Parents who feel they must spend large amounts of money on computers and high-tech toys for their children may relax. Experts in education and child development have studied screen-based learning and often found that, while screens are convenient, they are not superior to the toys used by previous generations. In fact, it may be wise to hide those screens and invest in blocks, shape-sorting toys, and a play kitchen with dishes. Does that seem too primitive for the twenty-first century? No, because children’s brains still develop as they did centuries ago. Children still need to use their hands to do things and need to have meaningful interactions with adults.
Low-technology learning actually does important things to prepare children for future study in high-technology fields. The child who plays with wooden blocks, building bricks, and stacking cups is learning important spatial thinking skills that are used by many professionals daily. A study found children who are engaged in block play with an adult had more opportunities to hear words like “over” and “under” and to see the concepts at the same time. Spatial skills are essential for later math learning. Mathematics requires a student to understand concepts such as greater and lesser, larger and smaller. Physics concepts such as gravity and acceleration are demonstrated using real objects in the laboratory, so why not use real objects in the home as well?
We live in a three-dimensional word, not the two-dimensional, flat screen, virtual world of the computer. While a screen is convenient when a child is stuck on a long car trip, it is not a substitute for manipulating real objects when it comes to cognitive development. Even a relatively flat page in a physical book engages the brain differently than an electronic book or online page. According to Drs. Payne and Reader, people who read text on physical pages actually create an image in the mind of where the text was located on a page (a spatial skill) and have better recall and comprehension than those who read the same content on a screen. Professors in high-technology fields often still print hard copies of journal articles they found on electronic databases because they need to touch them, mark them, physically interact with the text to enhance their comprehension. Perhaps what is good for a Ph.D. in a science field is also good for young children!
Maria Montessori, founder of the method used by schools now bearing her name, designed beautiful and functional learning tools for her classrooms. Many of the tools look like toys, but Montessori recognized that play was a child’s proper work. Thus, her teachers prepared the children’s environment with items such as blocks of graduated sizes, a “movable alphabet” of physical letters, and child-sized kitchen and cleaning tools. The teacher may demonstrate the use of a tool or simply observe as children figure things out on their own.
When people wonder at allowing children in a Montessori environment to handle items such as real cutting tools, bird’s nests, and such, the Montessori-trained teacher will point out that children must be allowed to learn by making mistakes. If nothing ever breaks, will a child ever learn to be careful? The teachers model careful behavior and the children follow their lead. The child who stacks the blocks too high and has them fall on his head will learn the concept of “too high.” The child who breaks a seashell will have the opportunity to learn to use the small broom and dustpan. Responsibility is best taught with real objects. Learning that it is normal to make mistakes and that we can clean up mistakes and try again is important to all future learning.
Children take charge of their own learning in a properly prepared environment. By providing a variety of interesting toys, parents are also providing an environment for learning by trial and error. Stacking blocks will only create stable structures if stacked in certain ways. A child can learn that himself and build confidence as each structure is better than the one he built before. A puzzle offers immediate feedback in that the child can easily see and feel if a piece fits and can adjust her strategy based on the feedback she gets from the object itself. There is no need for a computer voice or beep to reinforce hands-on learning. In fact, the affirmation of a parent, sibling, or teacher is better.
One of the most important differences between screen time and hands-on learning is that hands-on learning can be a parent-child activity. Children who play with parents also engage in conversation with parents. According to a trial study, Dr. Michelle Garrison and her colleagues found a number of reasons playing with real objects can improve language skills. She says, “Parents talk to their children less when a screen device is on…” which offers fewer opportunities for the child to hear language and respond to it. Thus, a hands-on parent enhances the learning value of hands-on toys. A parent using a laptop computer while the child sits nearby with a video game controller does not promote the verbal interactions that happen with toy kitchens, art supplies, or alphabet blocks.
Teacher Roberta Munoz has some suggestions for parents who are stressed about educating their young children properly. She suggests a balance between virtual and real play. Understand that when your child is playing, he or she is doing the work of childhood. Get on the floor and play with children. Talk about what you are doing together. Stop being stressed and instead enjoy relaxed playtime. Know that important language learning and spatial skills are being developed in an age-appropriate way.
Enriching the home environment is simple. Provide a variety of toys that require no batteries and can be used in different ways. Bowls can be stacked, filled with water or rice, or washed at the sink. Blocks can be used to build a house, a fence, or a sculpture.
Credit: Mommy Edition