This week alarm bells were rung in the UK when the government’s education secretary called attention to a growing problem in young children’s intellectual and academic development. Official figures now show that over a quarter (28 percent) of four- and five-year-olds do not meet communication and literacy levels, which for example means they are “unable to communicate in full sentences” by the time they enter primary school.
Concerns are growing that screen time is a key cause of this deficit, and it’s certainly something most parents understand is an issue. Kids generally enjoy watching content on television or tablet or phone and can do so for hours on end, which quickly transforms into what looks like addictive behaviour.
My concern here is less with what damage that may be doing to children’s literacy level and more with what it does to them psychologically and emotionally. Now don’t get me wrong: some TV is not only tolerable these days, it is positively educational, and much of it is also fun and enriching in its own way. The problem is that for children, it is largely passive. They sit and consume information created by others without having to use their brains to construct anything for themselves. And while video games contain an “interactive” element, even the most sophisticated ones still amount to worlds made by others that the child explores as if moving though a complex movie.
Creative behaviour is very different. When kids play, construct and navigate problem situations in an inventive way, make unexpected objects, share unexpected or improvised sequences of behaviour, and make up wild and hilarious stories, it is not only intellectually stimulating but is emotionally more meaningful than merely absorbing entertainment.
Perhaps thirty years ago I came across something Dostoevsky wrote about childhood. I was then recently out of childhood myself, and it resonated with me because it seemed to encapsulate something I was struggling with. (Let’s just say my childhood was far from optimal.) It also speaks to a cultural deficit which I think is even more relevant and prevalent today than in Dostoevsky's time.
“Man cannot even live without something sacred and precious carried away from the memories of childhood.”
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Unpublished Diaries and Notebooks 187
There are of course many experiences a child can have which could be described as sacred and precious. The problem is that most of them are rare, hard to engineer or downright impossible: a special holiday, a winning moment in a sports competition, involvement in some socially beneficial event, a rite within a socially bonded religious community, and so on.
Creativity is a whole lot easier to engineer, and on a regular basis. And it really can constitute the sacred and the precious. There’s a unique thrill to not only engaging in the kind of inventive and counterintuitive experience characteristic of creativity, but helping to construct it.
In a sense, this is all about play. Trailblazing early twentieth century child psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote that play is such a powerful mechanism for developing a child’s brain because it involves “movement in a field of meaning”, which is necessarily a socially derived activity. For Vygotsky, play means the construction and sharing of an imaginary situation and the exchange of symbolic messages within it (between at least two minds). He saw play as inherently creative because rules emerge from the situation itself, and typically spontaneously, leading to all sorts of unexpected outcomes.
It’s easy to see how this translates into something that’s sacred and precious. The same could be said for creative actions which are more planned and focused, such as building something special or working on a special drawing together. By engineering creative situations requiring kids' immersive attention and involvement, the kids get a psychological payoff beyond anything possible via a screen.
We all know as parents that we ought to limit our kids' screen time. But rather than just eliminating the bad, why not introduce the good: an occasional big creativity event you do together in your household or, even better, among friends and their kids. The day you all spent hours designing and building a magical castle in the garden could be a sacred and precious memory your kids carry away with them forever.
Alternatively, what if screen time wasn't passive but truly active and constructive? What if technology switched them on, not off? What if there were some digital conduit for channelling and even expanding a child's creative mind? Now that's something somebody somewhere should invent. It could help a generation of today's youth to be able in future to live.