Fostering Science Education and Positive Technology Use at Home

A child knitting

I have been asked in a couple of different forums about how I have gone about parenting my children with respect ot technology. What came out of that thinking lacks any formal reference to literature, but it does represent my experience. I’ve always felt that despite many potential negatives (and despite being mostly a homesteading luddite sort at home), technology has an important positive role to play as well in my children’s development.

Technology today is a human creation; underlying that creation is a set of crafting skills. The ability to imagine an artificial action in the world, create an image or a movie, print a mechanical object, or send a message all depend on these skills. Yet many of our children never progress beyond simply consuming the artifacts and messages that others create. This article explores, through a series of anecdotes, my personal parenting experiences with technology and tries to shed light on some of the challenges and opportunities my family faced.

My daughter is 2 or 3 or 4. She sees phones around her, and is fascinated by them. Relatives give toy phones that light up and ring to my dismay. Parents are begged for phones. Swiping an iphone or ipad is so intuitive she can do it with ease. We work hard to put computers and phones away in front of the kids, and to do housework, play, singing, and other acts of togetherness when parenting them…. A few months (or a year) pass. I am sick with chronic Lyme disease for many months and years, and find myself learning to parent slowly rather than trying to do everything. We build a cloche, two screws at a time, cuddle, and nap together. One day I am too exhausted to get off the couch. In a fit of desperation I give in to repeated requests… to teach the children to knit, something I know is usually not introduced until first grade at their school. Am I a bad parent? One session and suddenly they’re off and running with this skill they have seen in almost every moment of quiet sitting.

We work hard as parents not to use technology in front of the children, and generally include them in our life rather than structure ours around theirs. All the same, as a parent, the questions I find myself asking about technology readiness and craft readiness are not that different whether it is digital technology, music, knitting, or anything else that the children so desperately want to participate in sometimes before they are of the traditional ‘age readiness’. I wonder why and whether one thing is worse than another. We settle on the rubric that physicality and creativity are important, but balance is equally important. Are they getting social time, exercise, play? Are they learning to handle frustration and self entertain? What is any activity substituting for that would be prefered? We try to minimize the ones we don’t like the answers for.

We are on a train. The train ride is 9 hours long, my children are 4 and 6 if I remember correctly. We have brought a movie, books, felt, yarn, conductive thread, LEDs, batteries, buttons, a multimodal cornucopia of ways to engage. We read, make yarn sculptures, walk the train. Sometime during the train ride I have the goal of learning how to make felt bracelets that can light up. The kids are fascinated. We lay the bracelet flat, but have to think about its top and its bottom and the circle that it creates when the snap is closed. Where does the thread need to go to create this effect? Can we make anything other than bracelets? What about a bookmark, that can tell you which page you were on? You could have two snaps, and fold it over to connect to one or the other depending on which page! The excitement is palpable, and the craft is more than do-able by both children. We make mistakes, plan badly, correct, eventually succeed. I wonder if I am breaking some rule by trying out a 6th grade exercise involving electricity on my 4 and 6 year olds, but I see nothing but pleasure and creativity in their response.

As a computer scientist, what has always fascinated me about technology is the power of arcane acts to create whatever I can imagine, and the importance of imagining good, useful things to create. Around this time I was also beginning to think about how to bring technology into my childrens’ middle-school curriculum, and this project was a first attempt. I am delighted by the invention of the bookmark and by the immediacy of the experience as well as the way it builds on the crafting skills my children already have.

We are leaving on sabbatical for a year. The children are 5 and 7. EBooks are big, it is 2011. Taking a library along would be impossible, but there is a plethora of free and excellent children’s literature (60 years old or older) available on amazon for the Kindle. We buy one and take it on sabbatical along with a drop spindle and a big pile of wool. We also buy the Rosetta Stone software. By the end of the year of travel, we have read innumerable books aloud. The children are used to kindles and have discovered at least one game which we ask them to stop playing. We have invented as many stories as we’ve read, and spun enough wool to knit a pair of socks by the end of Fall, which are completed just in time for Winter.

The kindle feels like a technology win. I like the fact that it is easy on the eyes, and that it lets us dig into so much great literature. Rosetta stone is like a game, but it also feels like a win. It is amazing how easily the kids can pick it up, and it helps lay the groundwork for them to learn two languages during the year we travel. I love the fact that it is so synergistic with other things we are doing (practicing as a family, working with a tutor, immersion in school). It turns out that the human tutor we see most often in the Rosetta stone software actually lives in Zurich, where we are as well. The connections between what we do in our technology, and what we do in our lives are rich and deep and our choices feel positive and right.

The children are older, maybe 3rd and 5th or 4th and 6th grade now. They have learned a little about Scratch programming, another technology that almost any crafty parent could pick up though of course I bring an ease and expertise to this because of my background. We try Raspberry Pis as well, a tiny computer that costs around $30, which they can experiment with and even destroy. We assemble 3D printer kits together because of my research.

