All kids are spending time on screens of one sort or the other. As preschoolers are learning their place in the world is, should their education include screen time? We talk with Jessica Kemper, the Director of Woods Child Development Center in Severna Park to get her take on screen time for preschoolers.
January 16, 2020: with Jessica Kemper, the Director of Woods Child Development Center in Severna Park
Janet Jefferson (00:14):
Welcome to Third Floor Views where we at Chesapeake Family Life, talk about health,W education and living with kids. I’m your host, Janet Jefferson. Today we’re here to discuss preschoolers and screen time. My guest today is Jessica Kemper, Director of Woods Child Development Center. She’s on the board of Anne Arundel Childcare Connections that advocates and promotes the value of early childhood experiences through professional development and outreach and advocates for support of key early learning policies. Hi Jessica, thank you for joining me today. Screens are everywhere, right? Right now, I can’t walk down the street or wait in a doctor’s office or even drive a car or go on a hike even without seeing people engaging with screens, but there are no screens in your preschool. Why is that?
Jessica Kemper (01:05):
We feel that screens are so pervasive right now in our culture. I mean even babies know how to play with a phone and and so we need to change our focus a little bit more to the social, emotional development of children and that really requires a lot of personal interaction. It’s not something you can get from a screen at all. This is a skill that children need to learn and they need to be around other people. They need to be able to read body language and facial expressions. And to be able to have something a lot more interactive than a screen would be.
Janet Jefferson (01:43):
Because screens are so pervasive this past April, the World Health Organization issued guidelines limiting screen time to an hour each day for two to four year olds. But we do need to learn as humans how to appropriately use a screen. When is an appropriate time to increase screen time, when should it become part of education do you think?
Jessica Kemper (02:09):
If you think about the purpose of screens or media or any kind of screen time, it’s really a tool. And so when a child is able to understand how to use that tool, then it becomes appropriate. So you wouldn’t just give a two year old a hammer and say go at it. It’s a tool and you need to learn how to use it in a safe way. There are some things about screens that are not safe. It really isn’t good for developing eyesight. It isn’t good for developing bodies because children need to get up and move. Granted there are programs that get the children up and dancing. But even so, it is something we need to be very careful about. When children can use any kind of screen technology independently, when they’re able to analyze its purpose and use it for problem solving and they’re able to understand the dangers of the internet, if that’s part of what they’re doing, then it becomes more appropriate. I think sometimes parents assume children just know these things, but they really do need to be taught. And two to four year olds have a hard time with that because analysis is not one of their strong suits.
Janet Jefferson (03:18):
That’s very true. So what do you recommend that parents do instead? I know that it’s often the case that it’s busy in the afternoons, you pick your kids up from school, you take them home and someone’s trying to make dinner and things are crazy. I think a screen can be a very appealing tool for a parent but we don’t want to have to fall back on those screens. So what can we do instead? What can you recommend that parents do?
Jessica Kemper (03:45):
Well if a parent sets up a routine that this is what we need to do today and thinks really critically about how to involve the children in that, that’s really a learning experience for the children as well. And it’s family time, you’re right. Families are sometimes so stretched for time that you have to tuck in these little bits of social interaction into your day. But they are their children and they are the parents and that is the tightest community that that child knows. And so the parent really taking the time to involve the children in the getting ready for dinner process or the let’s talk about your day even while preparing dinner or making sure at the very least that there’s some time set aside for reading at night or singing a few lullabies together because children really need that. I see that in our center when children are with us all day in school, they’re delighted to see their parents come and pick them up and they miss them, they miss them all day and they don’t quite understand always that mommy and daddy are coming back.
Jessica Kemper (04:47):
They always do. It’s that they love their parents so much, they just want to spend time with them. So I will admit, my daughter’s favorite movie of all time when she was about four years old was the Wizard of Oz and if I ever needed a quiet moment, I could plug it in. And she was quiet, transfixed to the screen for two hours and watching the movie. But that was a treat. And because I saved it as a treat, then it was very effective when I needed a couple of minutes. But then once I had more children, it didn’t work anymore because not everybody loved that movie. So we would just have fights or we chose something else. We went outside to play, we did a board game, we did a craft together. Just something else.
Janet Jefferson (05:32):
That makes sense. I have heard that watching that something together, that the act of engaging a child with a screen or whatever media you’re using can be better than just setting them down in front of the TV. What are your thoughts on that? Can that increase the positive experience of using a screen if you engage your child with it?
Jessica Kemper (05:55):
You know, I wouldn’t say it’s better to do that. I would say it’s essential to do that really because there’s too many messages that come across the screen that children can’t analyze. I said that’s not their strong suit. And there’s a lot of vocabulary and there are a lot of concepts and when children listen to that, they can’t always put that in their scope of experience and understand it. Depending on what we’re talking about with the child is doing, there may be things that they don’t understand and so they’re not going to learn that concept anyway because they don’t understand the vocabulary around it. So sitting with the child and going through it, especially if it’s the first couple of times, if we’re doing a software program on a computer or we’re watching a show on television or we’re doing something on the phone, to talk about that experience and how it works and why it’s important or why it’s entertaining or whatever purpose, that really sets the stage more for learning than if a child’s just handed it and said, here you go, go at it.
