Feb 20, 2024

4 Ways Tech-Based Play Is Different From Traditional Play

4 Ways Tech-Based Play Is Different From Traditional Play

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Any new technology causes some hand-wringing. 

When high-speed trains first came out, for example, people worried about passengers getting brain damage from watching the rapidly passing scenery. 

That sounds absurd now, but some pushback about new technologies is normal and even necessary: we should speculate about the benefits and risks of any new technology. 

As you are probably well aware, AI predictive language tools, such as Chat GPT, may still be in their infancy, but have the potential to forever change how we read, research, think, and write. And when it comes to children, we must look critically at the impact of these new tech-based tools on brain development.

Jenny Radesky, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, has documented multiple ways that classic forms of play from our childhoods (e.g., with LEGO and other blocks) differ from the tech-based play of our children’s childhoods (e.g., with iPad games and apps). 

In digital games, for example, app designers control the play, whereas in unstructured play, children are in control. When we turn to screens to keep kids busy or quiet, we also decrease the potential for parent-child interaction and inhibit children’s ability to learn to self-regulate their emotions. (After all, feelings come in a variety of forms, and learning to manage them is a SKILL!).

While digital games grab our children’s (and our!) attention, unstructured play builds attention, which has dramatic effects on our children’s focusing skills. I find it very interesting that diagnoses of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) have risen in the past 20 years…as screen use has also increased. 

The rewards of each kind of play also differ: apps and games provide many external rewards (e.g., points, tokens, or coins), but the rewards of traditional play are internal and social, and have lasting benefits as children learn to struggle and problem-solve, which are vital skills for adulthood.

The social interactivity of games has also changed immensely over the decades. Most apps and games today are designed for solitary play. They do not invite others to join in the way traditional play does. Social, in-person play allows for shared experiences, which builds social and emotional skills. 

As MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle puts it, we are “alone together” in our consumption of screens. Similarly, our children grow more isolated in these new forms of play (even if, ironically, they are playing with “friends” online).

Boredom is a GOOD thing!

Although there are many other ways in which our childhoods differ from modern-day childhoods, perhaps the biggest shift – outside of increased internet and device access – is simply the overwhelming number of choices available. There is no shortage of shows to watch, games to play, and social media feeds to scroll through.

During our childhoods, when we told our parents, “I’m bored,” they responded with “Go outside” or “Go read a book.” 

When our children today say, “I’m bored,” often they mean “I want screentime” or “I don’t know how to entertain myself because I’ve spent so much time on screens, I’m out of practice on how to play alone.” 

(And we never hear children today say, “There’s nothing to watch” because so much content is available 24/7.)

Today, boredom gets a bad rap. We see it as something that needs to be fixed. But here’s the truth: boredom is the birthplace of creativity. When we embrace our restlessness and tedium, we come up with our best ideas. 

Children are naturally imaginative and curious. A bored child who is allowed to wander, explore, and problem-solve is going to invent some wonderful stuff.

What do you remember from your childhood about moments of boredom? Were they unpleasant? Frustrating? Inspiring? Chances are our moments of boredom led to inspired bursts of creativity and imagination, which led us to try new things or test new ideas in ways we never expected. 

Today, while apps and streamed content might show us new and innovative ways to do things, they do the work for us; in fact, that content may even stem from someone else’s creativity-inspiring boredom. 

Our job as parents is to help ourselves (and our children) recognize that boredom is not a problem in need of fixing

(And if our kids are really struggling with ideas to cope with boredom, you are welcome to use my tried and true strategy of letting them know you have a bathroom that needs cleaning! See how quickly they find something to do!)

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Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™

are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.