Screen Time for Young Children
“Never give more to the mind than you give to the hand.” Dr. Maria Montessori
Most Montessori educators agree that there should be no exposure to digital media as in screen time for infants and toddlers and only minimal (if at all) exposure for preschoolers. Unfortunately today, young children are exposed to an alarmingly high rate in front of the television, computer, tablet or smart phone. Due to the rapid speed of images and sounds which flash in and out to keep up the interest level and attention focused for mere seconds, there is a concern in the tech developed countries that this is adversely affecting children’s attention spans. Teachers throughout US, Canada and other technologically advanced countries are describing children with limited ability to think analytically, express themselves or solve complex problems and neuroscientists are concerned that the ever present technology at an early age may be a contributing factor.
The Montessori approach which was developed by Dr. Montessori’s observations of young children encourages children to have a variety of real, hands-on experiences. By working with their hands, children learn by active engagement with age appropriate, interesting materials which sustain their attention. Young children cannot learn by listening to words or watching images – that is not how human brain development occurs. Children learn by repetition and exploration of their real environment – a young child cannot learn to pour water from a pitcher until the child can do the activity her/himself.
The eye-hand coordination and concentration required for simple or complex activities has to be developed in a young child with activities that require manipulation by hand. Attention, independence, and problem solving skills are developed solely by the child’s interaction with age-appropriate, manipulative materials. Young children cannot learn by memorization of facts or data. They learn via purposeful movement using their senses and by utilizing motor skills. With the prevalence of a multitude of apps, games etc. on smart phones, tablets, television, computers (all of which sell and promote “learning”) young children are denied the vital benefits of whole-body learning experiences. Marketers clearly understand that young children cannot sit still for extended periods of time. So in an effort to keep their attention, the “learning” products they sell have to include fast movements, flashing lights, sounds, etc. to sustain attention. Yes – these products sustain attention for a few seconds however, learning cannot happen at such rapid speed.
Children watching TV in cars immersed on games on a smart phone/tablet in the grocery store or at restaurants are denied valuable learning opportunities of interacting with adults and peers and being present in their immediate environment. These children are being “quiet” or “well-behaved” – but at what cost? If they do not learn to interact with the animate and inanimate environment around them, they will have a very difficult time developing skills required for socialand emotional regulation and human interactions. Montessori educators lament that children who have been exposed to electronics and digital media at a young age complain of being bored in rich and vibrant Montessori environments and struggle during transitions.
This does not mean that there aren’t valuable skills that can be learned from computers. Our position is simply that those skills are better learned later – when the child is older. When the child is very young, it’s far better for him/her to work with real objects than images of them. Brain research confirms Dr. Montessori’s insight that children construct themselves through direct hands-on experiences.“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.” Dr. Montessori
As digital technology has become omnipresent, scientists and physicians have become increasingly concerned at how over-exposure to digital media and technology may be affecting children’s brain development. Pediatric neuropsychologists like Dr. Stephen Hughes and Dr. Jane Healystress the importance of how a child’s early experiences literally affect the brain’s biological development, as certain neurons are strengthened through stimulation and use, while others are pruned through lack of stimulation and disuse. This has led them and others to conclude that high quality early childhood programs, such as Montessori, build better brains.
Current neuroscience research conducted by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child* at Harvard University corroborates Dr. Montessori’s observations that “the foundations of brain architecture are established early in life through a continuous series of dynamic interactions in which environmental conditions and personal experiences have a significant impact on how genetic predispositions are expressed.Because specific experiences affect specific brain circuits during specific developmental stages—referred to as sensitive periods—it is vitally important to take advantage of these early opportunities in the developmental building process. That is to say, the quality of a child’s early environment and the availability of appropriate experiences at the right stages of development are crucial in determining the strength or weakness of the brain’s architecture, which, in turn, determines how well he or she will be able to think and to regulate emotions.”
“The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.” – Dr. Maria Montessori
*The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, housed at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, is a multi-disciplinary collaboration designed to bring the science of early childhood and early brain development to bear on publicdecision-making.