Excessive screen time and a lack of outdoor play may limit childrens’ creativity 

Malcolm Clarke, 7, has built the Calgary Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Eiffel Tower out of Lego – from memory. The feeling of accomplishment he gets from his hard work make him and his parents proud.

During a visit to Malcolm’s home, he sits in the basement surrounded by hundreds of pieces of Lego, his mind open to many possibilities. He wracks his brain for what he could build next. A building? A bridge? His eyes glimmer with an idea, and his hands get to work, fitting the grooves of the Lego pieces together.

While Malcolm builds, he looks determined and focused. His creations range from 50 – 125 pieces and tend to take him a few hours of hard work.

“I think I’m going to build the Great Wall of China next,” he says with a smile.

Malcolm’s creative play with Lego and his sister Rose’s interest in drawing and painting allow the Clarke family to limit the amount of screen time that their children are exposed to on a daily basis.

The Clarke children are not allowed to watch television two days in a row because their parents are concerned that they could become dependent on the medium for entertainment, and the Clarkes’ rules are supported by experts.

According to Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization based out of San Francisco that advocates for safe technology and media consumption for children, sixty-five percent of children under eight years old watch television daily. This usage adds up to 100 minutes on average every day.

“It’s like sugar,” Kristell Clarke, Malcolm and Rose’s mother explains. “If you give your kids sugar every day, they will want sugar the third day.”

The Clarkes want their children to be responsible for at least some of their own entertainment and they entertain themselves in other ways – primarily through painting, drawing, and Lego. Though Kristell Clarke believes that a child’s use of technology primarily boils down to a parenting decision, she “understand[s] the convenience of providing a device sometimes if you want peace if you only have one [child] compared to two.” She says, parents should be cautious because television can become a convenient babysitter in many instances.

Malcolm Clarke, 7, holds his Lego rendition of The Eiffel Tower. Creating Lego sculptures acts as an escape from the increasingly technological world. Photo courtesy of Kristell ClarkeDavid Clarke, Malcolm and Rose’s father, agrees that this babysitter can become addicting. “It’s a bit of a quicksand experience where you kind of get sucked into TV and video games and iPads and iPhones and you become so sucked into the vortex of technology that you really don’t know how to do anything else.”

Because of this, he advocates for limiting screen time. But rather than ridding of it all together, he says it is important to find the delicate balance. “I think you have to have some exposure to technology to at least have some sort of cultural frame of reference to compare with their friends,” he said.

The term ‘technology’ is not limited to television. Typically, children consume just over three hours of media on a daily basis, including computer use, cell phone use, tablet use, music and reading, according to Common Sense Media. Two thirds of this media time is spent on screens.

Linda Sutherby, a Mount Royal University Child Studies Associate Professor, emphasizes that though screen time can be important for children, kinesthetic play – the kind of play involving physical activities that is encouraged outside of television and smartphone time in the Clarke household – enhances motor skills which are vital to the development of young children.

“I think we really need to consider a balance, yes we want them to be technologically literate, but we also want them to be physically literate,” Sutherby said.

Sutherby suggests that parents interact with their children while watching television and other videos because human interaction can help children actively involve themselves in what they are watching.

Rather than allowing children to sit and passively let the images flash past their eyes, Sutherby recommends that parents talk to their children about what they are seeing on the screen in front of them since children are more likely to learn when encouraged to do so.

Like the Clarkes, Erin Edmundson, mother of sisters Ruby and Eliza Wilson, promotes active play for her girls.

Red rosy cheeks shine from five-year-old Ruby’s pale face as she zips her puffy jacket up to her chin. Her soft voice rises into high pitched, joyful laughter as she runs toward the tire swing with her six year old sister, Eliza. They pull themselves onto the swing using the full strength of their small arms and sit patiently until their mother makes her way over to push the swing. The girls giggle as the tire moves from side to side, their fingers turning white from gripping the chains so tightly.

Ruby Wilson, 5, and her sister Eliza, 6, play on a tire swing at a playground. One of the Wilson girls’ favorite pastimes is going to the playground – a favorite of fewer and fewer children today. Photo by Robyn WelshRuby and Eliza love going to the playground and playing outdoors. The two often create scenarios when playing together. For example, rather than just playing with their dolls, they suggest what the other could do to contribute to the story, and thus feel like they are creating more of the story themselves.

Erin Edmundson is a high school English teacher at Webber Academy and grew up as an only child.

“I always played with kids in my neighborhood,” Edmundson says. “People go further to schools now than they used to so it makes it harder to have neighborhood relationships.”

Her two children have each other to play with but don’t currently know many people in their neighborhood. They have been enrolled in Sparks and Brownies to make friends who live nearby.

Many children without siblings have less of a chance to play imaginative games with other children. Both Edmundson and Sutherby say there is a paranoia that has plagued parents recently surrounding allowing children to play outside on their own. Because of this, children are going out to play at playgrounds less. If you drive around the city you will see countless empty play structures.

Having a sibling means more than just having a play-mate. About her sister, Ruby Wilson says that, “Eliza is my actual best friend,” with emphasis on the ‘actual.’ It is common to feel this way about a sibling. Siblings are almost always around, especially at younger ages. Oftentimes, siblings become friends that happen to sleep in the same house as you. After a play-date, children go off to their respective houses, but with a sibling around you have someone to play with that doesn’t have to leave.

