Monday, April 29, 2013

Turn Off the Books

This post by Education Programs Coordinator Jillian Finkle (also posted on Kidoinfo) is in honor of Screen-Free Week (April 29-May 5, 2013), a national celebration presented by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood that encourages children, families, schools and communities to turn off screen media for a week – to unplug, play, read, create, explore.

My 3-year-old, like any kid, loves to watch TV and play electronic games. We limit his time with these activities but it’s always a battle. I can’t understand why screens are more attractive than the free, open-ended play we promote at the Museum, and sometimes I worry that I’m being too strict about it. But so far I’ve held my ground, even though it feels like the entire world is working against me: from televisions in restaurants, to relatives with iPads, to toothbrushes with cartoon characters on them. At least he loves books, too!

We all know that American kids in general are watching too much TV. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting children’s screen time (which also includes computers, tablets, and video games) to 1-2 hours of quality media per day for children over age 2 – and none for children younger than 2. These experts cite the need for physical activity and interpersonal interactions and the prevalence of violence even in children’s programming.

To further complicate the issue for parents, e-reading devices have now entered the mix. A recent Scholastic reading study reported that the number of children using e-readers has doubled since 2010. While some of the kids’ story “apps” are little more than subtitled television that read the story for you, perhaps with interactive animated illustrations, others are just like actual books. So then, do they count as “screens”? What difference does it make if a child reads a paper book or an electronic one?

For older children, there can be benefits to using e-readers. Many of them have embedded dictionaries so children can easily look up words they don’t know. The adjustability of font size allows for fewer words on the “page” at a time, which can help focus struggling readers or children with dyslexia. It’s easy to download new content, and many libraries now loan e-titles along with regular books. And then there’s the cool factor – some children might be more likely to read or to read more on an electronic device.

For young children, reading books with adults builds vocabulary and interest in reading and allows for adult-child attention and closeness. Don’t we get those things whether we read a book together on paper or a screen?

Not necessarily. First there is young children’s need for real objects and experiences, and they can’t always distinguish what’s real from what happens on a screen. And turning pages is a physical skill to be learned. But most importantly, it is the adults’ words and actions beyond the story itself that makes reading to children most beneficial, and those are different when we use e-readers.

According a 2011 Temple University study, adult-child conversation was more about the use of the device itself than about the story when reading books electronically, and that impeded children’s story comprehension. Another study at Vanderbilt University found that adults asked fewer story-related questions with video screen content as opposed to a physical book. And of course if there are things to touch on the screen, it can distract a child from the story.

Why not try cutting out or cutting down on the screens during Screen-Free Week? Go outside and play, build a blanket fort, or visit the Museum instead. I’ll be pulling out the most creative ideas in my bag of tricks to make it the best possible week for my 3-year old!

Want to unplug this week? Take the pledge from Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and find guides for participating in Screen-Free Week. For more screen-free resources, download the Museum's Kids, Play and Digital Media resource sheet.

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