Playground dilemma: the balance at play

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Parents Can Guide Children to Benefits from Both Wireless and Wired Activities

Playground dilemma: the balance at play
Technology, in the form of video games, computers and handheld devices, can actually be a healthy tool for well-rounded kids, but parents should still focus on getting them active and outdoors. Finding the balance between the two is delicate, but important. (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

As a responsible parent, you must make the commitment to be part of your child’s life, which, in today’s world, includes the social-media-technological experiences.

— Anastasia Gavalas, author, speaker and parenting education consultant

As a tech-savvy parent, Barack Levin is exposed to computers every day. The Atlanta-area stay-at-home dad and author of "The Diaper Chronicles: A stay at home dad's quest for raising great kids" says he sees the disadvantages of living in a wired environment and decided not to allow his only child exposure to technology until he was 5. Even at that age, Levin sets limits. “My son is limited to play with a Nintendo DSi for only 20 minutes a day – not more than that. When he turns 8, we might introduce him to other technologies such as a PC or Wii,” Levin said. “I believe that kids need to experience the real world first before they dive into the virtual one.” The virtual world, however, is often unavoidable. A technology revolution complete with computer games, video consoles, accessible Wi-Fi and iPods can pose a challenge for parents who grew up playing outside and without wires. Technology is everywhere and seems to be a way of life for some families. How much is too much? What type of technological play is beneficial? And how can parents find a balance for their children?

Technology Play Revolution

A March 2010 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children and adolescents spend an average of seven hours a day with media – more time than they participate in any other activity besides sleeping.

Advances in technology have made it possible for children to sit slumped in front of a monitor or Xbox 360 all day. However, software and gaming companies provide many alternatives to keep kids moving and learning while engaging in wired play.

Educational games might be the answer for parents concerned about their child’s electronic exposure. Dr. Carl Arinoldo, a psychologist in Stony Brook, New York, said educational video and Internet games can have cognitive benefits. “It has been shown that concentration, focusing and attention skills can be enhanced through playing these types of games for reasonable amounts of time each day," Arinoldo said, "perhaps 30-45 minutes per play session.”

Some video games, such as the Wii Fit and the Xbox Kinect, encourage activity during wired play and provide a multiplayer experience for the entire family. Arinoldo suggests that parents play alongside their children to not only monitor play but also set an example. “If an individual is playing with a partner, such as a parent, grandparent or sibling, it appears that playing together provides a wonderful bonding experience for those involved,” Arinoldo said.

Anastasia Gavalas, a parenting education consultant in Long Island, New York, explains that parents cannot simply ignore the existence of technology. “Technology is a current facet in every parent’s life,” Gavalas said. “As a responsible parent, you must make the commitment to be part of your child’s life, which, in today’s world, includes the social-media-technological experiences.”

Importance of Electronic-Free Play

For many parents, memories of childhood play involve some type of unstructured play outdoors. According to Sue Palmer, author of “Detoxing Childhood: What Parents Need to Know to Raise Happy, Successful Children,” children are exposed to electronic play much too soon, inhibiting their ability to play and develop social skills. “They are not getting the usual childhood experience that they need to grow cognitively, socially and emotionally," Palmer said. "Kids aren’t learning how to just be ordinary; instead, we are evolving into a battery-raised society.”

Palmer, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, advocates for outdoor, unstructured play so that children learn to socialise and talk with people face-to-face versus behind a computer screen. “Any sort of nature is good for human beings,” Palmer said. “We must make sure that our children are getting the same opportunities to play that we did as children.”

These opportunities include literally smelling the fresh air, Levin says. “Young kids need to learn the basic things about our world, things that we as adults have long gone forgotten: the effect of gravity, the taste of rain, the smell of a flower and the soft touch of grass,” Levin said.

In return, Levin says, outdoor play promotes fun and growth. “Play has more than just one goal – fun. Play also helps in gaining social skills, problem solving, social hierarchy, dealing with different behaviours, communication skills, leadership skills and, of course, physical growth,” Levin said.

Outdoor play also promotes healthy living for the entire family, Palmer said. “The simplest way to bond with your child and promote outdoor play is to have shared family outings or excursions on a regular basis, even if it is just walking the dog.”

With or Without Wires

Play is critical in every form. “Children can easily lose their capacity to play if a parent is not mindful of balancing the time and depth of play with media outlets and in nature,” Gavalas said.

In helping children achieve a healthy balance between wired and wireless play, parents must first lead by example, Arinoldo said. “If the parent is at the computer playing games for an inappropriately long period of time, the parent cannot expect the children to do any different.” Arinoldo suggests setting -- and sticking to -- ground rules for computer use by limiting time and content.

Dr. Joseph Shrand, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says parents have to provide the framework to achieve a balance. “In the busy life of a child, there is room for both indoor and outdoor play. A parent has to give the structure but also the time,” Shrand said. “Kids can earn computer time just as grown-ups earn their own chance at leisure. Work hard and then play hard.”

The key to encouraging play – both wired and wireless – is to show its value, says Julia Simens, a clinical psychologist from Incline Village, Nevada, who has counselled families around the world. “You have to say, ‘Let’s go for a walk’ and walk with him. You can’t say, ‘You need to exercise’ and expect him to head out on his own,” Simens said. “Parents need to be 100 per cent committed to the involvement. We cannot expect children to give up something that is so much fun and connects them to their peers without making a positive connection to them as the replacement.”

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