Toddlers need in-person, off-screen learning time

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Life is a series of ever-changing events, for the most part. Each generation looks back on previous eras to discover how different daily life was for those who lived in another decade, century or millennium. Time passes, and advanced technology and inventions are implemented into everyday life. The differences between then and now are more pronounced. Is industrial or technological progress always good, though? It’s debatable, for sure. Consider how people of all ages, even toddlers, have become much more sedentary. They’re “plugged in” more than children or adults were long ago.

A sedentary lifestyle is not healthy. In fact, it can place you at risk for many serious adverse health conditions. Inactivity breeds Type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and stroke. Common sense tells us that toddlers should not be sedentary. If they don’t develop a more active lifestyle as they age, they’ll be more likely to develop these health conditions. Toddlers are at risk for another problem in a modern (sedentary) lifestyle, as well. Lack of in-person, off-screen interaction with others means they’re doing most of their learning by looking at digital images on electronic devices. Some modernists might think that’s a good thing. Studies show, however, that that’s not necessarily the case.

Vanderbilt University tested toddlers to see if screen time improves their learning skills

toddlers, boy, blonde hair, using computer

Researchers did a recent study to explore how frequent screen time, especially the act of taking selfies with family members, affects toddlers. More specifically, the study aimed to determine whether increased screen time helps toddlers understand that images represent reality. They also wanted to see if toddlers understood that photographs and images on a screen can be used as tools to help solve problems. The study concluded that participants showed no increased ability to solve simple problems in real time using images on a screen.

Researchers showed children photographs of a piece of furniture that was in a nearby room in person. They told them to find a hidden toy. Part of the study was to see if participants used the image of the furniture to lead them to the location of the toy. Results showed that many more participants were able to find the toy after receiving in-person instruction about the piece of furniture rather than using photographs as clues. They compared the results of the study to a similar one that took place approximately 30 years ago. The conclusion? Toddlers of today, who definitely have more screen time than toddlers in the 1990s, showed no signs that more screen time improved their learning skills.

Parents can help toddlers understand symbolic thinking skills

toddlers, Asian woman smiling and holding baby, foreheads touching

In-person interaction is essential to children’s well being, including their ability to learn. Symbolic thinking involves the ability to understand that images are representations of reality. Symbolic thinking means we can use events and objects that aren’t in our real time presence to learn. More specifically, symbolic thinking helps us imagine. In short, kids need symbolic thinking skills to help them with imaginative play. Consider, however, what might happen if toddlers spend so much time plugged into screen play or digital learning that the lines between reality and symbolism become blurred.

Parents can help prevent this issue by being proactive during their child’s screen time. For instance, a parent might let a 2-year-old or 3-year-old scroll through photos stored on a cell phone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, it’s critical to a child’s learning ability to understand that the photos are captured images of real time events that took place at another place and time. A parent can mention things to a child while he or she is looking at photos, such as saying, “Remember when we went on a picnic with Grandma? This is a photograph of you and her from that day.” It’s equally important to help toddlers understand that cartoons and digital creations are “fantasy” as opposed to “captured images from real time events.”

Children are tapped into apps and on-screen learning from very early ages nowadays

red-headed girl, large, round-framed glasses, holding cell phone, lying in bed with white sheets

Even pre-school students are given iPads and computers for learning in school nowadays. It’s logical to assume that children who will grow up in a technological world need to know how to use technology. That’s not the problem. The problem is that children are being introduced to these things before they reach their first birthday! What’s worse is that, sadly, in many children’s lives, on-screen time has replaced in-person interaction with parents and others. When there’s no balance and kids spend all their time looking at screens, their mental, emotional, intellectual and physical health is being placed at risk.

Can toddlers learn their colors, ABCs and other basic facts from phone apps or online programs? Yes, of course they can. But, SHOULD they? Should these electronic forms of learning supersede or replace interaction with parents and others? Definitely not. Human beings, by nature, are social creatures. They need in-person contact and interaction with others. This includes (especially so, in fact) toddlers.

There is no replacement for human interaction in a child’s life

toddlers, colored paper hearts on ground, woman holding toddler in lap, blowing bubbles

The synapses in a child’s brain are connecting and forming systems of learning every time that child is looking at a parent face-to-face or hearing a mother’s or father’s voice (such as through stories being read aloud or singing songs). You can supply toddlers with the best-of-the-best technology and digital learning devices. It still is not an adequate replacement for off-screen, in-person learning and engagement with other human beings.

Toddlers (and children of all ages) need  human interaction for their development. One of the most critical learning time frames in a person’s life takes place between birth and age five. The human brain develops faster during this period than any other time in life. Millions of synapse connections are occurring regularly in a toddler’s brain. As mentioned earlier, children NEED in-person, off-screen, human interaction for these connections to take place!

Electronic devices come in handy for busy parents in a modern world. It’s convenient to be able to hand a toddler a cell phone with Baby Shark playing on the screen while mom or dad ticks off items on a to-do list. And, that’s fine. What’s not fine is when children are deprived of human interaction and all of their time is spent “plugged in.” They need to laugh and talk and sing and touch their parents, siblings and friends. Technology is a learning tool but it can never be better than in-person learning in a child’s life.



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