Yep, I said it. Come on- you have to agree with me, it’s what most of your kids think. Most of the under 10’s, and dare I say under 7’s, I meet these days are glued to a screen, be it a 50-inch flat-screen in their bedroom, Dad’s iPad or Mom’s smartphone (or their own!). Dare to voice the sentiment we all grew up with (“Go and play outside”) and these techno-savvy preschoolers will bombard you with a long list of why they can’t. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. I don’t have any friends to play with. You must come too. There’s nothing to do out there. Play is boring.
Gone are the days when the tools needed for play were your body, some space and an imagination. Children want to be entertained. Fun less creative effort.
The comments from our recent trip to Disneyworld were delayed as a result of Nelson Mandela’s passing soon after our return, so let me start the new year by sharing some of my thoughts from that fairytale experience. Here in South Africa, most children have heard of Disneyworld/Disneyland, yet although they might wish to visit, a trans-atlantic flight to a theme park is beyond the scope of most vacation budgets. As qualified professionals never too old to play, we eventually had the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.
Disney has it all worked out. Even from the highway leading up to Disneyworld you are invited to believe that dreams really do come true. Everything is magical. Everything works. Everything glitters. As soon as you enter The Magic Kingdom every building and character looks as though they stepped straight off the set of one of the many Disney movies we all grew up with, and there, in the distance, is the blue and white castle which sparkled at the beginning and end of each one. The symphonies playing over the loudspeakers put a bounce in your step. It is a world without sad faces, without litter, without evil characters. Every interaction is an invitation to be entertained. Little girls dressed up as princesses prance around in mini ball gowns and with tiaras in their hair. My goodness, even the queueing is turned into an entertainment experience with video games along the way as you wind your way ever closer to Space Mountain, you’re invited to share a joke with Mike from Monsters University at the Laugh Floor, or you play with the honey in the Hundred Acre Wood.
And yet, amongst all this happiness, was an uneasiness in my soul. While some families posed for portraits here and there, many children spent the day staring at their iPads as they tapped the screen to Instagram yet another snap of the day. I couldn’t help but feel that they were missing out on the whole expereince – to really look at the beauty and intricate detail of the environment. Did they notice the bushes cut into characters from Alice in Wonderland? Did they see Winnie the Pooh sneaking past as he headed towards a meet-and-greet area? Did they feel the fake snow falling on their noses that wasn’t cold?
Randi Zuckerberg, (yes, sister to Mark from Facebook fame) commented in her book Dot Complicated on the phenomenon gripping today’s children – that if you didn’t post a pic of it, it didn’t happen. So actually what I was witnessing was a severe new form of social anxiety – if these children didn’t post it, did it really happen? Were they really there? What would their friends think? Well let’s be contraversial for a moment – I propose that it’s those children who DIDN’T post every moment that were really and truely there, in the moment, absorbing it all. They were the ones who had the full experience – they saw, smelt, heard, felt and tasted every carefully thought out Disney detail. They were the ones who were in essence PRESENT for the experience.
You would think that in a world that provides insta-tainment at the click of a button or a swipe of your finger, children would be ready to lap up every detail of a done-for-you play experience. And yet, it’s that very same world that robs them of the play they paid many dollars to “see”.