Is Tech What Kids Really Want? One Teacher’s Social Experiment

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From Dr. Screen-Free Mom and Dad: If given the choice, will young kids choose engaging yet solitary educational computer games or highly-social old-school board games? The following commentary, which was submitted to us by a teacher who has taught in elementary education for 12 years, addresses just that question. It chronicles one teacher’s social experiment that pitted educational computer games against old-school board games in her third grade classroom. The outcome left us pleasantly surprised.

Is Tech What Kids Really Want? One Teacher’s Social Experiment

The History of Tech in My Third Grade Classroom

Prior to my social experiment, I would have emphatically said, “Yes! Kids really do want tech!” I had witnessed first-hand the magnetic draw of children to engaging screen activities.

My experiment started by accident. I teach third grade in an ESL inclusive classroom within an urban district and each year, the district renews licenses of computer applications intended to individualize student learning and record data about student performance in reading and math. Schools across the US are mandating the use of these types of applications in different ways and forms. Some of the computer applications in my school involve reading passages or math problems paired with animated modules that review concepts. Others include avatars and mini games that kids can play if they score a correct answer. My classroom has a ratio of 1:5 (laptop: students).

My idea to try to challenge tech was sparked after a concerning event at the end of the last school year. A third grade student of mine had an emotional breakdown when she was asked to end her time on the computer. She was working on a reading application mandated by the school district, yet she couldn’t let go.  She became irrational and argumentative. She gripped the laptop desperately, pleading for me to give her just a few more minutes. I was astonished at her reaction to turning off the tech and it haunted me well into the night. This little girl wasn’t your usual tech obsessed kid. She spent time cutting and building things out of construction paper in her free time. She loved to socialize, but here she was on this computer with her eyes glazed over begging for more.

After some reflection, I had a plan to combine limits with more hands-on learning. I would allow the reading and math programs to be used only once per week during our computer lab time. I would limit each child to 15 minutes per week of computer time in the classroom on the reading program. I added more differentiated group time where students would work in hands-on centers and added more teacher-led reading groups targeting specific reading skills. But as the days went by, the kids were still asking every day if they could use the computer. I stood firm and said no.  The laptops stayed closed.  They got dusty.  But the kids still obsessed about the next time they would be able to use them.

Indoor Recess as an Opportunity

On a rainy day, we were trapped inside for indoor recess. That’s when my social experiment was born. While I think daily outdoor time is critical for child development, I think indoor recess offers unique opportunities. I like it because kids playing in closer proximity tend to practice more socialization and problem solving. I decided I would not restrict them to certain activities but allow free play. I gave them several play options: coloring books, puzzles, board games, K’nex, whiteboards, and construction paper. I even decided to give them the option of using the laptops with strict limits to reading applications and certain bookmarked educational websites.

The Importance of Modeling and Appealing Alternatives

The beginning of the experiment went as expected. All kids wanted to be on the five computers in the room. Those that weren’t on the computer, stood behind their classmates and begged for a turn. I decided the kids needed some attractive alternatives and a little social modeling. The makers of the computer games had spent years developing entertaining websites that kids would love. However, I found I only needed to spend a few minutes developing some inviting play spaces. I took out some board games and taught the other students how to play games like Monopoly Jr. and Trouble. I modeled turn taking skills and reminded them of the rules of play. I slowly drifted around and monitored groups without interrupting them. A few kids who were waiting for their computer time, craned their necks towards the kids on the floor. They wandered over, hovering behind kids playing board games. They tried to interrupt the games in progress. I intervened and modeled how to appropriately ask to join a game or wait for a turn. They grinned and settled in with their tech-free friends.

The next time we had indoor recess, all five computers filled up yet again. However, no students stood behind them. In fact, many students said they didn’t want to go on the computer. They excitedly grabbed a board game and began playing. A couple students settled at a table with a great big, bin of K’Nex. The kids created all sorts of things using their imagination.  That’s when I noticed something interesting. The kids playing reading games on the computer were looking to see why their classmates were giggling. They closed their laptops and joined the closest group on the floor. Around the room, there were many small social groups. I even observed students leaving one group and joining another. I settled disputes that came up occasionally and monitored play. Most disputes were the result of  misinterpreted social cues. I helped kids use language to enter a new group or exit another one.  I guided kids in communicating their feelings in an appropriate way.

The Importance of Choice

is-tech-really-what-kids-want-2-600At the end of the period, my students started telling me how much more fun indoor recess was.  I asked them why. Many students said they loved the choice of games to play. There it was: CHOICE. I hadn’t told them NOT to use the computers. I had given them limitations and offered other more social options of play.

Last week, it rained and we were inside again for recess. Only one student sat on the computer.  She played a spelling game with our spelling words. She does not have access to a computer at home, so computers were still a novelty to her. Every other computer in the classroom was closed and turned off. My tech-obsessed class had discovered by choice that they had more fun playing in a group with board games than on a computer alone. They no longer asked to use the computer during the day.  I watched as their social skills improved in and outside the classroom.

Tech-Free Play Begets More Tech-Free Play (And Learning)

Without interesting tech-free alternatives, my students would still be arguing over whose turn it was. They would still be staring at the screens ignoring others around them.

As humans, we are naturally social creatures, but we aren’t born with social skills. We learn how to socialize by doing.

In the end, my students had CHOSEN to be tech-free, but they didn’t get there by chance. I modeled, supervised and introduced new hands-on games. It required more prep and vigilance than just watching them play on the computer, but they learned skills that can be transferred to real life and will help them longer than their weekly spelling lists. They learned to let go of the tech. They learned to problem solve.

In my small experiment, I noticed that the more tech-free play experiences my students had, the more likely they were to choose tech-free options when given a choice. Tech is often very enticing.  Tech is often the easy choice. However, this experience made me feel that if we provide children with more engaging tech-free activities in school and at home, they just may choose on their own to play tech-free.

About the author:

The author currently teaches third grade in an ESL inclusive classroom and has 12 years of elementary education experience including extensive experience with special education and ESL. She is a big promoter of hands-on learning and has become a cautious adopter of technology in the classroom.