My grandson has been sick the past week and a half. First he had a cold. His actual symptoms were not bad: low grade fever, nasal congestion, some coughing. But he wasn’t himself. He would stop playing and stare out the window, swaying and blinking as if he were trying to stay alert. His meltdowns increased: nothing was right. The penguin was in the wrong place. The tower fell. The car slipped under the sofa. He just wanted to climb in a lap and cuddle. So the television would go on: Cars, Happy Feet Two, Finding Nemo slid into the DVD player. But it’s a smart television and he’s a smart boy. “No More Fish!” came the command. “George!” And the television would change screens and episodes of Curious George would play. We do not have a television that responds to voice commands (yet), and while my grandson can work the remotes enough to turn on the TV and DVD player, he cannot navigate the smart TV (and neither can his grandmother). So Grandma didn’t turn on the television; instead she handed over her IPad.
This is not the first time Grandma has handed over her IPad. It’s a bribe. It’s a way of getting something done. Sit here with the IPad while grandma talks to the contractor, the doctor, a friend. My IPad has 18 interactive games for preschoolers. It didn’t come loaded with them. I bought them. I also bought some age appropriate books (and my grandson knows that he needs to open the bookcase to get to them). He loves my two bird identification books. We enjoy playing with it together, but as interactive as the IPad is, I know that it is still “screen time.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two, which pretty much translates as don’t watch television in front of your baby. I didn’t watch television in front of my grandson but I did load an interactive book called Peekaboo Goes Camping onto my IPad. Peekaboo, who is blue and has huge eyes, hides behind a deer, a tree, in a cave. When you tap on his hiding place, he pops out and giggles. Peekaboo also goes to the store and the beach. By the time my grandson was ten months, he could bang on the correct spot and make Peekaboo appear. And as a result, the screen on the IPad cracked slightly, just a hairline, not even halfway across. I cut back on his use of my IPad. If he saw the IPad, he wanted to play with it; otherwise, it was forgotten. Out of sight; out of grandson’s mind. Until he was two.
By the time my grandson was eighteen months, he could recognize the words: Good Night. He slept with a board book version of Good Night Moon, which we still read before nap and bedtime. He insisted that any board book that had “Good Night” in the title be placed in his bed. We would hear him reading before he fell asleep and when he woke up. It seemed a little odd that he didn’t have a stuffed animal that he slept with so I ordered a Good Night Moon bunny. We put it in his bed but he didn’t cuddle with it. He could sleep without it. It was the book he loved. Perhaps this early love of literature made it easier to load the IPad with interactive toddler games. I could sit on Sunday mornings in our sun room and he would cuddle next to me and play with the IPad while I read the paper. But shortly after his second birthday, things began to change.
Media began to intrude on our lives. First the IPad and then movies: Happy Feet, Happy Feet Two, Cars. He loves going to the aquarium in Mystic to see the belugas and the penguins. Happy Feet seemed like a perfect movie. The next thing we know his crib is crowded with stuffed penguins (and a beanie baby puffin) that follow him everywhere. Good bye Bunny! Hello books about penguins. He still sleeps with Good Night Moon. We read Curious George stories twice a day. We read all the time but the media monster has raised its ugly head.
The recent illness has not helped. Now that he is back to normal, he still wants to watch television or play with the IPad. “Me-Pad!” he demands. “No” elicits a roll on the floor temper tantrum. Last year I read a newspaper article about parents buying children as young as three electronic devices for Christmas because that’s all they want. Really? What happened to wooden train sets, Duplo, dolls? The Me-Pad is an addiction. The more I load on it, the more he wants to use it. Is it good for him?
I am not sure. I have taught remedial reading to seventh graders. How do you make reading exciting when there are so many distractions in the world? How do you convince teens it’s necessary? By the time my grandson is in middle school, there will be even more distractions. There are no clear studies. One day I read an article suggesting that children who play educational games may have lower reading skills than their peers who don’t. Another study says video games cause children to have shorter attention spans (that was also said of Sesame Street). Then I read in the NEA daily news review that an NYU researcher did a study where low income preschoolers were allowed to use a mobile app for reading readiness. Their scores went up 74 percent without a teacher. But did they interact with an adult while using the app?
My grandson likes alphabet apps—we have three. A few weeks ago, he looked at the letters of his placemat and pointed to each: “Horse Apple Pumpkin Pumpkin Yak.” He paused and then continued: Horse Apple Lion Lion Owl Worm Elephant Elephant Newt. Last week he laid on the floor of my office, staring at my Jude Law poster, and intoned: Horse Alligator George (Monkey) Lion Elephant Tiger. George and Monkey are interchangeable but letter recognition is coming. This is a plus point for the educational games. When we read the board book Good Night Train, he calls out the last word of each sentence. He may have it memorized, but he points to the word. Score one for the tradition of reading to your child.
The answer is balance. Play is the most important activity a child can do. It helps develop imagination. It helps develop hand-eye coordination. It helps develop social skills. Today I ignored the fervent chant for the Me-Pad. We did four puzzles together. He did one on his own and then he pulled out the Duplo. Somewhere there’s a world where bunnies live in a blue house, a giraffe shares a cage with a baby lion, tigers and polar bears play together in a yard while penguins swing or drive cars. He’s doing just fine (but the Me-Pad is about to go on vacation).