Electronic Kids

Finding the balance

Electronic Kids

In our world of television, DVDs, and computerized toys, fascination with electronic media begins young. The lure of "Dora the Explorer" and "Kung Fu Panda" is contagious. Children's programming is increasingly sophisticated. In schools, laptops share space with HB pencils.

“Feeneesh, Mommy, feeneesh!” Over the final refrains of Sesame Street, Marcus Donahue’s voice drifts into the dining room, where a group of women share a platter of takeout sushi.

“Finished, Marcus? More?” Marcus’s mother, June, disappears into the living room and starts another episode of the childhood classic.

Early evening represents one of two short TV times that two-year-old Marcus is permitted each day, while Donahue, a teacher, says she wouldn’t trade these quieter moments for anything. Still, she’s keenly conscious that, as Marcus matures, it may become more difficult to maintain a steady ratio of electronic-to-real life.

In our world of television, DVDs, and computerized toys, fascination with electronic media begins young. The lure of Dora the Explorer and Kung Fu Panda is contagious. Children’s programming is increasingly sophisticated. In schools, laptops share space with HB pencils.

On the one hand, tuning into the e-vibe is important. On the other, how much is too much? Mother of three and business owner Lisa Stone agrees with Donahue that finding a healthy balance is important.

“Kids have to learn computers to survive,” she says. “The younger they start the better.” Pride fills her voice when she discusses her children—the technical savvy of Mikayla, 10, and the Spanish vocabulary Jaden, 6, has picked up from TV.

When the kids were young and Lisa was cooking dinner, crafts and scattered pots and pans were the underfoot toys of choice. Jaden, a music lover, now has an iPod, but the Stone parents draw the line at cell phones and portable Nintendo. The girls are also enrolled in sports, which many experts agree helps stave off “couch potato syndrome.”

Forefront in many a parent’s mind is the fact that, in 25 years, childhood obesity in Canada has almost tripled, according to the Childhood Obesity Foundation. One quarter of kids aged two to 17 are overweight or obese. The typical child also spends five to six and a half hours a day in front of a screen instead of the recommended two hours (zero for babies), while 87 percent of children and youths aren’t meeting national guidelines of 90 minutes of physical activity a day.

The good news: the latest trends are encouraging. Active Healthy Kids Canada’s 2009 Report Card on physical activity indicates that involvement in sports amongst four- and five-year-olds is steadily rising. Screen time is also slowly dropping, suggesting that parents and educators are better juggling battery-operated and real-life stimulants.

Among the top recommendations by Active Healthy Kids Canada is to usher children outside. No computers, TVs, phones, or (Nintendo) DSs—just a whole lot of green learning with a strong argument in its favour. Outdoor activities stimulate better health, nutritional habits, and results in schoolwork. Exposing kids to nature develops their cognitive abilities and builds self-confidence.

For June Donahue, this knowledge inspires daily walks with Marcus and frequent excursions to places such as kid-friendly museums and science centres. The Stone family, meanwhile, makes weekend camping trips.

Perhaps a more revealing sign of the times is occurring on Sesame Street: After 40 years in a cement setting, shows as of November 2009 will contain strong natural elements intended to reconnect preschoolers with nature. 

Robert Bateman’s Get to Know Program

The average youngster recognizes thousands of corporate logos—but fewer than 10 names of animal species in his/her local community. If famous Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman has his way, this will change.

Appreciation for nature “couldn’t be more important,” he tells alive. “This is more important than any other single issue, and it has to start with little kids and the family.”

Bateman founded the Get to Know Program (gettoknow.ca) to foster youthful appreciation for all things green, including the wild animal species that he paints. During his public talks with children, he encourages them to ask their parents to go for a weekly hike. “It’s an easy thing to do, and healthy.”

Bateman recommends Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, 2005) by American author Richard Louv; it has hundreds of suggestions to avoid what has been coined “nature deficit disorder.”

“Appreciation for nature can start at a very young age,” says Mary Krupa-Clark, Get to Know Program director. “Putting baby in a stroller or a tummy pack and going to a park is good.”

The program has an online component, although it’s founded on the core belief that the best learning happens outside. “It’s multi-dimensional stimulation compared to linear stimulation from a computer,” says Krupa-Clark.

Screen-less suggestions

Establish TV and computer rules: Limit a child’s viewing/playing hours. Choose the programs they can watch/play. Move the box out of the main living area but close enough to monitor. For the computer, investigate kid-friendly Internet security programs.

Read a book: Nothing beats this shared bonding time, especially if it’s a daily habit. Best of all, reading to children has a positive impact on their future academic skills. Scour libraries and secondhand stores and ask friends and family for cheap collectibles.

Consider a TV-free Friday: Be sure to give your kids plenty of advance warning to accustom them to this idea. Or make it TV-free afternoons, and have a few suggestions on hand to fill the time, such as art projects, puzzles, story writing, dress-up games, dance performances, or cooking.

Be a role model: Kids do what we do, not what we say. Turn the TV off if it’s not actually being watched so they pick up the habit and value it more as a treat.

Stock up on alternatives: Fill a drawer or cabinet with attention-getting items that you can have ready to pull out when needed—games, cards, toys, crafts, old jewelry, wrapping paper scraps, colouring books, activity books, comics.

Provide children with outdoor goods: Bikes, balls, and sturdy backyard toys stimulate the senses, encourage physical activity, and enhance community when shared with neighbours.

Ask about local community activities: Nature parks, community centres, and gymnasiums are always hosting special events for kids. Join up with other parents and make the outdoor day also a social one.

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