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Drawing Conclusions

By Megan Fischer, Marketing and Public Relations Manager, Providence Children’s Museum

Dec-2010-PCM-chalkLately I’ve seen a barrage of commercials for the new Wii drawing tablet and am astounded.  The concept: kids use a stylus to “draw” on a tablet connected to their television and the images they create appear on the screen.  It comes with a game of Pictionary the family can play together.

Really?!?  Why?

What about drawing with REAL paper and pencils, crayons or markers?

What happened to families sitting around a table playing board games together?

What about the fact that our kids are already oversaturated with screen time?  (According to the Alliance for Childhood, children in the U.S. between the ages of 8 and 18 now spend over 7 hours per day in front of screens with very little time spent outdoors.)

I’ve written before about the importance of kids having authentic experiences with real things, and that certainly applies here.  It’s not just about the motor skills and hand-eye coordination children develop when they move pen over paper, learning how to hold and manipulate tools.  And it’s not just about the acquisition of artistic skills.

I believe there’s also something incredibly important about the physical process of creation and of having authentic creative experiences.  Approaching a blank page with nothing to structure the experience besides one’s imagination.  The feeling of markers on paper, paint on fingers.  The smell of crayons and freshly sharpened pencils.  The sense of accomplishment in seeing something you’ve created, that flowed from your hands to your canvas.  Doodling, dipping into paint, digging into clay, building with blocks, maybe even making messes…all in the act of creating.

For all of us, drawing and other forms of creative expression can provide a way to perceive and think about the world around us and communicate our ideas — especially important for kids.  Plus the process of creation requires active engagement and can inspire imagination as well as concentration and persistence.Dec-2010-PCM---painting

I know there are arguments about the need for children to acquire skills applicable to new technologies, about technical or digital literacy.  But as I see it, many kids today are practically saturated with electronics and have plenty of opportunities to develop these proficiencies.  The digital divide is no longer an issue.  Instead, helping kids manage the onslaught of technology and digital media is a growing concern.

I’m reminded of a recent screening of “Library of the Early Mind,” a wonderful documentary in which 40 renowned children’s book authors and illustrators reflect on their childhood memories and inspiration.  Many of them speak about creating their own worlds as children and about the powerful impact of their early creative experiences on their work and process.  It’s interesting to think about what might have been if they weren’t allowed opportunities to create, explore and discover as children.  (Also consider what the children’s literature landscape would look like if given over to the electronic book.  Imagine story time with a screen, not giving a child the physical experience of turning the pages, of engaging with the story and the artwork.)

Our world is changing rapidly.  Being immersed in digital communications for the Children’s Museum, I’m faced with that everyday.  I’m not arguing that we should turn our backs on technology — there’s a time and place for it, and it’s certainly not going away.  And there are many great examples of ways kids and families are using technology in creative, even physical ways — to go geocaching or design their own games.

But we need to think carefully about what we’re at risk of losing and stand up for what’s important.  To make sure our children have opportunities for active, authentic creative experiences and not give everything meaningful over to screens and electronics.

Please share YOUR thoughts about navigating the incredible changes we’re faced with and what we — and our kids — might be losing in the process.

Click here to see an article from Providence Children’s Museum about choosing toys that last. To learn more about the Museum and upcoming events, visit http://childrenmuseum.org/.

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  • Janice, thank you. I’ve often suggested paper and tape. We have a wide variety of art supplies, though, so I said no crayons or colored pencils. One year Santa brought my boys reams of copy paper and those packages of tape you get in Staples, ten rolls to a package. They LOVED it.

    (Several years running I asked for a family gift of a membership to the Children’s Museum, suggesting that it would get far more use and last longer than more toys. Last year I just gave up and bought it myself!)

  • Tip for your kids’ grandmother, Amy: My grandson Finn (8) loves to draw. Give him a thick pad of drawing paper and his eyes absolutely light up. He also loves to assemble machines,robots, vehicles, towers or whatever he decides his creations are from empty oatmeal boxes, cardboard tubes, pipe cleaners, etc. (he goes through a lot of tape) One year I made him an “artists studio in a box” – a storage container filled with paper pencils, markers, tape, glue, scissors, cardboard tubes and other re-useables and labeled it “Art Studio. Finn, Artist” It was a good gift.

  • Thanks for that link, Anisa. Recently my mother-in-law asked me what toys to get one of my children. My response was to basically throw up my hands–I don’t know either! I told her his favorite games are the ones he makes up himself. It is very, very hard to protect the self-invention of childhood when everyone is so darn eager to give kids *stuff.* It’s the classic example of the child playing with the box instead of the toy, right? It’s classic for a reason!

