Several weeks ago, I heaped much-needed praise on Child magazine, which has always seemed to me to be the best of the ever-burgeoning crop of parenting magazines. Granted, a lot of it — as is true of its competitors — is fluff, but there is always at least one article per issue that's deserving of attention, that manages to be not only well-written but of real use to concerned parents seeking advice.
In September's issue, the standout was "What Children Aren't Learning" by Joseph D'Agnese, which argued that more and more kids these days are growing up without ever taking apart an object and putting it back together again. This lack of knowledge that used to be a given of childhood has educators really worried. Where someone like famed psychologist Jean Piaget understood that "children comprehend best what they touch, internalize and experience concretely," this particular insight seems a bit "musty" to many people in our high-tech age.
The tactile roots of learning can be traced back to infants in cribs. Even there, noted D'Agnese, "babies actively investigate their world through hands-on activities. They form hypotheses, test and revise them, then test them again as they play."
This kind of learning used to follow young children as they grew, as they investigated the world beyond their homes by collecting rocks, banging on pots or taking apart simple toys, even things like radios and telephones.
But, according to D'Agnese, "for many kids today, hands-on experimentation fizzles out after first grade." We're raising "a nation of passive learners."
Evidence of this new passivity is demonstrated by how professors talk about undergraduates, said the author. "I once had an engineering student who didn't know which way to turn a screw to tighten it," Marvin Minsky, Ph.D., a professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, told D'Agnese. And Jeff Schaeffer, Ph.D., a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Department of the Interior's Great Lakes Science Center, reiterated this trend to the author. "The kids with an outdoor background are the ones willing to walk into a pond to collect specimens. Others stand there and look clueless. Or they observe. They're not used to acquiring knowledge on their own. The information has to appear in a video or on a computer before they seriously believe it."
The problem, continued the piece, is that kids begin to learn about the world one way — with their hands — and then get to school and are made to sit at a desk and stay quiet, and it's the adults who ask all the questions.
Undoubtedly, according to D'Agnese, children spend more time these days "watching than doing." Children under 6, one study showed, average about two hours of screen time a day. The amount of time increases with age. For kids between ages 8 and 18, the number jumps to 6.5 hours of media a day — TV, music, computers, video games. How could they possibly have time to pursue a hobby?