On Monday night, Mom, Dad, and I went to a Science Cafe talk put on by the Pacific Science Center. The speaker was Dr. Dimitri Christakis, talking about media and kids’ cognitive development. He did a TED talk that was more comprehensive, here:

That being available, I don’t feel any need to review the content of his talk. I more wanted to mention the big things I took away.

  1. Not all TV/screen time is created equal. Frenetic, random, shows with frequent scene changes, like Baby Einstein can be actively harmful to a child’s cognitive development; on the other hand, slow-moving educational shows like Mr. Rogers that allow kids time to process what they’re seeing may not be a problem at all. (Not necessarily beneficial, but not harmful.)
  2. Screen time Skyping with relatives or friends is totally different from TV watching and, although the verdict is still out research-wise, is probably more similar to in-person interaction than TV-watching.
  3. There’s nothing more important for cognitive development than in-person time with kids, having shared focus, exploring and talking about the physical world around us. The importance of talking with kids from the very beginning (and reading – more on that in a moment) cannot be overstated.
  4. Electronic toys with lots of music, flashing lights, noises, etc., aren’t beneficial either. They may encourage kids to expect everything in life to be whizz-bangy and exciting, and sadly… not everything is. (Yet.) This is true for high-flash TV shows, too, which attune kids to a much faster pace of action than in real life, and when they get into doing real-life stuff, they find it all slow and boring, comparatively.
  5. What we’re trying to help kids learn is the ability to focus on something they find boring. Anybody can focus when they’re interested and engaged. Kids diagnosed with ADD can focus on video games for long periods of time. No; the challenge is to raise kids who can exercise self-discipline and focus even when the topic doesn’t engage them. When they have to read a boring textbook, go to work, do taxes. This is why feeling bored and frustrated sometimes is an important part of growing up: that’s the time kids practice dealing with and mastering those situations.

I took away three specific actions I want to do that he talked about as beneficial:

  1. The Line Game: A game where you draw a straight line and have your preschooler walk along it. This takes a lot of focus plus physical dexterity. Make it more challenging by curving the line, adding hopping, walking backwards, etc.
  2. Read Interactively: Don’t just read through the words on the page. That’s a good baseline activity, but it’s better to ask questions about the pictures on the page. Simple questions like “Where’s the ball? Where’s the red car?” are reasonably useful, but the best types of questions are open-ended: “Where do you think the red car is going? Where did it come from? How does it feel about driving up the hill?” These engage the kid’s imagination and get them really thinking about more than just the story.
  3. Creative Toy Use: Playing with simple toys doesn’t mean the play has to be simple. For example, right now Benji really likes counting things, so when we’re playing with blocks, we can count them. Then we can sort them and count the blue ones. Sorting by size, shape, color, and counting each thing are all ways to use blocks as more than just blocks. This is going to be way more beneficial for brain development than playing with an electronic counting toy. You could do this with any group of toys, really.

None of this was groundbreaking, world-shaking news; Brain Rules for Baby covered many of the same concepts. But it’s still helpful to hear that all the time I spend with Benji naming things he points to — that’s all building connections in his brain. Which is good, because sometimes it seems like my brain’s slowly turning to oatmeal from the level of our conversations.

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