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Bongiorno: Tech Toys

During this holiday season, many of us may feel overwhelmed by the push to purchase iPads, tablets, and video games for young children. And by young children, I mean infants through kindergarteners.

This is definitely uncharted territory and consumers are looking for simple answers – of which I’m afraid there are none. But there is perspective to be found, and with this in mind I’ve been observing families eating out together at restaurants. Recently I watched two families during a holiday brunch. In one family, a preschooler sat with her family while playing with an iPad. She didn’t engage in conversation with her aunts, uncles and grandparents, and cried in Mom’s lap when dessert was served and she couldn’t play her game anymore.

At another table, a child of about the same age was being passed from person to person until the food arrived, happily talking and interacting with all of the family members. By the time dessert was served, he had peacefully curled up in grandma’s lap.

These two examples left me pondering which experience might be the “right” one – and what kind of boundaries parents should impose.

I know my parents asked the same question about TV programs. They worried about which ones were okay for their children. And then – as now - I’m afraid there is no right answer. But I propose three guidelines.

To begin with, the age of the child is key. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that there should be no screen time for children under two and less than two hours per day for preschool children.

Next comes consideration of the individual child’s needs. Relationship building is essential to social and emotional growth in children. We should use iPads and video games wisely and leave adequate time to bond with the child.

It’s also important to remember that children learn through hands-on experiences and that means PLAY. Children should be blowing bubbles, kneading playdough, creating forts, rolling balls, and playing outside. Technology use should be an add-on.

If someone asks me what the top 10 apps for a three-year-old are - I can’t possibly just give a one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, I have to say that age, relationship, and learning capacity are all factors – and if technology is to be part of a child’s experience, we need to pay close attention to the amount of time the child spends engaged with it.

Then choose Apps that relate to experiences and enjoyment in real life such as art and block building. With the child, email a friend, search for information on dinosaurs, or watch a volcano erupt. Arrange Facetime with Grandma and sing, dance, and say goodnight when you can’t be together in person.

Retailers are hoping you purchase lots of expensive gifts for your children this holiday season. But remember that whether you’re buying iPads or a pretend kitchen set, the gift of your time is the very best gift of all.

Dr. Laurel Bongiorno, Dean of the Division of Education and Human Studies at Champlain College, is an early childhood specialist, and a nationally known expert on child’s play.
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