Friday, March 4, 2016

Thinking About Screen Play

I am reading and reflecting on the book The Power of Play by David Elkind.


Chapter 3 - Screen Play and Iconic Literacy


When I started this chapter, I thought I knew exactly what David Elkind would say about screens. I was wrong. Well, maybe it would be better to say I was not altogether right.

David says that screens have contributed to the change in children's play. That screens have aided the shift from active outdoor play to more indoor sedentary play. Those were things I expected. But then he writes that the relationship of children and media is complex and multifaceted. And, while I agree, I was surprised with some of his discussion.

He connects screen play with his theory of play: "To leave a lasting impression, the media have to give the viewer a chance to take some initiative (play), to be emotionally involved (love), and to learn something about the world (work)." As we think about screens and children, "the extent of the child's active participation as a viewer...determines the media's impact."

A lot of this chapter's discussion about media reflects on work by Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan noted that media and its content exist on a continuum from hot to cold. "Hot" media have more intense images and situations, are more highly defined, are usually more visually arresting and stimulating, and require less participation (thinking) from the viewer. "Cool" media are more quiet and slow-paced, have more visually interesting images, and require more thinking about what's happening (more participation).

Elkind states that to evaluate media impact (positively or negatively) on children, we must look at the content (on this hot-cold continuum), think about individual differences among children (some like more hot media while others prefer cooler media), and personal emotional connections with the content. Some children will disengage from media that's too intense while others enjoy that type of action. Some children will connect emotionally with characters or plot and derive learning from that content while others will just be entertained. We cannot simply make cause-and-effect connections between what children watch and how they behave (or what they learn, if anything).


The most interesting (or at least new) idea for me in this chapter was the concept of iconic literacy. All this screen media has created a "new" literacy of reading icons (pictures) and gaining information from them and using them to solve problems. Adults often struggle with remembering what different icons mean and how to use them. Since children are more preliterate, they easily grasp the images and how they are used. This may be a reason children more readily use media and intuitively manipulate it. Iconic literacy is a new concept for me. I'm going to need to think about this more. What does it mean? Is is transferrable to learning in other ways?

David Elkind reviews TV, computer games, and other media for children. He gives some insights to the use of media with different age groups. Here are a couple of key quotes (at least for me):
  • "Parents who talk, play with, or sing to their young infants to toddlers give them much more than any DVD or television program ever could. The most important stimulus to healthy growth and development for infants and young children is affectionate human interaction."
  • "Young children have a lot of energy and need time to engage in active play. Watching videos should not infringe on that time."
  • "If we recognize that it takes a certain amount of maturity to use an automobile, why is it so hard to appreciate that the same holds true for computers?"
These quotes make it sound like he is opposed to screens with children. While he does advocate not using them with children under 2, he has a more nuanced approach to them with older preschoolers and children. He's not opposed to screen play in principle; the issue is how to use screen play in healthy and responsible ways. (And not replace active, hands-on play with screen play.)

One thing I had to remember as I read through this chapter. This book was published in 2006. A lot of screen play has changed with tablets and phone apps. David Elkind does not address this type of screen play but I think his thinking does translate to those, too.

Overall, I think David Elkind is advocating a more balanced approach. He calls for recognizing differences among children; some may enjoy screens (or particular types of media) more than others. He recognizes that things are changing and we need to adjust as needed. But he also strongly advocates children interacting with people and the "real world" to develop understanding. He dismisses claims from companies about the effectiveness of electronic media for very young kids. They need the real world experience, he argues.

And I agree. As I read this chapter, I remembered my reflection on related topics in Rae Pica's book. I think we need a balanced and reasoned approach to screen play. And exploration and play with real objects should take priority, especially in the early years.

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