Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Taking back the Soul

Barbara here. Like my fellow bloggers before me, I’m putting in a plug for physical reality. The kind you touch, hold in your hand and experience through all your senses, not through your fingertips and an electronic screen. A few ideas have been floating around in my head recently, some old, some new, and tonight I decided I’d make some reflections on them. See whether I can put them together to say something profound.

For years we have become increasingly enamoured with virtual reality. We walk down streets caught up with our iPods, our cell phones, or our playlists, no longer noticing the people around us, the colours of fall, the light and shadow of the downtown streetscape. We play online video games with virtual friends we have never met, embrace the contestants of reality shows with a fervour we rarely show our own family. We have five hundred Facebook friends but no one to go out to dinner with. Our three-year olds know how to punch all the buttons on an iPad to watch their favourite YouTube videos, but they no longer run free outside, building snow forts in their front yards or making mud pies for the family cat.

As a child psychologist, I have watched this latter trend for years with increasing alarm. First it was children spending hours in front of the TV, learning Sesame Street alphabet chants but losing the chance to make imaginative messes on the floor. Then it was Nintendo, Play Stations, and computers, and now it’s e-books, e-games, e-friends. Even a very rudimentary knowledge of developmental psychology tells us that the children are missing out on crucial spatial neurological development by dealing with an on-screen, two-dimensional world, where objects move not because they pick them up and turn them this way and that, but because they push a button. But children are missing out on other crucial cognitive skills as well, such as attention span, impulse control, planning, problem-solving and innovative thinking. Not to mention all the social development they miss by their lack of free playtime.

This “unreality” reached its ludicrous extreme the other day when I heard about a group of city children taken on a biology field trip to the country, where they dredged the muck out of swamps to examine it under a microscope, played orienteering games and identified plants in the forest. A few of the children asked the teachers whether they had made the swamp and the forest, or whether it was here before. Oh Disney, what have you done to us?

But now, it seems the rebellion has begun. Just when we thought the ebook would mean the demise of print, people are beginning to toss out their ereaders. There are pragmatic reasons, such as lack of transferability and technical glitches. But for many, it’s the reading experience itself that’s different. Not real enough. Doesn’t give the same sense of immersion, the same sense of connection as a book you hold in your hand. It has no more permanence in your mind than on your bookshelf.

This Christmas season, apparently, the hottest children’s toys are not the latest technical gadgets or most outlandish virtual worlds. They are, astonishingly, the little action figures that are marketed along with the latest TV and video shows. Dolls and cuddly stuffed creatures and other three dimensional, real toys. Children play with these on the floor, and make up their own games with them. Imagine!

It’s early in the battle, but maybe we can still turn the tide. Take back our natural world and embrace what’s real around us. Get together with real friends, make a snow fort in the drive, take our child for a walk in the country. Tell him it’s thousands of years old, and pretty cool. For myself, I’ll celebrate when I see people walking down the street smiling, not at the latest tweet or rap song, but at the things they see all around them.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Barbara, a friend told me when she was taking care of her grandchildren and "made" them go outside to play they stood on the porch in total confusion. They didn't have the slightest idea what they should do outside.

Rick Blechta said...

Hallelujah! Thanks for saying this Barbara.

I was talking to my sons (32 and 29) recently and both said that they remembered so well playing outside with their friends when they were kids. One said he even noticed that kids nowadays don’t do that very much. Maybe it’s because we live in a big city where parents tend to be more scared, maybe it’s because we live in such a fear-filled society now, but either way, you’re right. It’s not a good thing.

Regardless, it’s up to us as parents to turn things around. Sure TV and the rest of the media always hitting us with buy, buy, buy – especially at this time of the year – are pretty strong competitors for our childrens’ attention and desires.

It’s easy to be lazy as a parent and let the “idiot box” entertain and babysit our kids, but “I’m really busy” is not a very good excuse is it?

Last night I pulled out my annotated Sherlock Holmes and had a wonderful evening with that overweight thing crushing my legs. But it was an old friend so I put up with the discomfort.

So far I’ve resisted getting an e-book reader, but I can see the day coming where I will either have one or an iPad someday.

On a plane trip, I’ll use an e-book reader. Reading at home, I still prefer handling real books.

Everything in its place.

Great post!

Una Tiers said...

Barbara, I agree we are too connected. At a recent volunteer event, every other person was texting and sending photos. No one started a conversation.
Una Tiers

LD Masterson said...

My son makes my grandkids "earn" screen time (TV, computer, or video games) by speading an equal amount of time reading. While I approve of them encouraging the kids to read, I'd rather see then tossed outside to play.

Donis Casey said...

There is something profound about the TV commercial depicting the 1 1/2-year old who prefers to play with the box than with the toys that were in it. True imagination develops when left to its own devices