Blog Post

June 10, 2019

Limiting Screen Time Improves Critical & Creative Thinking in Children

By Laila Frank

Introduction by Rebecca Padnos Altamirano, Author of Be The Change: Reinventing School for Student Success

Laila Frank from the popular Dutch Magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, contacted me to interview our family for her article on the shortcomings of technology in early childhood education. Laila read my Huffington Post article, Raising Low Tech Kids in Silicon Valley, and she wanted to see how my low-tech approach was implemented at home while growing our technology company in Silicon Valley. Laila's main goal was to observe and report a normal day in our lives. This is the second time a prominent Dutch magazine reaches out to me. Months before we were included in an editorial piece that touched upon Silicon Valley's culture and the addictive nature of social media. NPO, the Dutch parent company, is equivalent to PBS in America. It was a great honor to be included.

For her story, Laila visited a Bay Area Waldorf School, visited 1440 multiversity, and interviewed cultural psychologist Richard Freed. Laila spent a typical Sunday afternoon with our family. She also accompanied my 2-year-old daughter and me to Bing Nursery School to observe their teaching philosophy in action. I hope you enjoy the summary below!

Originally published in De Groene Amsterdammer. For those not familiar with the publication, this Dutch magazine is the equivalent of The New Yorker in America.

Not everyone can afford a child at Waldorf, not even in Silicon Valley. The digital gap is also a financial gap. For those who lack the 25.000 to 35.000 dollar fee, a technology-poor education can be an alternative. The Padnos-Altamirano family made the switchback in the spring of 2015. The purpose of their upbringing fits in seamlessly with Waldorf's mission: to train autonomous, self-thinking, creative problem solvers. 'Creativity and ingenuity were once the power of Silicon Valley. But the way technology is being designed and used these days is killing the soul of the Valley, " says mother Rebecca.

It is a misconception that creativity is created through the use of technology, husband, and father Antonio explains. "Only when you understand how the technology works you can truly create. Now everything is pre-chewed. Take applications that you can use to build websites for example; they make you seem creative. But users have no clue how the building blocks work. If something does not go the way it was fed to them, they are helpless." 

Twins Isaac and Ethan (10), Eli (8) and Ayla (2) give a tour of their house. "We don't have a screen in the living room or in our bedroom," says Isaac. "Come, I'll show you the garden, we designed it ourselves." The difference in height between the terrace and the garden is bridged by a winding exit. Another design from the boys. "We can run down with our karts," Ethan explains.

"Sometimes they just get bored. That is also a life lesson, it is not bad to be bored."

We enter the 'laboratory'; formerly known as the family garage transformed into the children's sanctuary, playground for their imagination. This is where they play and discover or do their homework. An electronic drum set and a keyboard on a colorful carpet are the centerpieces. A play rope dangles from the ceiling downwards. A desk for every kid against the wall plastered with drawings. It is the only place in the house that does have two screens. They are only used when needed for school.

At the large round table full of healthy and local snacks the couple - who runs a technology company together - talk about their choice.

"We participated fully in the early years of technology. The twins were testing children's applications at the age of three. We thought that was very cool at the time. We even posted messages about it on Facebook. Because the boys were born prematurely, they needed a lot of medical care. At that stage - in and out of hospitals, hours of waiting - screens served as a very welcome distraction. We relied heavily on screens."

It changed when the boys no longer needed medical care. "Every time the television had to be turned off, it turned into a conflict. I also noticed they were grumpy and annoying, to be honest whenever they had used technology. I was sick of it. When Antonio went on a trip for work, I went for it. Within two weeks it was done," says Rebecca. “It is hard work to give the children new experiences time and time again”, Antonio adds, “but it also makes our lives easier. They all have their specialty in the kitchen - I taught them that. So while I read and Rebecca is at a yoga class, they make breakfast on the weekend. We go hiking a lot: it’s cheap and healthy. Sometimes they just get bored. That is also a life lesson, it is not bad to be bored now and then."

"So nowadays it's an experiment to educate your children low or no-tech," child psychologist Richard Freed responds when I tell him about the Padnos- Altamirano family. "Not only do you need the same level of knowledge as parents in Silicon Valley do, but you must also find the time and space to apply the experiment. Parents of children I treat (red: Freed has a practice in Antioch, CA) typically don’t have a job - or two - with flexible working hours. And if they do send their children outside, chances are that they will catch a bullet. That too is the digital divide."

"Choice is a luxury, "thus state teachers and authors of the book Screen Schooled, two veteran teachers expose how technology overuse is making our kids dumber" Joe Clement and Matt Miles. "The small classes at Waldorf are fantastic but teachers cost money. We were recently at a Rocketship Schools conference, a group of public schools that rely heavily on technology. Their ideal is a factory model of a classroom: children sit behind a screen and unqualified, low-paid temporary workers supervise. That's what they call "personalized education." 'But personalized education asks for a thorough understanding of what a child needs. It means explaining something in a different way - 10 times if you have to - until a child understands. Personalized education is not playing the same instruction on a screen over and over again. "

The digital divide reinforces Rebecca and Antonio in their upbringing: the next technological wave demands the ability to communicate with other countries, cultures, and classes, Antonio believes.

"You have to understand how technology affects not only the rich and the elite but for all layers of society. I hope we prepare our children for that. " Their background as (children of) immigrants plays a role as well. Rebecca: 'Our children are minorities: they’ ll have to prove themselves twice as hard. Antonio is regularly mistaken for the gardener in our neighborhood. I want my kids to have a seat at the table."

There is no doubt that children are going to use technology. Ethan wants a job in the tech sector. But technology must be useful: "A tool, not a toy," Isaac frames it. That means that at times the children don’t see a screen for months. But when the family travels by plane, it’s screen time without limits. Homework assignments are done online if required. Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant is part of the family household. "She adds something to the family, she doesn't take anything away," Rebecca explains. She remains silent for a moment. Then: 'We can afford this choice but not everybody can. I don't want to judge. I think that's important to say. "

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 Digital Activism, Parenting

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