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What My Toddler Teaches Me About Uncertainty

I’ve been thinking about this post all day, and reading other people’s blogs has helped me clarify my ideas further.

It all started with Cathy Davidson’s video in the MOOC where she interviews ppl about their fave teachers and one person says “my daughter” which is, i suspect, supposed to be a surprise. Funny enough, though, her daughter is actually really a “teacher” so it’s a bit less surprising.

But I wanted to say here how my toddler teaches me something new every day. I wrote earlier about parenting being the most common way people embrace uncertainty, but I forgot to note how children are sort of thrown into uncertainty from birth! Suddenly, they are no longer in the safe environment of the womb, constant conditions, automatic refills, you know the drill! Then suddenly they need to communicate with a world that does not understand their language and discover that they will need to adapt to the world’s language! No need to drill this in too deep… You get the picture.

So I was thinking about how the world must look from my toddler’s viewpoint. Routine seems to be really important to kids this age. But it made me realize how the routine is some sort of imposed structure she creates (or we create for her) that gives her some stability in the midst of all the chaos. For example, if i give my kid two foods together a few days in a row, she makes a connection between them (for a while, orange juice reminded her of smoke salmon). If we do something in a particular order, she gets used to it (e.g. There is a certain location where she likes to sit and drink her milk). These are all arbitrary connections that she makes, but they help make the world a more certain place for her.

Then there are the connections to people. At first children are connected to their moms, the only familiar, certain being outside themselves, and as they get older they expand that circle of people they trust and depend upon as they navigate uncertainty.

Kids are really open to uncertainty, though, in ways I don’t think we recognize as such. For example, there is no clear reason why a child would realize that the letters b, d, and p (in lower case) are different from each other. After all, a triangle is a triangle, no matter how you look at it, upside down, right to left, etc. So b,p,d – they are all the same shape. This has nothing to do with uncertainty per se, but it shows how kids don’t yet have that imposed structure that alphabet letters need to be read from a certain angle. They are open to possibilities.

Another example is play. Give a child anything and they will find something interesting to do with it. They are uncertain of its function, and so they experiment with it, taking risks, and they make up their own creative function(s) for it. Imagine doing things like this in your classroom. Giving students a foreign tool and asking them to make use of it creatively. I’m sure someone has done it. I am teaching a module on educational games for sustainability soon and I imagine I could try something like that in class – or bring ordinary items and ask them to do extraordinary things with them. Better yet, ask them to bring items from home and use them in the class (incidentally, I loved Frances’ sharing her lesson plan on her blog – it always helps to see concrete ways others have taught certain concepts in their own classes).

Strangely, serendipitously, the #moocmooc chat a few days ago about #FutureEd discussed the topic of chaos in online learning, a topic I find similar to that of uncertainty (though not exactly the same).

In Karen Young’s blog (thanks To Dave for point it out, as I don’t think she posts on the fb group) she asks a question that i had not yet formed completely or articulated. She says

When we teach in the elementary panel, we are encouraged to create a place of safety for the learner. Isn’t that in conflict with the idea of embracing uncertainty? For life and sometimes learning are not safe.

I would like to make a connection between her idea and an idea that came up during the #moocmooc chat. We were discussing how to deal with trolls, bullies,etc online, and one of the ideas was to create a supportive community that would support people against these threats. Rather than just police, facilitate, or set rules, creating a community (which would take time) is the best defense (we also discussed embracing vulnerability, which I think is related to openness and trust as well and relevant to the issue of kids as well).

It occurred to me that this is possibly the only approach that solves the riddle Karen posed, and I re-phrase it here as i see it: if life is uncertain, why are we trying to create safe environments for learning? So my point is: if those environments are made safer by sustainable and transferable ways (such as creating community, difficult and time-consuming though this may be), that’s a good thing, because they can adapt that process outside class. But if they are made safe by artificially-imposed conditions like teacher control, rules, etc., then we are contradicting ourselves and limiting their learning.

It is the same for kids, I believe. As a parent, you want to equip them to handle things on their own in future, handle uncertainty, become independent. To do so, you might be better off helping them learn how to make their own environment more safe (building community) than by making it safe for them. Creating their own conditions, asking their own questions.

In a slightly similar vein, I recently read a book about Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners where the authors point to the importance of cultivating inquiry in college education in order to prepare learners for the increasingly uncertain world. This seems like an obvious point, but it brings me to another point raised in Karen’s blog:

“Should we only teach the concrete, for only that is true and all else, fleeting and ephemeral”

And my response (copy/paste from my comment on her blog) to that was..

“… about whether we should teach only the concrete..because all else is fleeting and ephemeral. This question assumes the important thing we are teaching is content, when i think the important thing we should be teaching is how-to-learn, and even that is not a fixed process…”

(Back to parenting,though, this is a great one from Dave on explaining rhizomatic learning to a 5-year-old and again here it sounds like he is promoting inquiry-driven learning and acceptance of uncertainty to his young child – so not something that needs to wait til college!)

Now, one more thing. I also like the point mentioned across the blogs of Jolly and Maureen about our role being to help learners find their own “inner compass” and follow it.

