Let Them Play
I was sitting in traffic a few days ago when my eyes wandered to the car beside me. In the front seat was a boy of about 12. Beside him was the driver whose too-frequent glances at his young passenger caught my attention. The driver’s constantly swiveling head didn’t seem to affect the boy. He stared straight ahead, unmoving. He never once reacted to his companion who kept turning to look at him. Their non-interaction intrigued me and I found myself observing them. It was then I saw the earphones in the boy’s ears. He was plugged. No wonder. He sat rather rigidly in the front seat, clearly in his own little world. I thought him a bit young to be in earphone land. He didn’t even notice that his driver kept looking at him. If someone were turning that often to look my way, I’d at least glare at him. But this boy was not even aware of the world around him. He was completely expressionless.
Last December I saw a much younger boy sitting outside the coffee shop his mother was having lunch in. The boy was with a yaya, who looked like she might faint with boredom, because her ward was totally immersed in a handheld computer device. He also had earphones on, connected to what looked like his mother’s iPod. The boy was overweight and sluggish in his movements. When he spoke, he sounded a bit like a cartoon character. He looked like a child, but something about him was no longer child-like. It would have been better to give him some paper and crayons. He could have been drawing and creating something out of himself. Instead, he was plugged into two devices that drew him into a world of technology—not a world of warmth and human interaction.
The modern world is taking away healthy play and creativity from our children. It breaks my heart to see kids who are unable to play, especially with other children. I’ve seen some kids who keep talking and cannot jump into physical play with others. They are so much in their heads they no longer know how to run and experience the world around them. Kids today should be moving and exploring. Movement is connected to our speech and sense of balance. When kids are put in front of devices that limit their movement, their development suffers on many levels. Even their emotional life is affected. A wise mother told me before that she’d rather her child suffer scratches and bruises than be emotionally stunted because she prevented him from moving, exploring and experiencing his body in relation to the world. Our experiences of the world naturally affect our inner development. If we keep exposing our children to machines, what kind of inner life are we giving them? There are parents in my children’s Steiner/Waldorf school who let their children watch television and play computer games, but many of us have chosen the road less traveled in the interest of keeping our children in the world of play for as long as we can. My children seem to have benefited from it; they are calm and able to play for hours. Each game opens the door to a new one. Everyday a piece of string finds new expression in their world. They are very active and agile and are outdoors a lot, instead of in front of any kind of screen doing nothing.
Friends and strangers have asked if I’m not a little bit worried that my boys are learning academics much later than kids in mainstream schools. Not at all. My older boy only started to read last year, in Class 2, but now I’m practically bankrupt from buying him books. I recently told him it is time to go back and read his other books again—as much to conserve as to make him live in the images longer and not be drawn into the world of more, more, more as fast as possible. But there is no greater joy for me than to see him grab his book at the end of a school day and hear him giggling to himself as he reads. I love that he is passionate about books, plays and draws well, and enjoys nature. Both my boys bike with skill, confidence, joy and a sound sense of caution. They are also water creatures and can spend hours on the beach discovering sea life. I never have to worry about entertaining them or bringing along bags full of toys wherever we go. They are always happy where they are.
It is true that when they are physically and emotionally ready for academics, they learn quickly and with much enthusiasm. I saw this readiness in my son when his drawings took on a different form and theme, when he started asking me to teach him to “draw letters”, and he started copying numbers. When he finally started to read, he was unstoppable. I’ve seen kids his age who have no interest in reading because their immersion in technology has made everything else too slow and uninteresting for them. No, I don’t see my children as being delayed at all. I see them developing at just the right pace for healthy children their age.
My children don’t have computer games or cell phones. They do not have iPods and they know they cannot borrow mine. They do not watch television yet, though my older one has seen two movies: The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. We are still carefully choosing his third film. Yes, there are days when I wish I could just put them in front of the tube so I can have my sanity back, but that’s the easy way out. When I see how they become ready to write, then read, and see their enthusiasm for their lessons, I know in my heart I have chosen their school well. When I see how my little one can spend hours in his play area, creating stories with dolls, pieces of wood, cloth, baskets, stones, shells and whatever other things he puts on his story table, I know that keeping them away from technology has been a wonderful thing.
I can’t say enough that I have Steiner/Waldorf education to thank for showing me the way. Through this child-centered education, I have been able to see my boys for who they are and meet them where they need me in their development. I am not a perfect mother and never will be, but Steiner education continues to teach me to be a more conscious parent. No matter what mistakes I am bound to still make with my children, I know I have at least given them a foundation that will strengthen their inner life and prepare them to be balanced, loving, healthy and responsible human beings. It is a gift I never hesitate to share.