Can I tell you a secret? Before I actually had a kid, I was sure we’d be the type of family where the kids never have any screen time. We’d play with wooden blocks and paper dolls, and chase butterflies through meadows all day.
Yeah. That… did not happen.
I was in a bout of sleep-deprived madness when my adorable baby wouldn’t go more than a minute without trying to climb or grab something dangerous, or just cry for me, and I just. wanted. to. shower. already. So I thought, well, what if we let her watch something once in awhile? My husband cleverly suggested “The Joy of Painting” with Bob Ross — and it was genius! We proceeded to let her occasionally watch videos, and chose ones that were calmly paced, positive, and brought some sort of added value besides keeping her safely occupied for small lengths of time.
I also noticed, bewildered, that my tiny offspring was immediately capable of using my iPhone. Yes, the tap and swipe gestures are so intuitive that even a toddler can use them. I quickly learned to lock it so she wouldn’t stray from approved content, even though I was always nearby anyway, watching and listening.
I started to wonder if I should just let her use the iPad a bit, despite how it went against my previous philosophy. I asked myself, would it stunt her development in some way? But I realized, in my line of work — as a software engineer and a computer animation artist — I use technology all the time, in a creative way. Just like my pencils and paints, technology is yet another tool for me to make stuff. And kind of a magical tool at that.
This brings me to an often overlooked way that kids can enjoy screen time without us parents feeling guilty about it: open ended creativity.
The thing I loved most about her watching Bob Ross? She’d actually pick up her crayons and draw while watching it! She would announce “Prussian Blue” as she’d grab some blue, and draw the “Ksai!” (“sky”). This is key. Whenever she’d watch some other random cute video, she’d stare transfixed at the screen, and I must admit it freaked me out a little bit. But if a screen time activity actually made her be active — and better yet, stay connected to the real world around her — it made me much more comfortable.
At some point I thought, what if I let her use my art apps on the iPad? I don’t mean coloring books where you tap something and it gets colored in. I mean legit, freeform, open ended art apps. And you know what? She drew amazing things! Now four years old, I think she’s pretty much mastered Procreate. It was still important to me that she use physical tools constantly, and I certainly would never want digital art to replace the experience of feeling how a waxy crayon glides on paper, or how modeling clay smushes together. Digital tools should not replace this, but they can certainly be added into the mix.
More recently, my kid has discovered the Voice Memo app I use. It started with us recording some interesting bird calls together, and evolved into her recording herself telling long stories and singing songs while watching the graphic representation of the audio go up and down. And let’s not forget photography — I’m sure many parents out there have found surprise photos on their phones, taken by their kids. Photography is art! You’d be surprised what interesting things kids can express with it.
Besides the various games and shows that populate the digital world, there are so many cool tools that kids, and creative adults for that matter, can use to actually express themselves. In fact, I was inspired by my kids’ experience to create my own animation app, called PuppetMaster, where they can make their own animated videos. But don’t just limit your kids’ digital tools to apps created specifically for kids; a lot of adult productivity tools can become creative playgrounds too. Writing, photo editing, making music — you’d be surprised what kids can handle. The more open ended, the better, because then the child has to use their imagination and invent something. It’s one thing to just react to a prompt — “tap here!”- – and get lights and sounds in response. It’s an entirely different experience to have to invent ways of using some tool.
Look, I’m sure you already knew, or at least suspected, that not all screen time is the same. And when choosing what sort of screen time is acceptable for their kids, many parents focus on the “academic” educational value of it. Does this show teach my kid something related to reading or math? If it does, parents feel better about allowing it. Now, I’m not knocking it. But in many ways, self directed creative activities are much more important. Off the screen, unstructured play and open ended creativity are supremely important for a child’s development. The same holds true for on screen activities.
You know how kids can look at a cardboard box and immediately see a fort? Or a castle? Or a race car? We want to encourage that. And it’s that same type of thinking that kids use when they are given an open ended digital tool that they can use to create anything they want. And guess what? That’s also the same type of thinking they’ll use as adults, to invent something that doesn’t exist yet. Or to come up with creative solutions to the most complex problems of our world.
So now my kid uses her iPad pretty often, in moderation of course. She uses it to draw pictures, record herself telling stories, make music, and even make her own animations! If she’s creating, I’m cool with it.
We don’t automatically have to feel bad about letting kids have screen time. We just need to really consider the type of screen time we’re allowing. This technology is here to stay and will be part of their lives as they grow up. So let’s teach our kids to use tech to make stuff, not just watch stuff.