Posts Tagged electronic sedatives

The Inspirational Virtues of Summer Boredom

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“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” — Dorothy Parker

A 2013 review of the literature published by Behavior Sciences concludes that boredom motivates a desire for change, new goals, experiences and pursuits.  “Boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed.”  — On the Function of Boredom.

Boredom can be seriously toxic in certain circumstances — like smart kids enduring a tedious lesson.  But it can also be just what the doctor ordered.

In the pre-electronics age, a time quickly joining antiquity, my summer break from school was punctuated with boredom sometimes verging on physically painful.  Except for the annual two-week family vacation, my parents’ life went on as usual.  Entertaining us was not their job.  We could play, after all.  They worked.  Oh, they’d take us to the movies sometimes, the beach, someone’s pool.  My father might play ping pong or cards.  But essentially we were on our own.  They had zero sympathy for our plight.

Even with my big imagination and epic fantasy life, I could fall into a dull passivity that ached with the feeling I was owed distraction and entertainment.  On one hot mid-summer day, I sprawled out on the slope of the front lawn for all the neighborhood to see how utterly uncared-for I was.  I wanted aliens, traveling circus troupes or any sort of fun-lovers to rescue me with any sort of diverting jumper cables to spark my spoiled, entitled paralysis.  I imagine my mother glancing out the window, dishrag in hand, exasperated with her demanding daughter.  But it wasn’t her problem.

Since the naked ape became upright, kids have hated boredom so badly that it spurred them to act.  Get your own butt off that grass and get engaged in something.  When distractions are unavailable, curiosity will set in.  Besides passive rescue, what does your inner voice want?  What interests it?  Let that voice grow louder.  It has urges.  It has ideas.  It wonders…

One solution was to go find a friend.  But while my sisters had a wealth of playmates in our big-family neighborhood, the kids my age were all boys and no fun.

I liked making things.  Our world was full of tools, scrap wood, sand piles, dirt, water, and random junk for creating environments for imaginary beings or willing pets.

But sometimes the listlessness was so great, I resentfully gravitated towards books.  At summer’s start, books could feel like the school from which I’d been liberated.  In time though, literary adventures in foreign lands and unfamiliar times were a godsend.

Our local library ran summer competitions.  If you read a book and wrote a paragraph about it, assuring the librarians that you didn’t merely skim, they’d post it on corkboard walls put up for the purpose.  They gave prizes — the most books read, best writing, best handwriting, best illustration, best summary, best whatever.  Prizes included candy, because like constant entertainment, candy was also not then in constant supply.  The incentives worked.  Soon the neighborhood kids and I were all vying for the library’s honors.

Besides, the library building somehow stayed cool longer than others.  Comfortable seats looked out on a shady garden, also a pretty backdrop to daydreams.  I scanned the walls to admire my own paragraphs and to monitor the competition.  More than once I emerged from a story mortified to see my mother marching at me with pursed lips, wondering what happened to my promise to be home at such-and-such hour?

Oh I know. Books are passe.  They’re the sort of thing an older writer might mention as a cure for summer ennui.  But these days my electronic in-box is crammed with articles and despairful research on “summer learning loss,” all of which propose solving by giving kids a ton more school.  Yes, these days what most kids do in their downtime is largely brain deadening.  Still, the educational hand-wringers never suggest that the kids need time to build, roam, investigate, settle disputes with friends, invent games.  And they certainly never propose helping them develop pursuits of their own that could ignite curiosity into questions that a nice librarian might help with.  As an industry, Education accidently turned books into a colossal chore, when they really can be entertaining and just what kids want.  Books speak to and with that inner voice.  Video games, TV and texting just shut it out.

