As Spring continues to blossom, we are reminded of the many wonderful, unplugged things the world has to offer: flowers blooming, birdsong, sunshine, family gatherings, Passover Seder without smartphones, and Easter egg hunts in the yard and not the Wii. It is a peaceful season to reflect, spend time together, and share stories.
Speaking of stories… I met with a lower school head recently who conveyed near-universal concerns of parents about how to best prepare their children for school – which generally means which videos or TV shows, learning toys, and/or baby apps are most recommended/educational. Which will arm them with the most formidable arsenal of skills: letters, numbers, emotions, key concepts? Most of all, which will teach them to read asap, insuring that they do not fall behind?
Ah, reading. Once a celebrated rite of passage, now an increasingly stressful, even competitive notion, as children are expected to learn more, younger, faster, amped by marketing of “smart baby” products such as those in my Wall of Shame. Thus, the anxieties about learning and what to buy.
The questions above are best prefaced by this one: for a young child’s purposes, what are books (for these are what the child is pressured to read, right)? Are they vehicles for fun stories and pictures? Intriguing, nostalgic novelties referencing popular cartoons and movies? Means to convey information? Flashing words bouncing across a screen to be memorized? Teaching tools? Part of a curriculum for success in life and college admission?
Perhaps. But their deepest and most enduring power is this: they are catalysts.
A catalyst is something that enables a reaction to occur faster and more efficiently. For a child’s purposes, books are catalysts – among the best in existence – that bring them together with caring grownups, helping them feel secure, stimulated, and loved. And since these grownups – parents, most importantly – are a child’s first teachers, this is how a huge amount of learning happens, including language, concepts, and a sense of wonder about the world.
From a 2010 Psychology Today editorial by Marsha Lucas, Ph.D., in response to Your Baby Can Read!:
“The fundamental task of early childhood isn’t learning to read, or to ‘get ahead’ for school…it is experiencing a healthy, secure attachment in which the child’s caregivers are attuned to the child’s inner state and respond in a contingent manner.”
Exactly. It really is as simple – yet increasingly elusive – as that. Attachment. Catalyst. Reaction. The same holds for optimizing health and development: whatever helps young children feel loved and secure in the world – think cuddly story time on lap – tends to be healthy, stimulating, and educational. Whatever interferes with this connection tends to not be. And electronic toys, gadgets like iPads/Leapsters, and screen media, despite countless “educational” claims and sleekness, tend to interfere exceedingly and unfortunately well. Again: they get in the way. They inhibit. They replace loving caregivers. They foster bad and solitary habits, driving up risks of cognitive and other health problems such as obesity, inattention, impaired creativity, and disordered sleep. One of my recent posts expands on this regarding e-books for children, where the device itself intrudes on the experience, reducing both satisfaction and comprehension.
Which brings us back to books and their magic. Though stories and imagination they spur are infinite, it is a real book’s simple, finite, unplugged essence that makes it so powerful and enduring for young children. Magical moments on laps or in bed for story time are above all, bonding times, with stories serving as catalysts for grownup reader and young listener to spend time together. And this catalyst fuels countless, magical reactions, including – yes – learning, sense of well-being, good health, and readiness for school and life.
Coming soon: Baby Unplugged: Book!
Happy Unplugged Spring!