My husband, a programmer in an arcane computer language (AS400 if you’re interested) was asked to give an example of one of something I’m good at. “She’s relatively computer literate” he said carefully. “Relatively.” Fine praise indeed. As a child I learned simple coding on a wobbly ZX81 which would randomly lose all its data. I’d lost interest by the time the Spectrum came out, even if it did have coloured buttons. Now, as the mother of children who include boys with autism in their number, I’m thrust back into the world of tech stuff. Programming for small children has come a long way since then. Scratch is so much more user friendly, to the point that it almost doesn’t seem like programming, but it is helping them understand the importance of doing things in a particular order, and the consequences when they alter that. It’s an idea we carried into the morning routine – the importance of putting clothes on in the right order, and how funny they would look with their knickers on the top! When one of them started to jot a diagram of what action went first, and then stuck it on his wall, it became clear that programming was having a wider, and very positive effect.
One of my children, despite thousands of hours of school contact time, at 6 cannot read more than a few letters. We suspect dyslexia amongst other things. School is not an easy place for him. As far as the school bell-curve of achievement is concerned, he is tanking. Yet on Minecraft, he is a creator, a hero. He has, with the help of DanTDM leaned complex potions, mysterious portals, and designed astonishing worlds with the attention to detail of a skilled architect. His fine motor skills are underdeveloped yet on the iPad his little thin fingers flit effortlessly between worlds. He is a shy child yet watching Minecraft demonstrations while he plays, has released his inner performer, and now he wants to develop his own channel, demonstrating his own “imbentions.” So now he’s learning how that works, how to plan each video, how to sit, what to say, how to edit. He is the master of his own destiny in this, we just facilitate, and his confidence grows before our eyes. He is gaining skills which no amount of schooling and therapy could have delivered and, best of all, it’s directed by him and motivated by his enthusiasm. The knocks to his confidence from schooling are, at least to some extent, balanced out. I’m sure their teachers attempt to give praise where it’s due but nothing can change the fact that, as far as my children are concerned, traditional methods are spot-off. Tonight he has built an extension to the basement in his house, which contains a pirate ship with working cannons. The cannons set fire to the basement (always a hazard with indoor cannonry) and he is busy fireproofing it. There is a voice in my head squeaking “but he doesn’t know his phonics” but there’s a louder one, generated by the joy on his face, saying “so what!”
At our last paediatrician appointment, the elderly physician looked horrified at the amount of screen based activity we did. “No wonder he can’t write” he growled. I said to him that I believed that within a generation, writing with a pen will be as archaic as writing with a quill is now, and that one of the most useful things we can teach our children is to touch type. He sat back in his chair and looked at me over his glasses and laughed. “The hours I’d have to myself if I could touch type!” he said wistfully. There you go then, I thought!
Technology isn’t going to go away any time soon. When I had my first baby I had notions of him only playing with traditional wooden toys. He had a Brio pull along train, on a string. As he whirled it around his head and caught me square in the jaw, I started to think differently. Vtech, with their lights and colours and mind-alteringly annoying voices, kept him entertained and stimulated far better. (Alfie Bear went too far as his batteries ran down, and as far as I know, is still repeating the same “I’m a happy bear” somewhere on the hard shoulder of the M4 where he landed.)
We seem to be warned constantly about the “dangers” of screen time. Personally, at the moment I can’t see it. Their iPads give them valuable down time, when they can switch off from the overwhelming sensory input, and control their environment. They each have an iPad, they meet each other on Minecraft every night after school, and their creations have been to me, mind-blowing.
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