As a friend says: attention is currency; spend it wisely.  If good things — friends, construction materials and books are at hand — kids will marshal their own attention to concentrate in healthy ways.  These articles in my inbox are always looking to provide kids with improving experiences, when what they really need are safe neighborhoods with good libraries and fewer e-distractions, where they can invent themselves and worlds of their own.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Unplugged Elementary Kids and Online Tests Don’t Mix

Published by — Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

Recently I was at a luncheon where a Mom and Grandma minded their two-year-old by plugging him into a propped-up iPad and putting food at his right hand.  He remained inert unless the iPad fell flat or snacks ran out.  But twice in the roughly two-plus hours his animal self erupted out of the e-prison.  Unexpressed energy thrashed his body until he could get out of the high chair to run, screaming at the top of his lungs, with the two women giving chase.  Both times his restlessness was sated after tearing around uncontrollably for a while, when he willingly returned to his addictions.  Guests shrugged it off because, after all, this is the new normal.

Only 20 years ago, teachers, me and others bemoaned the posture of children watching TV — passive, glazed-eyed, slumped.  Now we’re maddened by the behavior and the nano-second attention span of plugged-in children.  Doctors, among others, beg parents to limit “screen time.”  Children should have 2 or 3 hours of rough-and-tumble play every day, but they don’t get that.  Electronic sitters and sedatives are too convenient for the adults.

Increasingly, teachers and doctors see physical, psychological and behavioral disorders.  Heavy technology use is associated with epidemic levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, as well as soaring rates of ADHD, autism, developmental, physical and speech delays, learning difficulties, sensory-processing and sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.

The terrific Susan Linn calls the commercial world of electronics “mitigated reality.”  But young children need to download the software of real reality by getting out in it, falling down and going boom, discovering insects, making friends, mud pies and forts, exploring the neighborhood.  Currently a minority of families, usually well-educated, keeps their kids unplugged and learning the way biology built their brains to learn.

Don’t get me wrong:  Skype with Grandma is fine.  Assisted technologies for special-needs children and anything that gets squirmy children through a coast-to-coast flight are just fine.  But.

Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

By grade 5 or 6, children have had an actual childhood and are starting to bump up against puberty.  The pre-adolescent brain gains significantly increased capacity for abstraction and needs complex challenges.  Computer skills, including internet research and coding, can draw students back into the world of learning, just as young adolescents are asserting themselves and detaching from childhood ways.  There’s no downside to putting off computers, except the inconvenience to adults.

But elementary public schools have no choice but to plug kids in.  Third-graders must be ready to be successful on online standardized tests.  So little ones, kindergartners, prepare for computer-based tests from the moment the schools can get them started.  If schools don’t, the kids’ poor results will feed the naming-and-shaming frenzy that characterizes the education-industry’s punitive use of otherwise interesting data.

Since the passage of NCLB in 2002, annual online testing has become the new norm.  Students in grades 3-8 — and one grade in high school — have been tested with computer-based assessments every year since.  Now the fast on-coming Common Core tests, PARCC and Smarter Balance, will not just be online, but administered more often, with interim and so-called “formative” assessments.  While education leaders give lip service to “alternative assessments,” they don’t mean portfolios, writing samples, paper-pencil tests, or any way of assessing kids that doesn’t collect data via computer and score it electronically.

High-tech data collection made online testing seem essential.

Scoring the old paper-pencil, bubble-in tests was expensive, even with scanners and other machinery helping the process.  Prior to the 1990s, the norm was to give one basic-skills test in elementary, middle and high school.  Buzz generated by the release of the scores died down quickly and indifference set in.  Ultimately, the data weren’t very useful.  And without the data, the public had no idea how underserved certain kids were.  So no one, including me, wants to return to the days of zero information about the quality of the schools.  We want data, but not necessarily via kids on computers.

Families committed to keeping their elementary-age kids unplugged are forced to home-school or pay for private schools.  Not even charters offer an out because they have the same public-reporting accountability requirements as every other public school.

So who’s thinking this through?  If we don’t like the unteachable behavior of plugged in kids, what are we doing plugging kindergartners into online testing?  We can’t wag our fingers at parents and homes for delivering distracted, impulsive kids, and then plug them in at school for “educational” purposes.  The situation is a mess.

Technology is convenient.  Kids are not.  If we don’t slow down to pay attention to their needs, we’re going to raise a whole lot of young adults whom we don’t like and who aren’t good for much.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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