I’m writing from one of the world’s unplugged strongholds: the beach.
Though dermatologists might disagree, beach and babies are a perfect match: water, sky, sand, amazing creatures crawling, swimming, and flying, and plenty of homegrown Vitamin D. The beach is a multi-sensorial playground: the glorious horizon and reflections on the water, the sounds of seagulls and crashing waves, the briny smell, the salty taste, the magical, morphing texture of sand, the wind kissing chubby cheeks, the tickle of waves on tiny toes, and the profound sense of connectedness with something infinite, wild, and alive (termed biophilia by renowned scientist E.O. Wilson).
You can tell I like it here.
Unstructured play abounds at the beach (recall the AAP recommends at least an hour of it per day): from basic digging and raking to complex castle-building, buckets to fill and dump, shells to find, inspect, and organize, and hermit crabs playing hide and seek. Plenty of running, jumping, squealing, and splashing. And perhaps best of all, there are no electrical outlets on the beach, iPads and iPhones implode when wet, and video screens cast not-fun glares.
Reality is super-durable by comparison.
The beach is also where families go to spend time together, which is good.
Though not marketed as such – it’s never had to be – all of the above is educational, which if you’ve read my past posts, is a major preoccupation of parents these days, fueled by peers and marketing. If the Genius Baby Industrial Complex finds a way to brand and sell it, the pitch might go like this (and for once wouldn’t be deceptive):
“Build your child’s confidence, imagination, vocabulary, focus, and sense of connectedness with the world, while reducing BMI, for only ten pelicans a day…”
Unfortunately, beach baby apps, Wii Beach Party Fun, Leapster Beach, and so on, would follow, promising Mensa-grade skill development, assuming the child stays indoors to watch them for hours on end.
Of course, not all ocean dwellers are unplugged. Sponge Bob Square Pants lives here, but as evidenced in a 2011 Pediatrics study linking fast-paced videos (i.e. his) to impaired concentration and ability to focus on tasks, education is not an especially strong suit – or pair of pants, for that matter. In brief (no pun intended), the study compared 3 equally-matched groups of 4 year-old children. One group watched a fast-paced video for 10 minutes (Team Sponge Bob), one watched a slower-paced “educational” video, and the other sat and drew pictures. After the ten minutes, the children were asked to perform a series of tests of executive function (i.e. brain on), measuring ”goal-directed behavior…attention, working memory, inhibitory control, problem solving, self-regulation and delay of gratiﬁcation.” Sounds simple enough.
The results were compelling. The drawing group performed best, with no difficulty focusing on the tests. The “educational” video group performed worse, but not dramatically. The fast-paced, Sponge Bob group, however, performed much worse than the other two groups. The hypothesis is that fast, repetitive shifts in such programming impair the developing brain’s ability to learn and self-regulate, short-circuiting higher cognitive processes. Whether the effects are short- or long-term, and also apply to older kids, are open questions. Nickelodeon’s response was interesting, claiming that Sponge Bob is not intended for 4 year-olds, its target audience is 6-10 year olds. Somehow they fail to include this in their marketing.
The Spongy Bottom Line: unplugged/hands-on activities are best, but if videos are necessary, pick mellow ones.
Just please don’t pick this:
In his classic, Last Child In the Woods, naturalist Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe today’s children raised largely indoors for reasons ranging from perceived dangers outside to excessive screen time. Ironically – and sadly – consequences include trouble with attention & focus as cited above, increased allergies, blunted ability to perceive and manage risk, obesity, and disconnectedness with nature. Recalling our own childhoods and the transcendent joy we felt outside – in the backyard, at the beach – and mindful of our desire to raise healthy kids, we should seize every opportunity to engage with our children there. Thus, we not only nurture inquisitive, confident, healthy children, we nurture the next generation of naturalists to ensure that the oceans, beaches, and creatures who live there – indeed, our world -are cared for.
Grownups seek the beach as a place to wind down and rehab multitasking-sogged brains. For older children, the beach is an ideal opportunity to learn to cope with pangs of “I’m bored,” “I need to check my status,” etc. Learning to embrace tech-free downtime is increasingly urgent as we become accustomed – even addicted – to constant feedback, news feeds, and entertainment. Though concerns abound, given the broadband pace of change, studies are not yet available regarding long-term effects of “always-on” connectedness in children, especially with mobile devices. Growing up not knowing what to do when the power goes out or you lose your smartphone is a sad and scary thing. Thus, it’s best to seize opportunities to practice being ok in the real world.
And there’s no better place to practice than one with sun, sand, and waves. So unplug and relax. For children under three, life is a beach. Take the time to explore it with them. And if you can’t make it to the actual beach, act like you’re there.
Final thought (doctor enters the room): if you plan on being outside for more than 15 minutes during the daytime, wear sunscreen.