Last weekend I attended a weekend online self-development webinar. I was on a Zoom call on Saturday from 7.30 am until 9.30 pm with a 40-minute lunch break. That 14-hour stretch was followed by another 12 hour stretch on Sunday. 26 hours of screen exposure over a short period of time!

I have never spent so long in my entire life looking at a screen. I struggled to sleep on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, and woke up Monday morning feeling ‘groggy’ and with a ‘heavy head’. Monday was a non-productive day – I struggled to concentrate.

I’m sharing this with you as I am an adult whose ‘daily average’ general screen time activity during lockdown has shifted between 3 and a half and 5 hours. That weekend webinar significantly affected me. It has taught me that excessive screen time is not healthy for me, and that I should opt to print out articles I would otherwise read online, and wave goodbye to online exercise classes!

As the youngest children’s developmental needs are reliant upon human interaction, I am wondering what this lockdown will be like for their development, particularly those under 6 years of age.

For twenty years now, I have made regular visits to Nursery (3-4-year-olds) and Reception (4-5-year-olds) classes in UK Primary schools (and pre-schools 2-3-year-olds) in my role as an Early Years Adviser. As the founder of Readit2 I have met with many Early Years Professionals and school leaders.

Times are rapidly changing. Children are growing up in a new and unique world. Now, babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, school-aged children and adults have constant access to numerous technological devices.

There are now also several thousand research papers from all around the world highlighting the consequences of children having an ‘over-rich’ tech exposure experience.

Here in the UK, we are beginning to see the consequences in our schooling system. This was made evident to me by Annie, who is the Early Years teacher and Leader in a multi-cultural and challenging urban school, upon a recent visit.

“Lovely to see you today, Sarah, lots I want to share and ask”, Annie said as she showed me around her 3 Reception classes (90 children from an urban area). The children were aged 4 -5 years.

It’s the third week in October. As is the case with many urban schools with transient populations, staggering when children start school is a necessity due to the school not knowing who is likely to walk through the door until the very start of the Autumn term. Annie explained that some children may only have been at school for up to 4 weeks and were still being taught how to access the learning environment.

As we wandered around, children approached this warm, experienced and able early years teacher of 15 years standing. This is her second year leading the Reception team after a short spell in the early years many years ago. Intuitive teachers are always ‘magical’ – it’s ‘in them’ and Annie is one of them.

Streams of happy and enthusiastic children approached us. Annie asked them what they had been doing and what they were thinking, and some volunteered information with little prompting.

“I just need to let you know that we may be interrupted, as around 10.15ish each day a boy (I’ll call him John) is brought to me. He’s been in school for just over 4 weeks and he hasn’t spoken yet. I’ve come across several children in my career who are mute, but his behaviour makes this altogether different, so I’m not sure if he is or isn’t – you see, he’s brought to me generally after he has tried to escape from school at least three times – running down the corridor, and once, even trying to dig himself out of school, with a spoon from the sand tray behind the new shed!”

I continued listening.

“This ‘escaping’ started quite soon after he started and I wasn’t sure what to do as he wasn’t speaking just trying to pull himself away from me, so I then have to keep him by my side whatever I am doing until I hand him back to his teacher when the children have gathered together again after their ‘free’ play.” Anyway, I decided to ask around the staffroom to see if anyone could shed any light on this. One of the teachers suggested I say the word FORTNITE to him and see what response I get. At the time I wasn’t even aware of what FORTNITE was (for those readers who are not aware, FORTNITE is a popular video game which involves violence and killing to move up levels).

Anyway, I mentioned the word FORTNITE and John started talking animatedly about it and how he had now needed to leave this level to get to the next level, as he had done what he needed to do. He was 4 years old.”

Both his parents worked – one did nights, the other worked in the day. He had an older brother, had not had any Nursery experience and Annie believed he had been left to his own devices a lot.

During her home visit before he started school, Annie observed that the television remained on. When we discussed it, she said that she also observed an iPad and both parents had mobile phones. An older brother was playing on a PlayStation.

John had spent so much of his life on the game FORTNITE that he believed that was his reality, which was why he was determined to escape the open-plan three form entry Reception Unit. He needed to get to the next level! I found this short video on the Youtube channel ‘scharki.de’ by antonolegovi4 which illustrates well, what living in another reality is like https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DR6lpuOHXvk.

I visited the school again several weeks later. Annie told me a wounded pigeon had landed in the Early Years garden. A group of children were looking at it with an adult who was scaffolding what may have happened to it and showing empathy. John approached, pushed his peers aside and started kicking the ailing pigeon until it died. They were unable to stop him.

In the UK there has been an increase in the number of children who are struggling with what was considered ‘every day’ acceptable school readiness 20, 30 and 40 years ago.

Do we need to guide teachers and educational professionals to offer advice to parents regarding their technological habits?

I was in discussion with a colleague who teaches in a moderate learning difficulties school. He told me that the school has recently had their admissions number increased by 26% from 167 students 2019/2020 to 210 in 2021/2022. He was very interested to know why this might be, but strongly suspects technology plays a part.

During my school visits, I ask teachers to describe their cohorts of children to me so that we can plan, together, how to offer the children what they need developmentally. Over the last twenty years, I have observed a significant increase in the numbers of children who ‘struggle with’ their communication skills, their ability to listen or pay attention, and how they play and share with other children. These are the skills considered a sign of ‘school readiness’ in the UK. In fact, the charity Teach First analysed data (2018) suggesting one-third of UK children are not school ready. It does not appear to be a rosy picture.

So, what do we need to do?
Properly educate EVERYONE about the dangers of screen over-exposure, and what ‘good’ ‘screen time’ looks like. As that is unlikely to be possible, however, let’s start with
Educating all professionals:
– teachers, pre-school leaders/workers, teaching assistants, dentists, all medical professionals including doctors, police, social workers.

Are you joining us?

Sarah Kingham BEd
May 2020

Technology and early childhood: one educators view

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