learn to interact with other sentient beings. We see adults involved in activities and want to be included. We seek ways to be included by trying to help.

Through pretend play, we can explore different modeled behaviors. These include the behaviors of adults, heros in stories, super-heros, and others. We role-play testing out different actions and options. Our experiences are augmented when we find that books hold stories and information which stimulates our imagination.  

If we are fortunate, we expand our play repertoire to include hobbies such as sports, fishing, board games, and all method of play and exploration. Through playing with blocks we learn shapes, how to put things together, fine motor skills, and the principles of balance. Playing with balls shows us the physics of round things, how to roll something, how to throw and catch, how they can bounce, and that balls filled with air float. Different toys teach us about sequencing, differentiating size, and other attributes. We learn to count. 

Through games and sports of skills, we learn to be patient and control impulses. We pace and refine our actions and reactions. We exercise the prefrontal cortex of our brain necessary for attention, concentration, and avoidance of impulses which could cause us problems.

Through art, we learn how to draw and paint, we develop fine motor skills, explore making errors and how to cope with them, we discover dimensions and form, we discover the concept of depth, we learn about colors, and start to explore worlds in history. Working with clay, we learn about three-dimensional form and shape. All this time, our self-esteem and confidence grows, we see the smiles of adults and others at our creations, and learn to cope with the physical world around us. If we learn to watch nature, we learn of the endless world of wonder, movement, flow and balance all around us. 

In all of these, play becomes the foundation for expanded learning, exploration and development. For the generations who have been impacted, it is likely that remedial efforts to strengthen the areas of developmental neglect will needed.

What is our job as parents and teachers? We need to:

•     participate in the lives of children,

•     prepare the environment for discovery and learning,

•     encourage exploration and learning,

•     create opportunities for children to spend time playing and interacting with each other,

•     help them develop the skills for life,

•     limit exposure to toxins and technologies which undermine real life learning and


•     develop opportunities to learn from and interact with nature,

•     encourage activities which require the development of patience and skill such as sports,

      playing a musical instrument, or reading a book (a paper one; not an ebook),

•     starting as early as possible, let your children help with chores and activities,

•     model participation in hobbies which are not based in screen watching,

•     make it a habit to play board games,

•     look for areas of delayed development to remediate.

Obviously, making these changes can be challenging for both the individual who is developing, or has developed, a screen addiction and their family. We have grown accustom to the wireless conveniences of technology. The changes will take time to feel natural, and it is likely that many of us, if not all, will go through some level of "screen withdrawal." Lapsing back into old patterns is normal. It takes effort to stay the course, and find ways of integrating limited exposure. We developed computers and various screens to save us time. If it is not for being with our families, our children and our friends, what did we save the time for?


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