...the best time to learn.
Ever hear the expression "use it or lose it"? Turns out it is true for brainpower as well as muscles. In fact, a recent study found that kid's achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning. Brain-drain is quantifiable in terms of scores, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, because our kids are more than their scores, and their development is more than ABCs and 123s.
Gershem’s law holds that “bad pushes out good”, and I fear that when the school year ends many kids spend their summer in an electrodelic haze of TV, YouTube, and Twitch. Often, they aren’t even playing games, they are watching them being played by others. Digital Pablum goes down easy, doesn’t demand much from them, and slowly eats away at their natural desire to learn. It discourages creativity, encourages passivity, and too often promotes incivility.
Year’s ago at a Nintendo press conference I asked why they didn’t have some games that promoted the acquisition of knowledge (beyond the game universe). The answer was that while they were not opposed to the idea, that wasn’t their business model and they had no interest in putting out that kind of game.
For the most part children’s media has embraced the “entertainment” model: Compare Captain Kangaroo with Paw Patrol, or Mr. Rogers with PJ Masks. The old model mixed information with entertainment. The idea was to help kids by expanding their world. There were segments that encouraged reading, creativity, learning about the world around them, and dealing with feelings. The shows promoted problem solving and cooperation. The new model is a canned adventure, with stock plots, dangers thwarted, and precious little knowledge being imparted.
We live in a world where popular children’s media often devalues culture over violence. Even traditional children’s pop material, like the Archie comic book characters is reimagined as teen fare. Just this week, at Comicon 2018, the trailer for the new Teen Titans show features Robin, the Boy Wonder, saying “F… Batman”. It is a long way from Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts or even Lassie.
No one ever said parenting was going to be easy, but the job has never been harder because the weight of our culture (pop-and otherwise) doesn’t promote positive child development, it’s focus is on consumerism. No longer satisfied with the traditional demographics of, let’s say, comic book heroes, you can walk into any toy store and find Batman being pushed to ever younger audiences, even 18 month old toddlers.
At the same time, we tend to think of “education” as that which is quantifiable on a multiple choice test. But, raising and educating your kids is so much more than that. It is exposing them to all the wonders of the world: music, literature, art, history in addition to the ABCs and sports. By giving your kids opportunities to learn, to pretend, to reason, to create, you open up possibilities in their future that can’t be found watching Spiderman swing or the Hulk smash.
The games and toys I’ve selected today are about maximizing the value of your child’s summer. Mix this kind of play with time for reading and exploring with your child, for conversation and discovery and you will find that the summer is as important a time for education and growth as school year.
I am not so curmudgeonly to suggest that your kids shouldn’t ever watch a cartoon or read a comic book. Pop-culture is ubiquitous, and you don’t need to (and won’t be successful) in walling them off from it entirely, But, parenting is about choices. You make those choices when you put food on the table, when you go shopping for clothes, and, yes, when you influence the toys, games, and media your child interacts with (and for how long). My mom used to say to me that as parents we have to pick our fights. But, that doesn’t mean we should cave-in entirely either. Your choices are not superfluous. They have impact.
Part of our human-nature wants the easy, lulling, passive pleasure. But, I believe that children have a competing nature: they are curious, they want to learn, they want to demonstrate proficiency. Unfortunately, pop-culture tends to grow fat on the former, and show indifference to the latter. As parents, I urge you to be the counter-balance. Summer is your chance to promote the best in your kid’s growth. You set the agenda and the curriculum through the choices of what you bring into the home. Find my list of great summer games and toys here.