Thoughts on Technology
I have just gotten through the summer helping to keep my two-year old grandson active and busy in 100-plus degree weather. That has meant he has been indoors for too many hours wanting to watch Paw Patrol or pining to use his mother’s cell phone to play downloaded video games. Watching his pointer finger delicately click on the appropriate area of the screen in total concentration and oblivion to the rest of us, while he plays, is a little disconcerting. There is a part of me that just cringes to see this fascination for technology, and I will share my reasons why.
By way of illustrating my discomfort, let me first describe for you the Pink Tower activity in the Montessori curriculum of a preschool classroom. One of the first pieces of material I was trained to use as a Montessori classroom aide was the Pink Tower. This is a lesson given to the 2 and ½ year olds and often one of the first ones they will receive. The pink tower consists of 10 wooden blocks painted pink. The largest block is 10cm x 10cm and the one above that 9cm x 9 cm and the next 8cm x 8cm all the way to 1cm x 1cm. When stacked vertically, largest to smallest, the blocks rise to 47 cm high. The largest block is a heavy weight in the hands of a small child. The smallest block, (” so cute”), fits nicely in a pocket and is a great temptation for the child not to take home.
The Pink Tower has a particular place on the floor and is visually predominant. If you don’t see a pink tower, you may not be in a legitimate Montessori classroom. It is iconic, really. The teacher shows the child how to take one block off the tower at a time and walk it to a mat on the floor where it is laid down until all the 10 blocks have been carried to the rug and then it is reassembled, one block at a time.
After it’s built, it is taken apart one block at a time starting from the smallest cube and placed back on the floor. Then it is returned from the floor to its place in the classroom, one block at a time starting with the largest block.
If you consider the physical activity involved, the child has walked some distance carrying the 10 blocks to the rug and 10 times back from the rug to the storage destination, a total of twenty trips back and forth. In addition, she has handled each block at least three times or 30 times total at a minimum, assuming the tower was only built once. The hands were strengthened by holding the weight of the blocks and the arms and legs were strengthened by all the walking and carrying. There was a visual goal to achieve of getting the blocks in proper order and tactile running of the fingers along the sides of the block from top to bottom or bottom to top giving the child a sense of diminishing or increasing surfaces. Indirectly, the child is being taught about the dimension of cubes 1 cm apart.
After the teacher’s demonstration, the child is free to use this material at will. The teacher will then be nowhere near her and she will not be interacting with others or receive help. At the successful end of building this tower what does she feel?
Now contrast this to a similar activity on a phone app held in the hand of that same 2 ½ year old. The child slides the screen open with a finger, and finds a replica of the pink tower blocks spread out on the screen. She builds the block from the largest to the smallest, sliding her finger back and forth, with music playing in the background and when she finishes lights flash and a voice says “well done”. If she makes a mistake, the voice says,” try again”. She never moved from her position on the couch; no adult is near and she is not interacting with others. At the end of this activity what does the child feel?
The Montessori child has used every fiber of her being to accomplish an activity that is teaching the same curriculum concept as the child who moved one finger. They both built a tower. But the Montessori child has absorbed many times more information through many more of her senses about weight, mathematics, order, movement from doing that pink tower than the child who flicked a finger 10 times on the phone screen. The Montessori child told herself “well done” and there was no music to distract her.
This is one example of one activity. Comparisons like this repeated many times throughout the day magnify the differences with computer generated learning. Small and big children are fascinated by computer opportunities and computers are here to stay. So, what are we going to do to be certain that the tactile, kinesthetic aspects to learning do not become so compromised that children don’t develop physically or mentally as they have in the past? This is what concerns me.
Next time you are tempted to hand over a hand-held technological toy (and I have my temptations too), please think about what is involved with the “fun” and “games” on that apparatus and you might want to minimize its use, so as to allow for the full development of the child in more robust play and activity. Montessori, herself, would be aghast at the rise of technology in children’s toys that take the creativity away from the child and replace it with an external reward system.
Dr. Celeste Miller