Wednesday, November 08, 2006

An Unschooling Perspective on Screen Time

by Ann Vetter

You don't have to go far to hear dire warnings about the possible harm that can be caused by too much screen time. That's the nouveau term that encompasses television, computer, and video games. We are warned that they stifle imagination, dull kids' brains, and disrupt learning. You can find plenty of fodder for this point of view, so I thought I would offer another perspective.

I really believe that most people see at least some value in these activities. Otherwise we wouldn't own them. It's the fear that a child will become obsessed that drives this issue; that, if allowed, they will do nothing but watch TV and play video games all day. It is the very restrictions we are encouraged to employ to prevent this from happening that, in fact, make the worry true.

When children have trouble separating themselves from something like TV, video games, books, or anything really... it is because these items were restricted, thus putting a high priority or value on the activity. Don't misunderstand; if your kid is really doing nothing but fill-in-the-blank, it is a parent's job to connect. It might be time for a conversation that starts with, “I notice you have really been into ________, lately.” The point is to find out what need your kid is fulfilling. Kids don't fixate on an activity unless it is meeting a need. If they really are dwelling on an activity out of boredom, making a positive suggestion is a million times better than a restriction.

I’ve often thought that if I can’t use my wits and charm to convince my kid that some real life outing or project with me is not worth turning the TV off for a while, then I ought to consider finding a new gig. I can say things like, “Hey, you want to try out that new recipe with me?” or “Do you want to check out this new website I found?” Yes, it sometimes requires that I drop my own agenda and spend time focusing on theirs. Of course, the other part is knowing when to shut up and leave them alone. This is part of what makes unschooling special, the interaction and the relationships.

When I hear people assume that their kids would do nothing but watch TV all day (or play video games, or whatever), it makes me sad. It usually comes from people who have never tried unschooling, or if they did, they didn't give their kids time to deschool before making a judgment. At the heart of this sentence, I hear, “My kid is an imbecile, incapable of making constructive choices. My child has no natural curiosity and will not learn unless forced to. The bottom line is, I don't trust my kid.” This is an unfair indictment for children, in general, but especially for kids that need to heal from one kind of trauma or another. (And I believe that school experiences can be very traumatic.)

I have witnessed movies spark a child’s imagination, inspire their writing, motivate them to read a book on a subject, act out their own version of the plot in an imaginative, lets-pretend sort of game. I have explained complex math concepts because my child needed them to get to the next level in a computer game they enjoy. I have watched their vocabulary expand as they ask me the meaning of words they see and hear on screen. Best of all, I spend time doing these things with them. I watch shows they like, play games they like, and we talk about them. We have conversations about topics that might otherwise have never come up.

By refusing to place restrictions on screen time, I am sending a message that I value what my children care about, their interests matter to me, and I am available to talk with them about anything. I see screen time as not just a great tool for learning, but also for building relationships. These items make our worlds bigger and more interesting, taking them away or limiting them only makes your child's world smaller and less fun.

I have often mused that if we worried about, limited, screened, controlled our children's reading habits like we do other things, we would be wondering how to get our kids' noses out of books. I would be exclaiming that all my daughter does is study wildlife and draw. She has her nose in a book for hours each day and sure, she creates these beautiful things, but surely she isn't old enough to process their meaning yet. Or I would worry that my son is simply spending too much time messing with that tool. Does he understand the basic principles of engineering? Isn't that activity too mature for him? Maybe I should redirect that interest to make sure they are learning other things, to make sure they’ve mastered the basics first, or to make sure they aren’t getting involved in something beyond their ability to master.

At the core of unschooling is the belief that my daughter can spend all day delving into how Morgan horses differ from Palominos. She can read any mystery novel she likes. She can crochet, write a story, visit with her big sister, watch TV, catch up on email, and all of those projects are equally worthy. My son can spend all day on a new project with his toys, finish a software adventure, or read a book with mom. All these things are of equal importance because they, my children, care about them. My job is to value those things with them, not to prioritize or judge them.

Most of all, my job is to open their world up so they can meet their needs in the many ways they will discover. I don’t want to make their world smaller, or less sparkly, by taking things away.

This article was published in the May/June 2007 issue of Live Free Learn Free.

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