Of Mud and Media

July 20, 2011

The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”  —Richard Louv, author “The Nature Principle”

Over the past month as we’ve worked on developing learning videos for our product line – which has taken all my attention, hence the gap in blogging – several articles have crossed my desktop. Two in particular have stayed with me, forming a connection that feels important.  The first was the draft of the NAEYC and Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media draft statement on Technology in Early Childhood Programs.  The second was a report on International Mud Day.  I read both documents as well as many of the comments both inspired. While opinions range widely on the issue of technology in the early childhood classroom, those who commented on or participated in Mud Day seemed positively bucolic in contrast.

I understand. I grew up in the days of mud pies and digging holes to China in the backyard. I often came home from playing or kindergarten smeared with dirt and tempura paints and smelling like I’d had big fun. I built dams out of sticks at the edge of the puddle and built towers from Legos and Tinker Toys.  We made paste from flour, salt and water and formed people with movable arms and legs from pipe cleaners. That’s how it was. Basic. Natural. Froebel would have been proud. Nobody worried about too much screen time because there were only 3 channels on the black and white TV (four if you count UHF) and the only daytime programming was the Dinah Shore Show and The Edge of Night. Personal computers hadn’t been invented yet. And, no, I did not walk to school uphill, barefoot, in the snow, both ways.

Things have changed since the earliest days of Kindergarten, and for many people the classic early childhood practices seem outdated. Technology is ubiquitous, from in-home game systems to iPads to Smart Boards that take up half of the classroom wall. Parents are as apt to hand their toddler their smart phone to distract them as to hand them a rattle. And yet, studies and experience show that hands-on, experiential play is still the basis of a good early childhood education program. I would venture to say that it is still the basis of a good early childhood. Period.

So, where does mud meet media? It is this question that lies at the heart of the discussion. The present and future seem to require a new paradigm. Our little ones will grow up in a world where an inability to navigate developing technology will leave them far behind. Even I, classic naturalist that I am, design art on a Mac computer using Adobe software and am not sure how well I could function without my Blackberry. But I would not be the woman I am today without the early experiences. It is because I dug with a spoon in my backyard and can remember the feel of tempura paint squishing through my fingers that I can approach my computer screen with a curious and open mind.

There seem to be 2 very important points to consider – developmental appropriateness (to an 8 -month old an iPod is a teether, and to a 2-year old it might be a hammer) and an understanding that appropriate use of technology “does not replace activities that are important for children’s development like creative play, real life exploration, physical activity, conversation, and social interactions.”

I agree with Richard Louv. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need. And blocks. And digging tools. And puzzles with chunky pieces.  And pull toys.  And bird feeders and banners that flap in the breeze. Things we can hold, stack, taste, feel ­­– things that will continue to work even when the batteries are dead.

 “In just-spring when the world is mud-luscious…and puddle-wonderful…”  e.e.cummings


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