So, um, to end this post of very scattered thoughts, i’ll just share an idea that developed for me through the hangout, reading lots of blogs today, and the facebook discussions about uncertainty of the purpose of the universe, and Jenny’s latest post:

“That certainty, when it exists, is temporal and contextual, unlikely to be universal.”

(copying my own words from my comment on Karen’s blog).


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Guilty Mom’s Guide to Screening Kids’ Screen Time

Guilty! I admit, that even though I am an educator and know that research suggests that screen time is not good for kids’ cognitive development (I guess probably also social and physical), I allow my toddler more than the recommended screen time (and no, I will NOT admit how much more I have allowed on a bad day).

I have tried to get support on different ways of overcoming this problem. Yes, I know, I caused it to begin with, but I assume you are reading this post because you feel guilty, too? So I am hoping you’re not judging me, and instead hoping to get some good tips. I hope you find some here. Every child is different. Every parent is different. I have tried to give examples that work for my child and me (given that I myself am addicted to my tablet and smartphone), but to abstract them in ways that would make it easy for others to apply to their own context. I would love it if you could share your own tips in the comment section.

Replace what they like on-screen with an off-screen alternative
Dr. Sears suggests that when a tired parent must resort to screen time, it is best to use that time with something musical, because music is good for children’s development. And so most of my child’s screen time always involved music. Until I realized suddenly that it was the music itself that attracted her to the screen and so I started to find lots of musical non-screen alternatives such as toys that play different songs, and us singing together (my voice is hoarse now because she has been wanting me to sing to her despite a sore throat). Another idea that worked for us is to let her play the song she likes on the screen, but to stop looking at the screen while we dance to the song (another Dr. Sears idea), or even just play beside it. These alternatives work for me about 30% of the time. But it is better than none at all.

Use screen time pedagogically
If you’re going to be stuck on the screen anyway, might as well try to make the best of it.
I have (thankfully!) found research that suggests that interactive screen time (e.g. iPad, but also interactive TV like Dora) can be beneficial even though passive screen time (as in mostTV) can be bad (read the research paper here)

I understand the general idea that educational games are really limiting compared to real-life ones (e.g. Most of the puzzle games always have the pieces the “correct-side-up” and help the kid place the puzzle piece before it reaches its proper place) but they are still better than nonsense games. On the other hand, how many real-life puzzle can you carry around all day without creating chaos? Use the versatility and small size of the tablet/mobile to provide several pedagogical alternatives to your child.

Other educational alternatives, include:
Reading: I download library books, free kindle books and free samples of kindle books and read those to her. She loves them and as she gets older, she likes to turn the pages herself. There are also many free Tab Tales books out there that are interactive and allow options for you to read for your child, or to allow the automatic voice to read to you.

Talking: I had heard somewhere that kids cannot learn language from machines. This is not the case with mine (though I understand that human interaction must be more beneficial). Before going to daycare, she learned new words from talking books on the iPad – words we had not spoken to her at home. But if you do want to boost your child’s verbal skills, you can use whatever app she enjoys to help her learn new words. E.g. The
Ginger Birthday app displays different types of food, and my kid is learning the words for them as we interact while playing it (more on this app later in the post)

Holding Even if I am busy doing something and need to leave my child to play on the iPad, if I can do whatever I am doing sitting down and holding her in my arms, I will do so. She may not be getting my full attention, but I believe having her in my arms at least must make her feel secure and loved on some level.

Use screen time socially
I sometimes let my child look at photos or videos of loved ones and friends in order to remind her of them (if she has not seen them in a while or misses them). It is screen time, but in this case it is helping her social development as she e.g. watches herself dance with her daycare classmates and names them. On another funny social note, when any person on the screen waves and says hi, she responds (strangely, she does not necessarily do so in real life! We’ll get there some day)

Find friendly apps
I am strongly against apps that promote violence of any kind. What’s with the talking Tom apps that allow you to hit the cat even when you are on Child Mode? I have heard an update stops them from doing so, but I have not installed the latest app on my devices anyway. If, for some reason, your child gets addicted to that app, though (and in my case she did, but not on my machine, I try to say “no, we don’t hit cats” and try to help her find other ways to entertain herself with the app, e.g. Sing to it, feed the cat, dress the cat, etc. It usually works.

One of the really friendly Talking apps is Ginger birthday (encourages your child to eat with it, and actually prefers healthy food like broccoli over junkfood like cake and lollipops) and the other Ginger app that takes a bath and brushes its teeth and is tickled when you touch its feet

Get out!
This is a tough one. If you are not too exhausted, try to just get out of the house and go somewhere where your child can play and be distracted by other things and not need a screen. I think this is really the only way to truly manage a reduction in screen time, but I think if we could physically run after a child outdoors for hours on end, we wouldn’t be feeling this guilty and reading (or writing) this post. I also noticed that my child knows that certain people do not have mobile devices with games on them (e.g. Her grandmas) and will find ways to entertain herself when she is alone with them with no mobile/tablet in sight. So if they know there is no machine there, they will probably survive! My next plan is to try the “I forgot it at home” trick on a long car ride… But that might be a bit difficult!

There. I feel a little bit relieved now that I have written this.

Please do share here any tips you have for reducing screen-time for your kids. Or, indeed, any research that suggests it is not that bad for them (wishful thinking, I know).