Child's Play - What Technology Cannot Replace

The other week my son asked me "Dad, when I'm older, maybe 10, can I have an iPad?" As a very active, passionate and spontaneous 4 1/2 year old boy I was a little taken back by how thoughtfully and respectfully he asked the question. My reply was "Yes. You will probably will need an iPad for school when you're 10." And that was the end of the conversation.

In that rare moment of silence one has with 3 children under five, my childhood flashed before my eyes, prompting the question "What educational values of toys has technology replaced?" What joys of climbing trees or playing with wooden toys has been traded for the swipe of an oleophobic glass screen. Toy Wooden Model Building Kit Racing Car Motorbike

As a parent of a soon to be five year old, a two year old and a 2month hold, my wife and I have been vigilant to minimize "screen time" for our kids. But as the years fly by the screen time has slowly crept up from 20mins a week to once or twice, or thrice on the weekends... and those times when mum and dad need a "moment" to think.

Today, there is no denying that the "average" child under 6 has much more, research says too much  - namely aimless screen time, technology than we did back in our childhood. Consequently, they are doing less of what we did as kids. Helping dad fix the car, walking to the next suburb to play with cousins and playing at the footy field till it was took dark to see the ball. So what is the problem? Is there a problem?

Does it make a difference if my son uses a xylophone app on the smartphone rather than hitting out a tune on a real wooden xylophone? Or how about if he pushed two wooden cars down a ramp he constructed out of Lego and cardboard so that they smashed into a tower of wooden blocks instead of  using his right index finger to swipe across the screen of a tablet in a racing car game?

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By building a ramp, positioning the cars, pushing each at different velocities using both his left and right hands, my son learns

Cause & Effect: This universal law states that every cause has an effect and every effect becomes the cause of something else In short if my son does something, something will happen. He will learn that if he lets of a car on a sloping surface, the ramp, it will roll down. But on the flat floor, it will only move if he pushes it. If the smashes the tower of blocks the tower will fall. If he doesn't pick the blocks up and rebuild the tower, it will stay in ruins. There is no magical "reset" button.

Creative Thinking: If he wants to roll a car down a ramp and into a tower, he will need to develop a mind that can envisage the possibilities of the ramp size, length, and the height, design of the tower not to mention if he has the necessary toys to construct the scenario. If he doesn't how can he use what he has to achieve his desired outcome?

Fine Motor Skills: He learns that if he wants to race both cars, he has to use both his left hand and right hand to hold, position and "Ready, set, go!" release the cars at the same time. He may realise that his left hand may not be a finely coordinated as his dominant right hand.

To build the tower he will have to decide which blocks will form the foundation. As the tower is made taller he will need to steady and control his hands lest he cause his edifice to collapse.

Sensory Stimulation: He will discover that to make his car smash scenario work he has to touch, feel and weigh physical objects in his hand. As he touches, feels and tests different surfaces he will conclude that a smooth flat surface will allow the cars to go "super fast" and a rough soft surface will slow down the momentum of his vehicles.

Hand-Eye Coordination: He will come to realise that when he sees that tower wobbling, he needs to stop any further movement of his hands. He will gain the ability to judge objects in the distance as he positions the car so that will be on a collision course with the tower on the other side of the room. He develops his ability to concentrate, focus and dexterity to control his body in relation to 3-dimensional objects in space.

Auditory Stimulation: Hearing the buzz of the wheels as the cars run down the ramp, then change to a whirl as it runs along a wooden laminate floor before the "smack" into the wooden block tower and crack as the blocks hit the floor helps develop the skills to listen to subtle changes in sound, pitch, rhythm and cadence. It is hard to beat the ‘natural’ sound wooden toys make against different materials and varying effects of physics.

He will also humbly come to understand there at there is no background Super Mario's "Ground Theme" or soundtrack music to his life.

Pretend Play: Pretending that he is the driver in the speed red car racing down the ramp against his little sister in the slow yellow car, he learns to be creative and imaginative. He masters the art of role play and becomes different people, not only in his imagination but by changing his voice he becomes the a baritone race announcer calling out "Ready, Set Gooooooo!"and behaviours (he is the strong builder constructing the tower or the super quick cleaner clearing the ramp for the next race)

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Negotiation: If he wants to race a friend or dad for that matter, he will need to use social skills. He may need to wait while I finish stacking the dishwasher or updating my Facebook status. He will need to explain what the race involves and develop cooperation in the rebuilding of the tower after it has fallen.

He will learn the art of negotiation if I impose a change to the design of the tower or the steepness of the ramp. Weighing up in his mind whether to accept the change or put forward his arguments to keep they original design.

Along with all this there is the inherent development and of language and speech skills, to convey complex game play and tower engineering but also listening skills. Being able to understand different ideas and empathy, especially if dad prefers to race the red car, because it's faster than the yellow car. Of course here he will need to understand the concept of "taking turns."

Responsibility: There eventually comes the time when play time is over and he, like the Cat in the Hat, has to put away his play things.

Parenting is tough. It's a slog, so I've been told, for the rest of your life. And at times it is easier in our busy lives to sit a child in front of an iPad instead of an interactive toy that requires the use of imagination power the play.

Simply distracting a child with technology simply shortcuts a child's exuberance and excitement about the world around them to a subdued child that is not seen and not heard.

Youtube cannot replace a father reading a story to a child nor can your iTunes playlist compensate for the voice of a mother sing a lullaby. In both cases, rather than the child having to take the time to process their mother’s voice into words, visualize scene painted in rhyme and exert a mental dexterity to follow the story in song, kids who are given a technological substitution get lazy. The app does the thinking for them, consequently, their cognitive "muscles" and ability remain weak.

This isn’t to say that technology is bad and should be prohibited. Technology provides positive opportunities for learning, entertainment, and innovative creativity, but it should be monitored and used appropriately. What can we do as parents?

1- Set daily limits for how long children can use technology each day.
2- Discuss what they are watching and listening to on the device. Don't just let songs and music videos play mindlessly, sing and dance with them.

Final tip, have a purpose for your child's use of technology and let imagination and delight power your child's toys and not batteries.

About the Author: TuiSiong Hie

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  1. Mate, this is a great article, I didn't know you had such talent.
    My 2 cents for the iPad. Get your hands into the wifi router and filter, filter, filter.
    I got rid of that pesky 'Roblox' by filtering the domain out and I can activate/deactive 'Youtube' on demand as well.
    I reckon that the best is to set strict boundaries from the beginning but we'll talk about it when your son reach year 5 where ALL of the classmates do have illimited access to unfiltered games and your little one is the only one who cannot participate in the daily conversations...
    In that case, remember that the router is your friend ;-)

    1. thanks sukarabi. I agree, technology isn't bad and as parents we need to be more than just a consumer. We need to educate ourselves by researching, assessing and implementing technological and administrative controls to limit age appropriate media to young children.
      So if we don't know how to filter at the router, we should learn to do so, for the sake of our kids.
      thanks again for your thoughts


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