    And now I know the official term for what I’ve always called “stupid toys.” They’re “closed environment” toys. I discourage toys that can only be played with in one particular way. (Okay, exception: We have one of those small battery-operated Simon Says games, bought right before we drove to Toronto for vacation. Needs must, and all that, but it now lives in the glove compartment of the car!)

  • From the PlayWatch listserv: This comment refers to a comment sent earlier about passive entertainment versus authentic, engaging, child-driven activities. I just read an article by Laura Seargeant Richardson of frogdesign that speaks to these issues and actually talks about a couple digital efforts that are striving to distinguish between playing passive games and actively creating digital mediums. It’s an interesting article and shares similar concerns to those mentioned here, while also broaching the idea that there might be forms of digital play that don’t necessarily deaden children’s creativity: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1662826/frog-design-the-four-secrets-of-playtime-that-foster-creative-kids . – Amy (kaboom.org)

  • Right on. Kids need to get out and do real things! They are trying to turn every activity into a screen based experience these days. Go make a real painting, or drawing. Go for a hike and see some real animals. Ride a real skateboard or bicycle.

  • I agree that the challenge is striking a balance with technology. Same goes for sweets, tv, anything at all! I am always trying to get my kids outside to play. Sometimes we bring binoculars or a digital camera with us for motivation, interest. Sometimes we don’t. Yesterday my toddler watched a bunch of TV b/c I have a big project to do. Today we were outside a bit, went to the library, and drew pictures. If we’re plugged in all the time, we get fried!

  • Thanks, everyone, for your comments! It’s clearly a big issue and I invite you to sign up for the PlayWatch listserv to join this and other conversations: http://childrenmuseum.org/PlayWatch.asp

    Anisa, you have such a great perspective on this issue – you (and your kids) have really helped me see that there is room for technology and that it’s more about *balance*.

    One of the things that worries me so much about the growth of technologies & digital media is that too much exposure actually changes the way kids think (mentioned in the NYTimes “Growing Up Digital” article), such that it might stunt kids’ creative impulses and abilities. It reminds me of running an after school program and, when introducing an art project, getting responses of “tell me how” instead of kids eager and able to use their imaginations without being directed by adults.

    So how do we raise self-directed creative thinkers instead of the “tell me how” generation?

  • Bravo Megan, Excellent piece indeed. Very well said.
    So much new research (“It seems there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time,” says Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/16/technology/16brain.html)supports the idea that we are creative when we are NOT plugged in. and if our brains are developing until the age of 25 what effect will this have on our kids if not ourselves? Thanks for the reminder. I often struggle to remember to give my son time for self directed play.

  • Agreed. Excellent piece, Megan. This is a good reminder to parents – how much time do our children have to creatively express themselves with out being plugged into electronics/digital media? And do they have toys/materials/opportunities that are not pre-programmed?

    My kids love film and new technology but I agree today’s technology and abundance of electronic toys (simulating real experiences) does not replace their need to have other creative experiences. It’s hard for parents sometimes to resist the pull of all these new electronics or even notice how much time children are immersed in them while unconsciously not allowing time for other creative pursuits. Being aware of what and how much our kids are exposed to various forms of technology is helpful in helping putting limits on media usage.

    In our home we try to balance it all. What works in our home may not work as well somewhere else depending on the child. We make art supplies readily available in our house. Favorite projects recently have been playing with wire (inspired by Calder)and writing stories (and making books). My one son recently took a cartooning class and now is creating his own using pencils, markers and watercolor. He reads real comic books. Media becomes an extension of his passion. My sons are both at the age where they want to learn more and more and do use the computer at times to look up authors and listen to podcasts about their favorite subjects.

    And I agree board games and game night are fun and great for kids of all ages. Sometimes we have had to pull out a few games to find the one that sparks our kids interest – but when we do it is fun time spent as a family. Portable games (magnetic,card games, pencil and paper) are also handy to have in the car and in your bag) to pull out when waiting somewhere and help curb the excessive use digital devices in the car.

    In our house technology is an extension of the creative process. My boys love movie making but they often start with pencils and paper first to work out their idea. They often end up with a pile of their toys working out the scenes, and listening to music to the find the perfect score. They are actively making and creating in the world around them. But we are still mindful of excessive media use and make sure there is time without it – the boys hardly ever complain about the limits and welcome time for other creative pursuits as well.