When I was growing up, the shows Electric Company and Zoom were considered revolutionary compared to Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo, and Sesame Street. And in 1976, a commercial promoting “Pong”, one of the first video games to reach mainstream popularity, proclaimed that, “You are watching the most exciting game you will ever see on your t.v. set.” Today, over the course of the afternoon I have seen my youngest son go from playing a video game on X-Box Live with his friend down the street, to playing Minecraft on his computer, to playing an app on his IPod Touch, to playing Lego City on our Wii-U. There are so many different gaming consoles out there now, and so many options for video games and apps, that before you know it, your house is full of them, and the board games that they used to play with are packed neatly away in a closet. And when they aren’t playing video games, they are watching tutorials on You Tube about how to play the video games.
The other day, I told my 8-year-old son that it was a beautiful fall day out and that he needed to get off his computer and come outside. He came outside, looked around and said, “What should I do?” I just sighed with exasperation. Back when we were kids, we were sent outside all the time to play, and whether it was making stew out of mud, leaves and sticks, or building a fort in the backyard, we were never at a loss of what we could play. But back then there weren’t any alternatives – we had one phone and it was hanging on the wall in our kitchen – and it made phone calls not virtual worlds. The only thing we had in our pockets was a pack of chewing gum. So, is technology a hinderance to our kids’ creativity? As a pull on our children’s limited time, outside of school and school activities, I would have to say it is.
I know at least in our house, I have to make sure I limit screen time (though the ratio of time spent still ways heavily in favor of electronics). The interesting thing is, once you get them off their computers and involved in doing something more hands-on, they do actually find themselves having a lot of fun. That fall afternoon, I suggested to my son that he rake some leaves. He was so excited by the idea, he ran inside and inspired his siblings to get off their computers and come outside to rake leaves, too. I then upped the ante and brought some old clothes over to them and showed them how they could stuff the clothes with leaves to make a scarecrow. That then led to them wanting to decorate the house for Halloween. Then I put some Halloween music on and they started pretending we were in a Haunted House. They had a whole Sunday afternoon playing in the real world instead of a virtual one.
As parents, we have to face the unfortunate fact that we have a lot of competition for our children’s attention – and that competition is in high-definition with surround sound. So, to entice them away from their screens, you have to almost have a whole bagful of tricks that build on each other. I started with the rake, added the old clothes, then brought up the Halloween decoration box from the basement, and finished with some music. Every time I saw their interest start to wane, I added a new dimension. Now, they do have days that they come up with their own ideas and play away from their screens without my involvement, but it’s those days when they find that “new realm” in their game, or a “new mod”, or figured out how to defeat the zombie to get to the next level, those are the days that they really become entranced, and you have to get creative yourself, to lure them away.
This isn’t to say that technological advancements haven’t opened new pathways to expanding children’s creative development, because it has – with games built around children creating their own worlds, to the limitless creative opportunities that 3D printers provide. But there has to be some sort of balance. There is still a huge difference in the individual creativity needed for building a virtual world on-line, playing by someone else’s rules and design, versus building a world out of their own imaginations with blocks or construction paper or twigs or markers, using their own original ideas and all their senses to create something.
Though it’s getting harder to compete with the pull of all the bells and whistles in your children’s electronic world, it’s worth the effort you need to put into being committed to nurturing their creative side. You need to strike a balance that works for your family – whatever that balance is – but make sure your children spend some time creating in the real world. Only this type of play will maximize their learning and creative brain development by having them physically manipulate objects, engage all of their senses, and move and interact in a three-dimensional, multi-faceted world. So, though technology can be both a help and a hinderance to a child’s creative development, if left unregulated, the bad can quickly outweigh the good.