A quick note after attending two events recently where both speaker and audience attitudes towards children and technology struck me as worth a comment. A compelling presentation by Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, at the Campaign for Learning‘s ‘Can we learn our way to happiness?’ conference, and a panel debate on youth and social exclusion here at the RSA both addressed the demise of outdoor play and the adverse affect of changes to childhood on children’s development.
We know that the space allowed to children – both literally and figuratively – to play and to learn by themselves is severely curtailed. Children are less active, they learn less about risk taking, socialising and independence. There are innumerable reasons why the loss of outdoor play and the freedom of children to explore unsupervised is to be mourned, and anyone that knows me would tell you that I would be the first to advocate the great outdoors – for children and for the rest of us.
That said, it seemed to me that many of the delegates and speakers at both of the events I went to seemed to accept an unproblematised characterisation of outdoors = good, computer games = bad. This was to the extent that I felt such a judgment was an emotive one based on a certain amount of nostalgia for more traditional idea of childhood, and an uncertainty about new technologies and their impact on children.
Such nostalgia could get us stuck, when what will benefit children are pragmatic and progressive approaches.
We need to be pragmatic and accept that unsupervised wholesome, educational outdoor play is not going to be a reality of for many children now and in the near future for many reasons, including poverty, home location, parental fears and changes in childhood culture. And, we need to deal with the reality that interaction through ‘virtual’ interfaces is often more a reality for some children than building a den in a wood ever will be. While it is important to maximise the potential of the real life worlds of these children, we must not in doing so deny the validity of virtual interactions because of their failure to live up to adult nostalgia for idyllic childhoods of the past.
Secondly, we need to be progressive in our attitudes towards children and technology, and recognise the opportunities. A number of organisations (see Consolarium for example) are looking at the educational potential of video games in developing risk taking, strategy and even citizenship. BECTA have done work on the advanced communication skills picked up by children who are interacting daily with hundreds of others through online networking sites and interactive online games. It is important that the potential opportunities offered to many children by the internet and other new technologies are embraced, understood, and maximised, because we all want today’s children to have the skills and knowledge that they will need to thrive in the rapidly changing 21st century.
If adults don’t engage in a balanced manner then we run the risk of allowing our fears about obesity, internet predators, unwholesome content and the rest limit the potential positive impact of technology on the lives and development of many children; just as fears about traffic, abduction, paedophilia and accidents have led to a reduction in otherwise fêted outdoor activity.