I also want to set good examples of creative media use. I try to help with the computational things. All are unsatisfying. Scratch is so artificial. The Pis are slow, and hard to understand for the kids. Joint work is much harder in this realm. Meanwhile, technology’s negative side starts to rear its head. Among my own children and other children we know in the same age group, shockingly considering the age, some are caught reading pornographic fan fiction on a kindle, looking at pornographic videos, having their identity ‘stolen’ to text a hurtful message in their name, watching a spoof of a popular song dance video that turns out to be extremely raunchy.

I start to wonder what I have brought into my children’s lives and how I will proceed.  We have many conversations about pornography, about privacy, about how every online act is essentially public.  This feels similar to sexual education. Talking more, and earlier, but of course in age appropriate ways, is the foundation on which positive parenting can happen. Parenting this requires vigilance, openness, learning, and attention. This wondering is not confined to technology, however.  A child’s awakening to the larger world is a fragile process and I conclude that I need to be as involved and aware as possible, but I have no answers.

These early years set the tone for our work as parents in a technological world. Hard limits in the domain of ‘media consumption,’ with the understanding the forbidden is sometimes more attractive than that which is experienced, discussed, and controlled. Concrete examples of positive uses of media such as learning language, reading emails together from far-away relatives and reinforcing what they are learning in school about searching for information online and evaluating what is trustworthy. Strong support for creative uses of technology, in collaboration with local organizations that support these activities in camps and after school sessions help foster this as well. We ultimately choose to allow unlimited use of the most challenging and creative of applications of technical skills, to support passion, and to teach balance with physical and social activity, as well as other hobbies.

To foster this in a positive fashion, we create a rich home environment that included homesteading activities, craft activities, music, cooking, and we gave them both the opportunity and responsibility to participate in that. We teach them to love the act of creation in many domains. We moved into a neighborhood where both children have friends nearby. All of these things helped to fill their time and create a healthy competition with technology. We’ve reached an equilibrium where the computer is just one of many hobbies, to be used for those things it is good at. Mixed in with all of this, we allow ourselves to enjoy and be amazed by their successes, whether online or offline. And the journey continues…

Impressions of home

We have been living in Hyderabad for a week now, and are pretty well settled in. The children seem to have gotten over their initial homesickness for the most part, our flat has furniture and dishes (and has been cleaned), we’ve met with all of the people who so kindly helped to arrange our trip, and have the settled the kids into a school.

Our apartment has a spacious porch. When we open the doors to it, a cool breeze fills the whole apartment
Our apartment has a spacious porch. When we open the doors to it, a cool breeze fills the whole apartment

Our second floor flat is spacious and breezy (luckily, our area of Hyderabad seems to have an almost constant breeze), with fans in every room and a set of double doors leading to a nice porch. It lacks any softness for now but the cold stone walls and tile floor help to make it cool and comfortable. Although this is monsoon season, the rains have been weak so far, so the temperature on some days has been quite high.

The flat is part of faculty housing at IIIT Hyderabad, and our neighbors have been kind, friendly and helpful. The children already have a new friend who lives just below us. IIIT has also provided us with a staff: someone to sweep and clean, someone to do laundry (an extra perk we very much appreciate as the alternative is scrubbing our own clothing by hand), and an electrician and carpenter on call. The differences in status among people we meet are highly visible. For example, many of the staff do not wear shoes, and I have seen Dhoti worn only by working men while more affluent men tend to wear western clothing. Women tend to wear traditional clothing such as a Salwar kameez or a Sari, and some wear a tunic and pants, while working women wear the Sari almost exclusively. Personally, I find the Salwar Kameez to be the most comfortable option in the heat here although I imagine a Sari would also be comfortable (I don’t yet own any).

My son and daughter playing on the rocks outside our flat
My son and daughter playing on the rocks outside our flat

Outside, the land looks arid compared to what I am used to, with brown earth, short thin trees, and wispy underbrush. However Hyderabad is actually in quite a lush region of India. In fact, although we must take care not to drink unfiltered water, it is used abundantly in daily life. Food is grown everywhere: Huge palm trees full of coconuts line many roads, farms are mixed among buildings and food plants can even be found growing in the dirt along the side of buildings. This neighborhood of Hyderabad (Gachibowli) was apparently mainly a farming community just 10 years ago. On campus, the road we live on continues past our building to a farm with cows and about an acre of growing space.

The area we are staying in is booming, with construction around every corner. Rickety bamboo and stick scaffolding surrounds new construction, filled with workers doing everything from bricklaying to work that might be handled by a crane in the States, while women walk by underneath carrying stones and debris in baskets on their heads.

Hyderabad is a study in contrasts. Below the new buildings and construction, many streets are lined with small shacks built of sticks and tarp. Our dishes, appliances, furniture are built to last (stainless steel is commonly used here for plates and cups, for example). At the same time, everything from oil to milk is purchased in throw-away plastic bags. We have shopped for supplies at small roadside stands, but a few kilometers away is a mall that is only obviously Indian in the style of clothing displayed in some of the store windows.

Amazingly, despite the novelty of our surroundings, we already feel at home. New friends, new spaces, new foods, so many things to see, all keep us busy so the days fly by. But at the end of the day our familiar routine takes over — dinner, stories, bedtime — and the comfort of being a family brings us home again.