Gazette reporter's family wrestles with appropriate tech for tots

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, March 19, 2017

JANESVILLE--It was 7:30 p.m., and my family was in its usual evening repose.

Levi and Quinn, my 2-year-old twin sons, were freshly bathed, and both were sporting two-piece PJs printed with squadrons of fire trucks.

As usual, my wife, Melissa, and I were on our knees on the living room rug, imploring the boys to join us picking up the giant Lego blocks strewn among the toy carnage.

I baited the boys.

“Hey, bubbas,” I said. “Help Dad pick up your toys, and we can watch 'Peppa Pig' on TV.

For those unfamiliar, “Peppa Pig” is a cartoon piglet with a cheeky British accent who likes to jump into mud puddles. I generally like Peppa because I approve of her and her cartoon pig family's English drollness.

Somewhere in there, the show boils down basic learning concepts about colors (mud puddles are brown, and they turn even browner when you jump in them). Plus, it's nice to know the appropriate times in life to wear a rubber raincoat outside, such as during frequent British downpours.

Crucial stuff like that.

YouTube delivering the pig cartoon through our smart TV is the main technology my wife and I now allow Levi and Quinn to access daily.

That's mainly because they're 2, and they spend most of their waking hours at home ricocheting from room to room like protons whipped into a state of fission by graham crackers and raw human curiosity.

Melissa and I allow 20 minutes a day of so-called technology “screen time” as a daily cooldown for the twins. It comes right before we read them books and lead them down the hall to bed.

For the boys, it's part of their daily bedtime routine, and it seems to work. Yet I've wondered if we're doing the right thing allowing the “you-pick-Peppa” approach with the boys.

Lucinda Heimer is an associate professor of early childhood education. She studies the use of technology at home and in schools and how it can help—or not so much help—the development of young children.

I asked Heimer about the raw screen time we allow our boys each day. Is 20 minutes of Peppa appropriate? Is it too limited. Too draconian?

Heimer said she goes with what many pediatricians advise, and what a pediatrician once told her a few years ago.

“The wisdom right now, for better or worse, is no more than 30 minutes of screen time a day,” Heimer said.

Heimer supplied other recommendations released last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents should limit screen time to no more than an hour a day for young children ages 2 to 5. And the group recommends that television time for be heavily tilted toward educational programs.

That includes televisions, electronic tablets, smartphones and computers.

30 minutes to an hour of screens? Oh, good. That means the 20 minutes or so I allow my kids makes me a mega-dad of technological responsibility. Right?

Sort of.

Heimer opened my eyes to something I hadn't considered.

Often, my wife and I present the boys' TV time as “quiet” time. So I take it as a good thing when the cartoon comes on and the boys are subdued. In my mind, they're “unwinding.”

But here's the thing: If you're an adult and you've watched “Peppa Pig Goes Out in the Rain, Part IV” for the 20th time this month, you'll find you develop piggy vision. That's the ultimate state of zoning out where you'd silently pet your kids' hair, yet no longer realize that you or the kids are even connected to a planet of actual people and objects.

Heimer says the kids are probably zoning out, too.

Her favorite example is a controlled educational experiment in which her college students in a classroom environment are given time at different classroom workstations. Some of the stations involve working together with objects or looking at pictures. Another station involves students working by themselves on wireless touch screen tablets.

After the exercise, Heimer shows the students photographs of themselves at the various workstations. She'll ask the students to identify which photographs show them interacting with other students the most and which photos show them paying the least attention to their surroundings and other students.

“Of course, the photos that show the students at their least interactive are always photos of them using an iPad. That's the best kind of image I can give. That's the danger. That's what we don't want to have that happen,” Heimer said.

Here are some thoughts Heimer has about use of technology at home to make it more useful for young, developing brains:

-- Use screen time to expand learning about something your children may have noticed during the day that sparked curiosity or fascination.

Heimer said that's a more concrete use of technology as a tool for learning. An example: If your child spots a spiderweb in the backyard and is curious, consider finding a video or photographs on your tablet or computer that can illustrate for the child how a spider would build its web.

-- Use technologies that incorporate more than one idea or ask for more work out of the child than sitting and staring.

It's what educational researchers call “scaffolding” in learning. For instance, try a reading app that allows children to electronically turn pages or highlight or manipulate objects while they read along. That, Heimer said, might be preferable to using reading apps or technology that simply relies on a disembodied, pre-programmed voice narrating a story. And it can give parents and children more meaningful interaction and prevent the child from being completely immersed in the electronic universe in front of him.

Heimer said parents and teachers (in her mind, the two are one in the same) need to understand what drives most young children. Often, that's exploration, whether it's playing inside or outside.

Most simply, what's often best for young learning minds is to be engrossed in the external world around them.

“As a culture, we need to look at how much early childhood education we can provide simply by getting kids outdoors.”

Here's my thought: This spring, instead of pre-bedtime TV, I might try to wind down Levi and Quinn with a real-life piggy romp through mud puddles in our backyard.

That would be before their nightly bath. Not after.

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