Like many parents, I often feel that the world is getting more crowded and lonely at the same time, making me pine for just right middle ground. I’m constantly busy but can’t seem to get anything done. The Internet is a flood of information, with no time to process any of it. Hundreds of channels on TV but nothing to watch. So many books to read and they’re all awesome…
This blog is dedicated to helping families stay screen-free in those first precious, developmentally-sensitive years. Pediatric guidelines aside, one advantage to this philosophy is that it reduces the level of informational chaos and choices families are exposed to. Analog simplicity increases the odds of finding that just right place, where good things and treasured memories happen. Less beepy, flashing stuff. Less distraction. Less pressure. More intimacy with real people, places, and things. A three-year respite from the increasingly consuming flood of faster, smarter, upgrade, always on and on…
There’s also so much cool, unplugged stuff to do!
In addition to their lack of human-ness, a major problem with baby TV, videos, and apps, especially the “educational” kind, is that they are not responsive nor adaptable to the child. Some are boring, especially for parents, with not much going on, only 2 senses involved, and nothing for a child to explore. Others are overwhelming, with constant, weird images and factoids, the same 2 senses, and nothing to do but gaze and perhaps poke a screen – enchanting the child without teaching them anything.
Compare this to a child playing with blocks, a puddle, a dog, a box, or a parent, and the difference is clear. These are just right things – neither overwhelming nor boring, inviting the child to experiment, engage all senses, and learn.
Though we didn’t used to have to prove this – we could have just asked grandma – research is catching on. A 2012 study from the University of Rochester looked at this issue via 7 and 8-month olds exposed to different paces of media. Unfortunately, the media was video animation (et tu Rochester?), but the findings were compelling and broadly applicable. Babies quickly lost interest in scenes that were too predictable or too complex, and were most engaged by scenes offering just enough new information.
In Goldilocks terms, babies liked their media/playtime porridge just right.
This “Goldilocks Effect” makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Babies enter the world with a vast amount of information to process, and only their five senses to help figure it out. Foreshadowing social media, psychologist William James described this state as “booming, buzzing, confusion.” Thus, the sky is new. Dogs are new. Food is new. Even mom and dad are new. No wonder Barney on a flat screen and Peek-A-Boo Goes Camping are not super-helpful.
A baby’s brain is wired to allocate precious processing power to helping make sense of all of this – real versus not, dangerous versus healthy, fun versus boring. This sense-figuring process uses a set of biases, actively seeking things most likely to be helpful or worth figuring out, such as human faces, speech, water, and how forces like gravity work. They also seek things that gradually build on what they already know, with huge/unrealistic leaps such as those offered by DVDs and academic-style flash cards not fitting this bill.
The authors call this zone, “intermediate surprisingness,” a state of just-right arousal where senses are firing, seeking, and in tune. Too much short-circuits, too little fails to engage, and either extreme causes baby to get tired or cranky.
Piaget (mentioned in a prior post about playing with keys), described this learning process as via assimilation, incorporating new information into existing knowledge structures, or accommodation, where new knowledge structures are formed. If babies can’t do either, they give up and move on to something else – why waste time on something that is unlikely to be helpful? It is critical to note that moving on might not be readily apparent – baby might cry, fall asleep, or just gaze blankly at a video screen, creating the illusion of engagement, the latter being one of the major perils of screen time.
The middle is where learning lives, and where developmental stages gracefully unfold. Presenting babies information – reading programs, academics, languages no one else at home speaks – before they are ready pushes them into the complex/unlikely zone, placing unreasonable demands on them. Passive media in general fails to provide opportunities for experimentation or exploration – the boring zone.
This is one reason why anchoring young children in the real world is vitally important. Here, guided by their own instincts and curiosity, they can gradually build on what they know through hands-on exploration and play. Thus, when they get bored, they can and will actively move on to something else.
Babies “focus on what they can handle and filter out the rest,” study co-author Richard Aslin said. They will “look around for what fits their attention level.” This is determined by a combination of temperament, which parents know best, and developmental stage, which is hard-wired and advances at each child’s unique (though similar) pace. Electronic media does not know and can not respond in any caring way to the child. Thus, poke and swipe though they might, the child remains a passive observer in 2-dimensional space.
Real people, on the other hand, sense and adapt to one another, an irreplaceable aspect of our humanity. This is the bedrock of parenting. We also auto-regulate to our environment, modifying our play to fit our needs and abilities. Toys like blocks and boxes are perfect for this – they can be stacked or combined to create new experiments to learn from: build a tower and make it fall down. Hide a stuffed toy under a box – peek-a-boo! Take a puddle from boring to just right by splashing, patting, tasting, swirling, floating, or feeling it run down your arm. And books are best of all. If one seems hard or boring, hand it to a loving grownup – because snuggled on their lap is always just right.
By request of our dog Marlo, here’s an example of Too Small:
As an interesting afterword, the authors above also suggested that the Goldilocks Hypothesis is universal, i.e. for grownups, too. Anyone listening to the same campaign ads over and over or faced with a blur of news/stock price tickers can relate. This poses interesting questions for Facebook and Twitter streams, a somehow irresistible hybrid of boring and overwhelming. Maybe they average to a warped version of just right, but I have a sense that we all probably just need a nap.
Thanks for reading! As always, I welcome your thoughts. What are your favorite just right activities with your children? What were yours as children? One of mine: