Report From Four-Year-Olds

‘Newt Gingrich, in a speech delivered during what President Bush dubbed “Education Week,” declared that if every four-year-old in America had her own computer and was on the Internet, we’d see an enormous difference in the quality of thinking and learning of our young people. At last—something Newt and I can agree on! But wait: what Mr. Gingrich proposes as a catholicon represents for me at best a red herring and at worst a dreadful mistake.

I wonder, has Mr. Gingrich spent any time with a four-year-old lately, or ever? If so, he’d know that even the most precocious four-year-olds generally can’t read much, though they love books. Any time spent at a computer, therefore, is essentially a video game—that is, unless a caring and savvy adult sits with them, reads to them and makes it an educational experience. But then, isn’t that what reading books to a child entails? Of what use is the computer, except as a game, a diversion, yet another screen—literally and figuratively—mediating between the four-year-old and her most potent learning tool: intellectual and emotional engagement. I spend a lot of time with four-year-olds, and I defy anyone to craft a cogent argument for any value (for the child, anyway) in setting those children up with their own computers, let alone Internet access. The idea is preposterous.

Still, buzzwords and catchphrases and misguided ideas (based on equal parts pop psychology and pop technology) spread like wildfire, and everyone feels the heat as widespread ignorance and folly fan the flames. Of course, there’s a cachet about computers nowadays that makes the idea of giving one to every child seem all but sacrosanct—unless you think about it, which we generally would rather not do. Better by far and easier to quantify, measure and, most of all, be guided by the dictum, “The future is now for our children.” But the fact is, now is now.

So concerned are we to maximize time these days—epitomized by ill-conceived notions about what a child needs in order to have a competitive advantage—that we seem to have forgotten the fine art of idling away time by losing ourselves in each other’s thoughts. I find it odd that the phrase “interactive learning” no longer suggests two or more people engaged in a dynamic exchange, but has come to be synonymous with the image of a child glued to a computer screen. Computers, TV’s, video games—none of these bear the remotest relation to interactive learning, especially for a four-year-old.

Last Friday afternoon as I lay on the living room floor with my two daughters, feeling sapped and wondering what we should do next, a wonderful thing happened: nothing. We decided to turn on the portable radio and cruise the dial, idly stopping to listen now and then, volume low, talking about whatever came to mind, asking each other questions, listening to the answers, imbibing the time together. Thus we passed the better part of an hour, idly rummaging around in each other’s arms and minds, idle, content and curious all at the same time.

I’ve always loved the fact that the radio is an external source of stimulus, but by no means a mind-numbing or tyrannical one—less a zoning out than a tuning in. Moving the dial is like tilling the soil of one’s own mind: Where will it take me next? I vividly remember listening to the radio as a boy, my mom’s transistor under my pillow late at night. While my peers were playing Pong or Space Invaders, I was listening to CBS Radio’s “Mystery Theater” with my dad and scanning the AM dial slowly to pick up bits and pieces of broadcasts from faraway cities. This bygone form of entertainment shaped my imagination and accounts for my instinctively tepid (read: skeptical) response to whatever is hailed as the next big media craze or learning tool.

It hardly needs to be said that the fact that an idea is novel or popular does not mean it’s worth a whit. A computer and access to the Internet are of questionable value to many adult minds, let alone to a pre-schooler. Staring at a screen and occasionally—even feverishly—clicking a mouse does not constitute a significant learning experience, unless by learning we mean multisensory overload. The approach to a child’s mind that argues “give ’em a computer and the Internet and you’ve given ’em the world” is worse than specious—it’s bankrupt. For putting it all right there in front of them leaves no room for that indispensable ingredient of a fledgling learner: the imagination.

Even the worthiest innovations come at a price, and often a loss. While the technology-driven learning opportunities available to children are ever evolving, the most important tool for a child’s learning and growth remains the same: the focused attention of a loving adult. Sometimes a much-ballyhooed idea simply needs to be seen for what it is—stupid.

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