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The Play Stops: An Unexpected Story of Technology and Kids

June 25, 2019 by

All five kindergarteners in the “Pebble Patch” – the part of our school playground with a pebble surface – were engrossed in building a scaffold with large wooden blocks. They collaborated, created, solved problems, and overcame differences as their construction grew. It was a textbook early-childhood scene with perfect weather to match, and I was lucky enough to be their substitute teacher. With the entire kindergarten class so engrossed, I started cleaning up the nearby porch.

kids at the Bruderhof playing with wooden blocks

Suddenly it became unusually quiet – the suspicious sort of quiet that makes a teacher look up. I stopped my sweeping and noticed that work had ground to a halt. The architects and builders were sitting quietly around their construction site. Each was holding a stone to his or her ear or examining it in hand, moving imaginary screens on their imaginary palm-held devices. I couldn’t hear much in the way of conversations as they checked their stone phones. “This is amusing. Are they dialing before they dig?” I watched with interest: maybe their dramatic play was taking a creative twist.

The children sat there, working their phones for what felt like a long time. Perhaps this is a welcome lull in the rhythm of their play? Day dreaming is an essential ingredient of childhood… but there was no interaction, no give-and-take, no more of the old civility. It appeared that the previous creativity had been throttled. They even got that distracted screen-bound look (or was that my imagination?). The focus and energy of the beginning of the morning was draining away. Are these observations just a function of my prejudice against technology?

After observing the growing inertia, my righteous indignation got the better of me: my students’ play was not going to be hijacked by technology, real or imagined. I asked them to kindly turn off their phones so they could finish their skyscraper before lunch. Good kids that they are, the happy hubbub resumed.

These kids are extremely lucky to be attending a technology-free school, so there is no reason for me to complain, much less ring alarm bells. After all, Silicon Valley is not foisting their web-based curriculum Summit on my students. But I wonder, did consumer technology temporarily squash the productive play in my class?

I now have a greater awareness of just how closely our kids watch us, and a greater determination to allow them to be fully absorbed in their childhood.

My allergies to computerization flared up a few days later in that same computer-free classroom. The kindergarteners were finishing lunch, at which point I usually tell a story. This helps them focus on their food rather than talk with their buddies. I had been spinning a tale in which my protagonist had got himself into a Jack London–type fix. He was stuck on a glacier in Alaska with only some rope, a pickaxe, and a frozen chicken tender. He was going to get across a crevasse by lassoing a tree on the far side, tightrope walking, and a healthy dose of imagination on my students’ part. However, our hero was never to leave the glacier, because one of my brightest students raised his hand and innocently asked why the hero didn’t just call for help on his cellphone. “My dad always has one and if he’s in trouble, he can always call for help.” Poof went the story, out the window went the drama and suspense. And I don’t know enough to start a discussion about satellite phones.

So, our hero-dads use phones when they’re in a pinch? Oh well. What scope does that leave for us aspiring storytellers? If I really want to hold my students attention, I tell them stories from my own life experiences – all of which take place in the prehistoric ’90s.

A friend of mine, who has been working in public kindergartens for years, tells me that dramatic play is one of the ways children internalize and develop their ideas of what it is to be an adult – or even human. What exactly were they thinking as they stared at their stone gadgets? I wish I knew. What does it mean to be a grownup? Out of touch with your surroundings? Distracted? Besotted by technological advances? I’m getting a bit exaggerated, but in the playground that morning, I recalled a posthumously-published essay I’d just read by the late Oliver Sacks, called “The Machine Stops.” Sacks writes about how smartphones are dehumanizing, threatening our culture, and draining life of meaning: “What we are seeing – and bringing on ourselves – resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.”

It’s a bit of a stretch from the Pebble Patch to one of the greatest neurologists of our time, but the morning’s observations leave me with a host of questions, a greater awareness of just how closely our kids watch us, and a greater determination to push back, so that our children can be less absorbed by stone dead gadgets, and fully absorbed in their childhood.

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About the author

Jordanna

Jordanna Bazeley

Jordanna Bazeley lives at Spring Valley Community with her husband, Johann, and their four children, as well as Kizzie the...

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  • Hi Jordanna. Good stuff. A suggestion for the next time tech hijacks your story-telling: Just go full-bore with the London rip-off and tell the kids, If you take your mittens off to answer a phone in Alaska, your fingers will freeze (off) long before they reach the screen. Alt: state as a matter of course that a phone will self-destruct at 75 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (the temp at which the due in London's "To Build a Fire" succumbed) - at the very least, the battery will freeze and render the device inoperable. Technology thus dispensed with, you can "safely" return your hero to his/her tightrope adventure. Happy summer!

    Chris V