Screen Time is Essential for Children

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One of Dr. Peter Gray’s six conditions for self-directed learning (to see the full list look here) is: Opportunity to play with the tools of the culture.  

What might these opportunities look like in our society? To answer this question we have to consider what the “tools of the culture” are. I would argue that this statement applies most accurately to the use of technology. As an adult, much of my life is conducted on a screen - I read on my Kindle, I work on my desktop computer, I watch television on my tablet. Technology is, for most of us, a significant part of our daily life both in personal and professional spheres.

There has been much written about screen time and kids. Depending on which news outlet you follow, and depending on the day, the headlines scream at us that children are either being damaged by screen time or elevated by it. Based on my experience, both as a student at Alpine Valley School and, now, as a staff member, my opinion is that technology itself is neutral and  can be used for good or ill depending on the implementation. I would argue that as a tool of the culture, children should have free access to technology and be allowed to develop their own relationships with these instruments.

Whenever we prevent our kids from playing or exploring in the ways they prefer, we place another brick in a barrier between them and us. We are saying, in essence, ‘I don’t trust you to control your own life.’ Children are suffering today not from too much computer play or too much screen time. They are suffering from too much adult control over their lives and not enough freedom.
— Peter Gray

Here are some examples of how I see kids playing with technology in our self-directed school:

  • Constructing elaborate buildings in Minecraft.

  • Working together to translate an essential school function from a paper form to a Google form.

  • Recording a comedic performance for YouTube.

  • Playing a computer-based role-playing game together.

  • Writing a group story using an online text-based program.

  • Watching a YouTube compilation of beloved children's shows.

All of these examples are students playing with the tools of the culture to learn and explore, practicing what they will do as adults when these tools become their livelihood. These skills are essential and denying them to kids, prohibiting them from digital literacy, will hurt their chances of future success.

Beyond that, learning how to find and honor your own limits is a valuable skill (the most valuable, some might argue) that students freely practice at our school. Spending too much time watching videos, playing games, or any digital activity is a valuable teacher; students learn how much is too much, and how much is just enough. Without the opportunity to try and fail and try again, and eventually learn balance, students will forever rely on some other person (a parent or authority figure) to dictate limits for them.

I’ll leave you with this final quote from Peter Gray and invite you to read his full article on the subject of screen time (which is well worth your time):

In our culture today, parents and other adults overprotect children from possible dangers in play.  We seriously underestimate children’s ability to take care of themselves and make good judgments…Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to take control of their own behavior and emotions.
— Peter Gray

To read more on the subject of screen time at our school, I invite you to listen to episode 2 of our podcast: the Importance of Video Games and to read our blog post on the same subject.

Marc Gallivan is a graduate of Alpine Valley School as well as a Staff Member. He is working on becoming a triple threat as his four year-old son enrolls at AVS beginning next school year.

Marc Gallivan