Yesterday I had the chance to have a conversation with several Parents’ Day Out (PDO) teachers at a local Early Childhood Center. We were talking about the differences they have noticed over the years in young children. The conversation started to be about current parenting methods and how they affected the behavior of the kiddos in the classroom. Very quickly, however, a few of the teachers began to talk about the very youngest children that come to the PDO, around 18 months old. I think I stopped breathing for a moment when they began to describe what they have seen in the last two or three years: toddlers who don’t know how to play.
One teacher described a typical situation. She said many toddlers lately will come to the classroom for the first time and just stand there. Some of them are anxious or sad, of course, but underneath that is a total unfamiliarity with playing. Once the teachers gain the child’s trust and the babe is comfortable in the new environment, the first thing they have to do is directly teach the toddler how to play. They start in on toys – baby dolls, play food, train tracks, playground balls, blocks, dress-up clothes. She said even at 18 months old, she can see how limited play is affecting the toddler’s life.
My mind sifted through all the areas of development that play touches…curiosity, confidence, fine motor coordination, social interaction, language, physical coordination, sensory exploration, scientific thinking, creativity…
She said no. They can swipe a screen, but they can’t fill a dump truck with sand, push it over to a friend, say, “beep-beep,” and dump sand on their friend’s toes.
It didn’t use to be that way. These teachers say even 5 years ago, it was different. Now, when the teachers pull out their phones to check the weather for outdoor time, the children swarm around. These children know phones. They know tablets. They are tuned in to screens. But the real physical world around them is unfamiliar and unexplored.
But stop reading now. Turn off your device, put it away, and go show your child how to play with something, old-school. And when you are done, post a picture of it. Or don’t!