What Children See Matters!
The environment your child lives and learns in is very significant, and has an enormous impact on his or her health, learning ability, and future capacities. At the preschool I own and operate we have a controlled environment in which everything that is put in view of the child is given serious consideration. We provide natural objects for the children to play with, high-quality art materials for them to use, and live music, carefully chosen. We keep this environment free of electronic media, advertising, and cartoon imagery. Instead the children use their own ideas to create their own fantasies and play scenarios. Parents participate in creating this environment by dressing their children in plain-colored clothing that is also without cartoon- or action-figure images. Yes, not even Mickey Mouse! In doing this, parents become aware of how difficult it is to find clothing, underwear, socks, even shoes that are not advertising a TV show or a movie. These images are so pervasive that sometimes adults don’t even notice them. Their children do!
Why is it so important that children play with “neutral” or “open-ended” toys and materials as opposed to commercial ones? Because if we were to give them a basket of Winnie the Pooh figures, they would play Winnie the Pooh. If we gave them swords and guns, they would play swords and guns. But when we give them a basket of pine cones, they can play telephone, bread baking, Winnie the Pooh, car racing, birthday cake, swords, guns, The Three Bears, or campfire (to mention only a few possibilities). They are freed by the materials, rather than limited by them. Open-ended materials allow children to use their imaginations and develop important cognitive skills.
Along similar lines, one reason it’s important to minimize children’s exposure to commercial media has to do with children’s drive to imitate what they experience. If children come to school after spending a weekend fishing, they will likely play fishing at school. If children come to school after watching Power Rangers, they will likely play Power Rangers. This happens because this is how children learn. They experience something and then must replay it and replay it until it becomes their own. It is through play that they understand it and in a sense are united with it. This is, in fact, what we base our teaching methods on: that the child has such empathy for the world that s/he will imitate it and become it. And then we must ask ourselves, “What do we want the child to imitate? What do we want the child to become?” For example, children are deeply affected when they plant a garden, tend and care for it, watch it grow, eat the vegetables, compost the leftovers, spread the compost on next year’s garden, and plant anew. At circle time we tell a verse about a growing seed, and the children act out this process, themselves being the seed, plant, and flower. In play the children children “become” a plant-like, strong, natural being for whom cycles and rhythms are a natural part of life. They see the cycle of life and how they are a part of it.
But children are also deeply affected when they watch a movie, a television show, or a computer game. And not only can this be problematic depending on the content of these media, but an additional limitation here is that children can have no real effect on these activities; these media are not capable of receiving the child’s ideas or creative passion. The images displayed via these media are fixed, static, dead, while the child is alive and in constant motion. And electronic media provide children with thousands of images in no time at all. Children cannot sit and wonder at an electronic image or productively assimilate it into their understanding of the world, since it flies by at such a fast rate. Later as they play they will attempt to integrate these images, but generally speaking electronic media are excessively intense and children cannot truly modify them or freely interact and create with them.
The children who went fishing over the weekend can bring living images into their play. They will relive the moments of being with whatever special person took them fishing, and we may see what their experiences were by watching them play. These children will also extend their experiences as they share them with other children. They will add new elements, and the fishing experience will become something new. Living images give birth to living thinking, and in children this happens through play. The fixed images provided by television, video games, etc., do not allow for such flexibility in play. They must be assimilated before the living ideas they represent can have room to play. Twenty minutes of television/video/computer games can take a whole week to digest! The time that children could be inventing and creating is used instead to assimilate images and impressions of the shows they watched.
Parents express the desire for their children to become responsible, kind, confident, and creative. We have seven or so years to help our children establish a sense of responsibility and compassion toward the Earth and other people. There is no television show, movie, video, or computer game that can nurture the child in a way that awakens these desirable attributes. Humans must be educated and loved by humans. Our loving faces, our gentle hands, our ideas, our creations, however imperfect, serve the children best. They need to hear our stories, they need to play at what they imagine, they need to have their own time – lots and lots of open time – to explore. They need space that is free from dead, illusory images and inflexible ideas. In this quality space, they will grow. They will learn, and they will become strong, confident, intelligent, and brave. We must provide toys that can become what the child makes them and images that are born from the firsthand experiences of the child and the people the child knows and loves. This is the best we can give them. Should we offer them less?