According to Sutherby, being an only child does not mean a child will be lonely because children create opportunities for themselves such as imaginary friends.

“They may set up a tea party, or have a game with somebody where they are playing against [their imaginary friend],” Sutherby said.

The Ontario based Lawson Foundation invests in initiatives that contribute to the wellbeing of children, youth, and their growth as active, engaged members of society. They focus on early child development, healthy active living, as well as the relationships between children, youth and the environment.

In order to provide an escape from the technological world and to promote creative play in children, the Lawson Foundation has begun a $160, 000 funding initiative as part of their Outdoor Play Strategy. This initiative includes natural playgrounds, urban playscapes and adventure playgrounds.

4 Unique Playgrounds in Calgary

1: The Brainasium Telus Spark Urban Playscape/Natural Playground

This playscape allows children to explore their independence with a tower they can climb up to a 63ft slide, a variety of surfaces that challenge brain receptors, a 5-tonne rock for children to spin and learn about properties of physics – inertia and momentum, and more.

2: East Village – Between Fort Calgary and the Simmons building

This playground is good for children of all ages to challenge themselves. Some aspects include a large rope and log climber, drums, a xylophone and a numerous opportunities for climbing.

3: St. Patrick’s Island Urban Playscape/Natural Playground

This playground has wooden structures for children to climb and play in, 4 slides built into the side of hills, a climbing wall, a wobbly balance beam and a small playhouse for kids to utilize.

4: Haysboro Natural Playground

In this space, children are able to explore their surroundings and play among mother nature. The playground encourages imaginative free play. Some elements that the kids are encouraged to play with are fallen logs, tree stumps, slides embedded in hills, boulders, and more natural elements.

Julie Guimond, Environmental Education lead for Calgary Parks with The City of Calgary – one of the grant recipients of the Lawson Foundation’s Strategy on Active Outdoor Play – discussed the importance of natural, urban, and adventure playgrounds in an interview.

Natural playgrounds were made to allow children to interact with the elements while being creative and feeling a connection to nature. Urban playscapes include many landforms, sculptures and adaptable elements. Adventure playgrounds on the other hand utilize movable parts and loose materials so that children are able to create their own play structures. Under adult supervision, children are able to use materials such as wood, nails, hammers, tires and ropes to build what they please, Guimond said.

The Lawson Foundation has been assessing potential sites that would be suitable for an adventure playground in Calgary, but have yet to find one. Because of this, Guimond says that they intend to have a mobile adventure playground for use in 2016. Since there are less permanent infrastructures like ladders and slides in these playgrounds, the materials the children are building with can be packed up at night and unpacked in a new, or the same, location the next morning.

Guimond said that they plan to bring the mobile adventure playground to events like Slide the City. On August 1st, 10th street hill near ACAD and SAIT and past Riley Park will be turned into a giant waterslide. Having an adventure playground at the bottom of the slide will give families an opportunity to get a taste of what they are all about.

The Lawson Foundation is dedicated to the importance of interactive play for children. Because of this, the foundation has accumulated an abundance of peer-reviewed research and has funded research projects that the staff has access to. According to the research they have found, it has become evident that on average, children play thirty percent longer when outdoors.

Guimond says, “play is extremely important in childhood development physically, mentally and emotionally. We know that unstructured play increases creativity and problem solving skills in children. Play is a child’s most important form of physical activity and reduces chances of obesity. We know that children play longer when they play outdoors. Time outdoors has been shown to greatly benefit emotional health and improve learning disabilities such as ADHD.”

Linda Sutherby agrees that adventure playgrounds are important. Though some parents may see these kind of play structures as dangerous, Sutherby said that challenge is important to children’s development. “Allowing a child to explore their capabilities to see how far they can climb, for example, or how high their body can push that swing. Is that really a hazard? Probably not,” she said.

Eliza Wilson, 6, and her sister Ruby, 5, have each other to play with, but many children aren’t this fortunate. Playgrounds can be a great way for children to meet and interact with other neighborhood kids. Photo by Robyn WelshIn general, creative children have many ways to stimulate their imaginations. Whether through drawing, making music, or simple arts and crafts, children are able to encourage imaginative ways of thinking. Whether it is Malcolm Clarke with his Lego, Rose Clarke with her artistic endeavors or Eliza and Ruby Wilson with their music and arts and crafts, children find unique ways to stimulate their imaginations when given the right tools.

In order for children to escape the technological world, it is essential that parents provide them with opportunities to do so. Enrolling children in dance, organized sports, music, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Sparks and Brownies, or even just giving them more opportunities for free play will guide them away from screens – at least for a while. It is not difficult to make free play worthwhile. As Sutherby said, children will make the most out of what they have, whether that be pots and pans, cardboard and duct tape, dolls, or Lego.

Eliza Wilson sits in the living room of her piano teacher’s house listening and repeating the notes her teacher plays. Her small fingers glide across the keys as she plays the song she recently mastered over the previous week. The piano notes fill the room with a music and happiness. As Eliza finishes the piece, she looks up at her teacher with a smile of accomplishment.

Thumbnail photo by Robyn Welsh

rwelsh@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Jodi Brak, jbrak@cjournal.ca