Janet Jefferson (06:56):
Is there a positive way that parents can be using the little screen time that is allowed or should we really be avoiding screen time altogether?
Jessica Kemper (07:07):
It just goes back to what we were just talking about. I think the social aspect of sharing screen time is going to be the best way to do it. So if we’re using it as a babysitter, if we’re using it as a distraction, if it’s just a way to keep the children quiet, then it’s not going to be positive, then it’s our servant. It’s not really the tool anymore. That’s the important thing. I think we do need to teach children that media is a tool and without parents explaining that or another trusted adult, then it really fails in its whole purpose in our lives.
Janet Jefferson (07:42):
Another thing that I want to talk about is content and how much does content matter. What I mean by that is you have some good educational programming like Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers, and you also have some Disney movies and some of them can be a little bit educational or fun or have a message. Then there are other types of interactions that you could have with the screen, such as the Smithsonian Zoo live broadcasts, what their animals are doing, or even FaceTime with a grandparent that maybe lives in California in terms of time spent in front of a screen. How much does content really matter? And do we want to think about FaceTime and put that in the same category that we would as say Sesame Street?
Jessica Kemper (08:33):
It’s interesting that you bring up FaceTime because there was actually a research project done very recently where the researchers were trying to teach a concept to children and they did it passively where a child interacted with the screen. And then there was one where the child interacted with a more interactive program. There was a person on the screen, but there’s a little bit more give and take in the program as opposed to just pushing buttons. And then they’re taught the same concept with a child and a person right next to the child, no screen. And the child who had the person teaching learned the concept and nobody else did. It was interesting. Again, it goes back to that social aspect and and how we teach our children what’s important at that age. It’s not to say that that’s true for every age, but we’re talking about preschoolers. Part of that is because children two to four haven’t yet learned the difference between reality and fantasy. And so a person standing next to me is real, but a person on a screen, even FaceTime is not entirely real. Even if it’s someone that I recognize, it’s not entirely real and therefore it’s relevancy to me, as a child, is very diminished. So while children seem engaged with screens, they’re usually just really being entertained. And that doesn’t say that they can’t repeat what they say. We know children will repeat whatever they hear usually in very comical ways, but that doesn’t mean they’re really learning. Even a child who can recite the alphabet, for instance, may not really understand what the function of the alphabet is, even though they know the words and they can sing a song of course, over and over and over again. Maybe that’s the piece that screen time is best for because it’s musical entertainment and music is a great thing. But again, it, I’m always going to go back to it’s a tool. It can be a teaching tool, but for that age group, it doesn’t always do what we want it to do.
Janet Jefferson (10:38):
You really need to have a person, a teacher or a parent or someone there to guide the child through the experience.
Jessica Kemper (10:46):
We have a faith program at our center. We’re a church based school, but we know at that age group, children don’t have any concept of what faith really is. Because when you think about it, how do you explain that in real terms? You can’t touch it. You can’t smell it. You can’t see it, you can’t taste it, it’s not sensory driven. It’s really more up in your head and your heart. So everything that’s on a screen is kind of the same thing, it’s in your head. You can’t touch it. You can’t smell it. You can’t taste it. And so it’s not experiential for the children. It makes a difference.
Janet Jefferson (11:23):
Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk a little bit about experiences. We know that if screen time is not how preschoolers learn, you’ve mentioned that they really learn through those experiences, often sensory. What are some other examples of some of those experiences that really work for kids and how can we better as parents support that at home or even as teachers support that in the classroom?
Jessica Kemper (11:47):
Well, people have heard me say this so many times, but I really feel as though small children have two learning goals: what is my place in the world? That’s what they want to learn about. And the other one is how does the world work? And you think about everything a child does during the day. It’s figuring out that social studies, that social aspect, what is my place in the world? And then how do things work and that sort of the science piece of it. And so children are social scientists or they’re just straight out scientists. When you think of those, they are not things that you can really find in the media. Those are things you have to go out and experience for yourself. You start out in your family and that’s your community. And then your community grows. When you go to school or you go to church or you go to the grocery store or you go anywhere in your community and at some point that grows a little bit bigger and bigger as you go and you learn more about the world and that gets bigger. When we talk about the family and then that next ring of community, that’s what little preschoolers are learning about now. How can you understand that if you don’t go and see it? We already talked about fantasy and reality. So they need to go to the store, they need to see the array of fruits, they need to talk about the colors, they need to meet the butcher. They need to meet the baker to understand what community helpers are. They need to see and talk to these people and they need to become real to them. So that’s that part. And then the science part, of course there’s where all the senses come in. That’s where they want to take things apart and figure out how it works, when they want to do taste comparisons, when they want to touch things, when they want to collect rocks and pine cones and leaves and everything outside and play with a worm. And it’s all very fascinating and they have no idea that anything is good or bad. And so we tell them everything is just interesting. The more that we can support their curiosity and their discovery, that’s the best way to support them.
