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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Screen Time? Think Balance, Moderation, True Connection | Print |  E-mail

by Jamie Siebrase

In an age where toddlers use iPads more efficiently than adults, it’s hard not to question the impact superfluous gadgetry has on our youngest constituents.

While the question isn’t novel, it’s important. Jeanann Johnson, director of Emmanuel Methodist Preschool, 2700 S. Downing St., calls for critical thinking. “It’s a fast-paced world, and I worry we haven’t slowed down long enough to reflect on what technology is doing to our society.” To learn more about Emmanuel Preschool: 303-758-1697 or empdenver.com

I asked local experts to reflect aloud on screen time. The opinions were surprisingly varied. At one end of the spectrum are play-based learning, Montessori advocates. These educators largely oppose screen time for young viewers. Lisa Armao, director of Montessori School of Washington Park (MSWP), 320 S. Sherman St., discusses early brain development. Research indicates a tremendous amount of brain development occurs between birth and age five; the frontal lobe – that portion of the cranium regulating emotions, impulse control, and delayed gratification – is the last area to develop. According to Armao, this part of the brain is susceptible to fast-paced imagining. For information about MSWP: mswp.org or 303-722-7708.

Johnson and Armao think free play fosters learning and agree it’s okay for children to be bored. “If you don’t have technology available, kids will find something else,” says Johnson. Children at Emmanuel and MSWP are rarely bored. Educators create various “stations” for children to explore. Armao’s most popular station is dubbed Practical Life. “These are things we did with our kids 50 years ago,” she says. “Folding, pouring, measuring, dusting – children aren’t in their homes much, so they don’t do these activities.” Simple activities parents take for granted are meaningful to children, offering a sense of purpose and community.

According to Armao, children who watch television struggle with concentration and are less interested in independent problem solving. Armao attributes this behavior to instantaneous answers delivered passively through the push of a button. Claims that children will fall behind without technology exposure seem dubious. Armao didn’t keep a television or computer in her home when raising children. Today, her son is a graphic designer who “practically lives on his Mac.” Proffers Armao, “In this high-tech world, it’s impossible to fall behind.”

 Of course, most children today grow up in households with screens. Susan Denny, retired Cory Elementary School teacher, notices children have learned to “tune out” as a result of being inundated with background chatter from electronics. She speculates this trait likely filters into the classroom, where teachers’ voices are easily ignored.

A moderate, Denny believes technology has its place and recommends Starfall, Enchanted Learning, PBS, and Baby Einstein. She even cautions against complete abstinence. “If your children never see technology, they might become overly fascinated.”

Plenty of educators have a liberal tech stance. Helen Andresen, CEO at Iliff Preschool and Kindergarten, 4140 E. Iliff Ave., thinks children are going to get abundant screen time because this is where education is headed. For information about Iliff Preschool: iliffpreschool.com or 303-757-3551.

Shannan Meyer, director of Primrose School of Lowry, 150 Spruce St., agrees technology is the future. “It’s practically a requirement that schools have technology in the classroom,” Meyer says. She thinks using a mouse and keyboard are critical skills youngsters must develop. At Primrose, technology training starts at three. By kindergarten, students are learning PowerPoint. For more about Primrose: primroseschools.com or 303-341-7000.   

Rachel Basye, executive director at Art Students League of Denver (ASLD), 200 Grant St., says technology has significant benefits. ASLD finds balance by incorporating technology into some classes. One popular offering is Claymation. Students create with clay, take pictures of their sculptures, then make clay animation videos. For information about ASLD: asld.org or 303-778-6990. 

Chris Hegele, middle school teacher at Denver Academy (DA), 4400 E. Iliff Ave., calls technology “a blessing and a curse.” Last year, iPads were made available for all students. While readily available internet is mostly positive, some adolescents inevitably abuse the privilege. In addition to iPads, there are SMART Boards in every classroom, and most kids have sophisticated phones. “Our job,” says Hegele, “is to model proper technology usage for the children.” For information about DA: 303-777-5870 or denveracademy.org.

Nearly everyone interviewed questioned the impact technology has on social behavior. “Interacting verbally, making eye contact, and reading body language are skills that are made better through practice,” Johnson says. “How to discern nonverbal communication is important; the inflection you pick up from a voice creates a reality about what the other person is communicating,” notes Hegele. Because human interaction is crucial, Denny recommends watching programs with your child if you do turn on the tube.

Something else everybody agreed on? Nothing beats outdoor play. “Play is the right of every child,” reminds Andresen. She encourages parents to be fully engaged by turning off cell phones. Denny likes straightforward activities that provide complex tactile and sensory stimulation, such as simple art projects, play dough, building with blocks or Legos, swinging, and digging dirt. Andresen uses puppet play to teach lessons. If your daughter comes home from preschool angry because a friend hit her, put a puppet on each hand, and let the characters interact, acting out more desirable outcomes. 

In an age of wireless and portable everything, are we disconnecting long enough to truly connect? While there’s no simple answer, one thing is certain: If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to have a conversation with your partner, the grandparents and other caregivers – and maybe most of all, with yourself.

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