Monday, June 30, 2008

Screen Time vs. Make Believe

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time "pretend playing." Of course, we didn't call it that. We called it "cowboys and indians," or "cops and robbers," or "an alien just ate my little brother." The point being: we used our imaginations quite a bit during play.

If you've read this blog before, you know that one of the subjects I like to touch upon (nay, hammer upon!) is how "electronic media" or "screen time" is crowding out "book time." But it also crowds out "pretend time." Do kids spend the same amount of time pretending today as they did in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s or even 90s? There must be something different about pretending to be a dusty town's sheriff trying to run off a ornery gunslinger, than playing a video game in which you blast your way through the OK Corral.

I'm a writer. Without my robust imagination, I might have been forced to become a lawyer. Or, a doctor. Or a politician. (I think I just got really snarky right there—and for that I am truly sorry.) But I'm not one of those people in your neighborhood; I make up stories. Will this generation of screen monkeys have the same kind of imaginations as previous generations? Could TVs, cell phones, computers, iPods, video games, hand-held gaming devices and DVD players installed into car headrests be robbing our short ones of a future bolstered by an active, rigorous and productive imagination? It's something worth thinking about—if you still have the imagination to do such mental hijinks.

These questions about pretend play started firing off in my head like a lost cap gun after reading an interesting interview with Susan Linn about her new book "The Case For Make Believe" in the USA Today. You can read it here.

If kids no longer cram bath towels into the necks of their pajamas—for the perfect poor man's cape—and run careening through the house as a superhero with certain incredible but mysterious powers, what will become of us in the long run? Just use your imagination.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?

My family always spent a week in Lake Tahoe in the summer, usually in August. During these vacations, my oldest brother would occasionally become so absorbed in a book that he would sit completely still for hours simply reading, without moving, save for the sudden, violent arm convulsion that was required to turn the page. No bathroom breaks. No idle chitchat. No chips and dip. He was busy burrowing through a few hundred pages like a book mole, unwilling to stop until his bladder burst or someone threw him in the pool—or both. We called this marathon reading "nerd factor," as in, "he's got some good nerd factor going on."

And my dad would sometimes fall victim to this deep, almost hypnotic state of reading. After making Super Scrams for breakfast, he would leave the wreckage of the kitchen in his wake and idly pick up a James Michener tome as fat as my head. Invariably, he'd be "lost at sea" for the day, simply unable or unwilling to drop the thing with a thud and participate in vacation. It was like the idea of a bookmark had never even occurred to him, and the mere suggestion of one would elicit a look of sheer incomprehension or outright disgust. He would not stop reading until he reached the end, by George! End of story. As my mom would aptly put it, he had been "sucked in." There was no amount of begging or pleading to go to the pool, play a round of miniature golf, or invest in an outing of horseback riding that could get him to stop. "Nerd factor, warp speed ahead, Scotty!"

My daughters also have this "nerd factor" ability; they can sit for hours plowing through a book till it's history, thank you very much! Not me. I get distracted half way through that tiny slip of paper that comes out of a fortune cookie. I get bored while reading street signs. Truth be told, I've become a big advocate of haikus, bullet points and communicating through body language alone. What gives? (Keep reading! I'm getting to the point, you with the attention span of a Drosophila fly!)

One of my brothers mentioned something about this to me the other day. He's having trouble concentrating, finding a book he felt enthusiastic about finishing. That got me thinking: How has our fast-paced, Tivo-fueled, Internet-surfing world impacted our ability to enjoy a James Michener novel that Paul Bunyan could use as a footstool? Has the Internet spoiled our ability to enjoy a good book?

Then I ran across this fantastic article from The Atlantic magazine by Nicholas Carr entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" In it, Carr discusses the impact of Internet browsing/reading has had on our ability to engage in and enjoy deep reading. In essence, he posits that our flitting around the net all day gathering gossipy tidbits, sound bites, and snippets of news and infotainment has impacted our ability to "read." It's as if the Internet itself—with it's fast-paced, get-it-in-a-second nature—has reprogrammed our minds at a biological level, influencing the way we actually think and process information. It's cogent, trenchant, keenly written and, I swear, not too long. You should take the time to read it here. It'll leave you itching for a thick brick of Michener.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What Kids Say About Not Reading

Kids are reading much less today than they did 20 years ago, according to a recent study by Scholastic. Oops! My bad! I know, I should have warned you, or at least told you to sit down first, instead of just hitting you in the face with that cream pie of shocking news right off the bat. Mea culpa.

I read an article in USA Today about the Scholastic study and noticed something interesting: the kids don't mention TV by name as what they do instead of reading. In the survey of kids from 5 to 17 (too wide of a range to lump together in my opinion), 31% say they don't read because they would rather do other things. Like what? Huh, kids? TV perhaps? Why can't they just spill the beans?

That got me thinking: Is there still shame associated with nestling in on the couch and systematically inhaling a foot-long tube of vacuum-packed Chili Cheese Pringles while watching five staight hours of soul-sucking reality TV? If there is still some degree of ignominy associated with slack-jawed drooling at the base of a 65" hi-def plasma, that's a good thing! Hurray for the good guys! There's still hope.

