As a kid who grew up before iPads, before laptops, and before the internet, I have to say, I feel kind of lucky.

I wasn’t plugged-in all the time. My social networking was going door-to-door to see which neighborhood kids could play. My educational apps were books, crayons, and legos. My entertainment on car trips was looking out the window (and bickering with my siblings). And my narrator for bedtime stories was my mom.

Don’t get me wrong, there are clearly benefits to having kids that grow up as digital natives. This is the way the world is moving and it’s silly to avoid innovation simply because of a sentimental attachment to the past. But, there’s still something that bothers me about having screen time replace play time.

I think we may be losing something immeasurable with the digitization of childhood. 

Imagination.

Red BalloonThe most eerie thing I’ve seen in a long time is an old family video that I ran across recently. My brother, sister, and I are playing with this ballon. It’s just a ballon, not even filled with helium, just a dull red ballon. And we have the time of our lives. The rules of the game we’re playing aren’t really clear, but it doesn’t matter. After a few minutes of this seemingly pointless activity, my dad turns on the TV in the room.

And we stop playing.

We fall completely silent, still, and transfixed by whatever is displayed on the screen. It’s a cartoon, or something equally mindless. All interaction ends; we sit down, stop talking, and just watch. Immediately.

This makes me uncomfortable in that kind of way where you’re sort of ashamed and deeply troubled by something out of your control at the same time.

TV may be the most passive of all screen time, but there’s something that can be drawn from this random observation of mine and applied to many of the interactions that our kids have with technology.

You don’t have to think too hard when everything is presented to you.

Not only all of the information you could ever want, but all of the content that you could ever need to keep you entertained. All of the cartoons to pass Saturday mornings, all of the answers to your questions at your fingertips, all of the games you could want to play from the comfort of your living room (and the social distance that a screen provides).

You don’t need to imagine what a character looks like, what they sound like, what their mannerisms are when you can see them on a screen. You don’t have to develop intricate landscapes in your mind, or envision the small details of day-to-day life for people in this world. There’s no work required on your part.

Le Var BurtonLeVar Burton (yes, the Reading Rainbow guy) was speaking about this exact topic recently. I attended the SXSWedu conference yesterday and had the chance to sit in on his presentation. He discussed how technology has the potential to kill our sense of wonder, and to steal something that’s so uniquely human: the art of storytelling.

But this wasn’t a tirade against screens. LeVar clearly sees the potential that TV and now apps have to reach a mass audience and change how kids view the world. He even said that the advances we’re seeing today will be the biggest change in education since chalk. He sees new technology as simply a highly effective outlet for the message that he has worked all of his life to convey: Life-long learning depends on passion, imagination, and curiosity.

MakegoThe best use of screen time is when there is something missing from the experience, a bit of the circle that you have to fill in yourself. Anything that requires you to use your imagination to complete the picture. One of the best examples of this that I’ve come across is Chris O’Shea‘s latest project: Makego. It’s an app that does an excellent job of encouraging imaginative play in kids. I like to think of it as an interactive Matchbox car. A kid’s experience isn’t really complete unless they use their imagination to create scenarios that go beyond what’s on the screen. I especially love all of the different vehicles that kids have created to reflect the situations they come up with.

Don’t be a passive consumer of media and mindless user of the technology that’s available. Find ways to use what’s out there to learn more about your passions and to tell your own stories.

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