What’s the difference between sharing a story on-screen with your toddler and sitting down to share a picture book? In June of this year, the American Pediatric Association recommended that parents share books with their babies from birth, and limit screen time for children aged 2 and over to less than 2 hours a day. This weekend, Douglas Quenqua reported in The New York Times that, according to recent studies, ‘reading to a child from an electronic device undercuts the dynamic that drives language development.’

This disconcerting news plays into a wider discussion about the place of screens in our children’s lives _ and our own. My adult children and their friends were at home with me this weekend — between six adults, I counted 14 screens. Eeek! Do we need that many? (I should stress that most were turned off most of the time!) Fifty years ago, when I was a small child, there were none. This marks a huge cultural shift for all of us — especially parents and educators of young children. And for me, it brings to the foreground two key words, which I will call the ‘A’ words: one is Agency, and the other is Addiction.

It’s seven years since I attended a conference at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair about language development and literacy in children. Already, teachers from across the developed world were reporting on alarming falls in language ability in school-age children. More recently, the eminent neuroscientist Iain MacGilchrist has shared reports from teachers that many children arrive at school unable to read changes of emotion of their peers’ faces as well as being unable to give expression to their own feelings.

What is creating this disconcerting state of affairs? Might the time small children spend in front of screens have something to do with it? MacGilchrist cogently argues that all primates need to learn who they are from their elders. They cannot learn from virtual substitutes. If this is the case, we do our small children a grave disservice by putting them in front of electronic gadgets of any kind for extended periods of time rather than letting them become agents of their own developmental process. We also do them a disservice if we model to them that the gadgets we have are more interesting to us than they are.

Before children need books or screens, they need stories and they need play: with their primary carer, with their peers and with the wider group of people on whom they depend. These interactions give them their ground: the secure base from which they can start finding out about the world. An electronic nanny is not a nanny — a nanny is a human being. To be sure, all of us now have screens as part of our lives, but I think it behoves us as adults to use them with discrimination and not to overuse them with small children. When a child is in front of an app or a cartoon that does lots of exciting things, she is not the agent of the story — she is its consumer. I don’t mean to infer by this that all electronic activities for little children should be jettisoned, but I feel increasingly that children do not need hands-on interactive screen activity until they are ready for formal learning at school age. That’s not to say they won’t enjoy or benefit from carefully produced animations such as the Barefoot singalong songs; more to stress that supporting a small child’s creative development comes first.

After a lifetime of teaching children in kindergarten, the eminent educator Vivian Gussin Paley noted in her seminal book A Child’s Work that preschool children need, above all, plenty of time and space for fantasy play — by which she means play in which children are their own agents, constantly co-creating their own stories and learning from each other as they go along. She stands alongside many distinguished educators in stating that children learn best from each other, informed and supported by the themes of shared story times. As a pre-digital parent, I found sharing picture books one of the most precious parts of bringing up a family and I know that my children loved this too: with picture books, we could linger, go deeper, have conversations that went in many directions, get to know each other better as well as the characters in the story. After that, it was time for the children to go outside — and play. If I were starting now as a young parent, I would introduce apps to my preschool children in very dainty portions. For older children, though, I think e-readers and apps have much to offer. More on this, and on the other A word, Addiction, in my next post!

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