The study also reports that 25% of kids reported having trouble finding something to read. I buy that one. It's true. Finding a book that's just right for a new reader can be tough—especially when you're seven or eight and can't just grab the keys to the SUV and thunder over to B&N or the local library. It takes exploration. It takes a lot of experimentation. It takes a flippin' drivers license! A kid needs a big person's help to find that first book or series that really butters their bread and initially greases the wheels of literacy.

On that subject, I found the article's little sidebar insightful. Here are the top five sources for kids to get ideas for books to read for fun:

1.) Mom at 65%—See? They're counting on Mom to help them!
2.) Friends at 61%—Nothing more powerful in publishing than "kid buzz."
3.) Teachers at 57%—Now I think many people would have thought teachers would be first, not so. But still critical.
4.) Librarian at 57%—That's why they rock so much!
5.) Dad at 43%—Not bad for dads, but they could do better (turn off the game!).

Anyhoo, it's always good to see my favorite topic get ink in the country's biggest newspaper. You can read the USA Today article here (there's entertainment to be had in the comments and in that interesting sidebar).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Children That Ate America

My last post was about a class that kids sign up for to get comfortable with playing outdoors. That sad subject was still fresh in my mind when I saw this cover for the current issue of Time magazine, so that's probably why I laughed out loud. Oh, Mylanta! I know that kid! I see this kid every time I visit an elementary school. He's everywhere! And he's starving. He's not counting the minutes till school is out, he counting the minutes till lunch. Forget about Lord of the Flies, it's now Lord of the Fries!

You can read the article about the widening of America's youth here.

Simply put, American kids are turning into human garbage disposals. Listen to this: 14% of kids 2 to 5 are already overweight. Those are toddlers, people. Almost 20% of 6-to-11-year-old kids are obese in America. Not chubby. OBESE! Ever wonder where's Richard Simmons has been lately? Some kid ate him!

Hey, you raise a nation of kids on Fat Pants Donuts and American Idol and this is what you get. Once again, it's our old friend, the bane of America, the dang electronic cyclops, who's not just lurking in the living room any more, he's now lurking in every flippin' room in the house. I haven't seen any numbers yet, but I wonder how many homes now have TVs in the bathroom, so little Carl Jr. can keep watching SpongeBob while he keeps the wheels of fast-food commerce turning? (Oh, I think I just made myself nauseous—somebody crack a window.)

Just today, I was entering 7-11 with my son when a five-year-old chubster was exiting the store with a Slurpee bigger than my head! And in his other chubby hand he clutched a bag of Sizzlin' Picante Flavored Doritos that was bigger than my first car! (Okay, it was an economy car, but still!)

America's kids spend nearly six hours a day glued to a screen. That's a lot of the idiot box, a ton of video games and a lifetime of Internet time-suckage. Not a whole lot of time left to practice layups, but more than enough time to practice eating Lay's up.

I can envision a time when we're left with a nation of kids that can't jump a fence, dig a hole with a shovel, or skip a rock across a pond. Has America gone soft? I'm not sure, but the least those little porkers could do is crack a book while they're working their way through the next box of Double Stuff Oreos.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Summer and Teaching Kids How to Play Outdoors

Today is the first day of summer. At least for my kids it is.

Why do mom and dad seem more relieved and full of joy than the kids do about school ending?

When I was a kid, summer seemed truly endless. We left the house early and came home late. There was no TV watching (except for Saturday mornings—you simply could NOT miss Run, Joe, Run). Back then, we didn't go out and buy summer clothes; we simply pulled out mom's sewing scissors and turned our Tuffskins with the double knee-patch into cutoffs. Presto: shorts for the whole summer. With our cutoffs hand-frayed to look acceptably groovy, we were off!

There were non-stop baseball games in the street, and strike-out matches against the front door with a Wiffle ball and bat. We practically lived off the plum, cherry and apple trees in our backyard and scattered around the neighborhood. We played marbles. We played guns. We built forts. We caught frogs (and tadpoles in coffee cans) at the creek. We'd scrounge up some change and walk up to Hacienda Gardens to buy 5-cent gum and Spider-Man comic books, or drop into the utterly sweet-smelling and air-conditioned Sugar Chalet to buy a jaw breaker or a foot of licorice rope. There were constant sleepovers, water balloon fights, and crowded games of pickle on dad's precious front lawn ("Getoffadagrass, ya ninnies!").

We rode bikes around tracks we sketched onto the street with the white display rocks from the lady's house across the street. We climbed trees. We waited for something interesting to happen; it never did. We waited for a girl to move into our neighborhood; she never arrived. The Fourth of July seemed to take forever to arrive, but it sure hit big when it came to our blocked-off street. I can still taste the watermelon, and recall the seed-spitting contests. I can still hear the hiss of those little lady finger firecrackers, and the bottle rockets screaming overhead. And I can still recall the thrill of the desperate scavenger hunt down the street the next morning to find the "duds" we could still get a bang out of. Now that was Summer.

I thought of these times when I saw this article by Dana Hall in the San Jose Mercury News about a summer drop-off program that parents can sign their kids up for so they can experience the joys of playing outside. It's a "movement" now, half-jokingly called "Leave No Child Inside." How times have changed.