Janet Jefferson (13:46):
I want to talk a little bit about the bigger culture that we’re nested in. Steve Jobs and other tech moguls, they limited screen time for their own children. What does that mean for the rest of us? And with that topic, is going back to the idea of why we’re talking about this in the first place. Why is screen time an issue? Clearly it’s something that that is ubiquitous and it’s in the world all over the place and it’s something that children are often more exposed to it then maybe they should be. Why is there this disconnect between recommended screen time and then often actual screen time? Why do you think that is and, and what can we do about it?
Jessica Kemper (14:34):
First off, I think the fact that Steve Jobs and other tech moguls have limited screen time shows that they’re really very smart and they probably also get that whole tool concept of what they’re producing because they see that as a way to maybe promote social communication. I always feel like social media has its own set of problems. That could be another whole podcast. Social media and the way it affects young children and middle schoolers and high schoolers who are still trying to find their way in the world. They’re still trying to figure out that first question, where’s my place in the world? So I think we’ve made a mistake as adults thinking that if we like this, then everybody’s going to like it. And children will like it too. The games that are on your phone have music with them. And that’s one reason why I think they’re so attractive to children because I’ve seen children drop what they’re doing when a song comes on. I have seen people sing totally out of key and almost an adult would want to cover their ears, but the children don’t care. It’s music. I want to pay attention. I think that part of it becomes very entertaining and really draws them in. But it doesn’t mean that they’re really using it for anything other than entertainment. Yes, they can watch a movie, they can watch TV, they like commercials because there’s music. I think again, if parents understand both the limits of screen time and what it does, then they can choose to do something else instead. There’s always something else.
Janet Jefferson (16:04):
We all grew up, well, a lot of us grew up, without phones and we got along okay.
Jessica Kemper (16:10):
Yes. Don’t get me wrong. I use my phone and my computer constantly all day long, but I know that there’s a time to put it away.
Janet Jefferson (16:16):
I think one of the challenges too is you see other kids, especially as they start to get older, but even preschoolers are comparing themselves a little bit to other students. They think: Oh well I see little Jimmy over there and he’s doing it, so why can’t I do it? And I think that can be a challenge. But that’s the role of the parent and the teacher then to step in. We were just on the cusp of talking about that we grew up without these things. What about other media, radio songs, reading, why are these more beneficial for preschoolers and how can we promote those instead?
Jessica Kemper (16:57):
Children still need to hear words, that’s how they’re going to grow their vocabulary. They do still need to hear things. So radio again is a little bit of a fantasy because the voice is coming out of nowhere. But it can serve a purpose again, depending on what you’re listening to. Children need to be exposed to a lot of vocabulary. They need that vocabulary explained to them or they need to experience because they need to build their words. And I’ll put in my little pitch here about vocabulary. A child that has a lot of words in their vocabulary becomes the best reader because as we learn to decode what’s on a page, all those little squiggles and lines and understand that, those represent words and we learn how to pronounce them. If I have that word in my vocabulary, it’s easier for me to decode that word. When I start to sound it out, I’ll realize I know word and now I understand what it means and I understand what it means on this page. Children do need to hear rhyming words. They need to hear beginning and ending sounds. They need to hear songs because songs usually have rhyming words. They need to understand what questions are and and how to give and take in a conversation. So when we’re thinking about these as things we have to teach children to do, then we have to evaluate what are we using to teach them. And so I say number one is going to be another person, even if it’s an older brother, sister, parent, teacher, next door neighbor, babysitter, whoever. It’s a real life person. And if that real life person does these things is reading books to them and singing songs with them and playing with words and pointing out things in the environment like we’re in the grocery store, can you find aisle two? And so they can pick out that number. All these things to show them that these numbers and words exist in their environment and how to manage that. That’s gold, It’s the best thing. None of these things are bad. It’s how do we choose to use them, right? I took my granddaughter to a Music Together class for three years. She’s now almost eight. And if she comes over and we put on the music, she still remembers most of the words and she stopped going to class when she was four. These things become internalized and children love them and it’s very comforting and it brings up good memories and that’s what we want to build for our children.
Janet Jefferson (19:22):
So in 50 years as technology changes and morphs, will preschool more or less still look the same do you think?
Jessica Kemper (19:30):
I hope it does because there’s nothing better than sitting side by side with somebody and reading a book together and sharing that experience. I’m a big ebook reader, but on the other hand, there’s something very satisfying about holding a book in your hand and turning the pages and seeing how much further you have to go and how far you’ve gotten when it is a really fat book, plus looking at the illustrations and appreciating an illustration or artistry and how that book was put together, especially for children. And and talking about that again, someone was the artist and put this together and this is a hardback book versus a soft back book. And this is the spine and this is the way we hold it and this way we turn the pages and it’s such a neat experience and I really hope people are still doing that 50 years from now.
Janet Jefferson (20:16):
Me too. Thank you so much for coming in today, Jessica, to talk about kids and screen time and how we can promote the most positive experience for these little ones as they develop. Thank you. We’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you enjoyed what you heard today, check out more at ThirdFloorViews.com. I’m Janet Jefferson. This is Third Floor Views. Thank you for listening.