The national host of Screen-Free Week is the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. You can Download your free Organizer’s Kit that gives lots of ideas for you to do at home, at school or in the community to raise awareness about the amount of time children are using screens instead of doing other things that are better for their health, social life, school success and family relationships. By promoting Screen-Free Week, you can reach out to friends and colleagues to help children and families discover fun, screen-free activities. Here are some ideas from the Organizer’s Kit to help you plan activities that are easy and rewarding (click image to enlarge).
One of the biggest challenges to Screen-Free Week is finding alternatives to screens. Bringing out the board games and crafts is always fun, but the easiest destination with the biggest bang for the buck is to open the door and just go outside. Screen-Free Week is a great time to reconnect with nature and re-discover how time outside can be filled with wonder, exploration, imagination, exercise, fewer allergies, more conversation – and even greater school success.
According to a recent international survey by The Nature Conservancy, supported by Disney, 83 percent of U.S. parents accept the fact that time in nature leads to school improvement – in fact, it was the second most important influence after reading. Yet, 65 percent of U.S. parents of children ages 3 – 18 do not think their children are spending enough time outside. Parents expressed as much concern about children not going outside as they did about bullying, obesity and education. Stephanie Wear, a scientist for The Nature Conservancy commented, “This is really encouraging because it tells us that to parents, nature is not just ‘something to do’ but a crucial part of childhood.”
According to parents, preschoolers spend about 12 hours of each week outside, while teenagers over age 16 spend less than seven hours per week in nature. Parents from all countries surveyed want their children to spend more time outside than they currently do. Parents in the U.S., France and Hong Kong believe that homework is the biggest obstacle to older children spending more time outside, followed by the lure of technology. Only U.S. parents admitted that a primary obstacle to going outside is their children’s discomfort with being outdoors, e.g. too hot, too many bugs.
It’s fair to say, especially for younger children, that a major reason why they don’t spend more time outdoors is because parents or other adults don’t take them outdoors. According to The Nature Conservancy, we need to recognize parents as “the primary gatekeepers to nature.” Not surprisingly, the survey found that children are much more likely to be outside with a parent or guardian than a friend, teacher or extended family member. So, as we prepare for Screen-Free Week, it would be a good time to go on-line to the Nature Rocks Activity Finder which gives parents ideas on what to do outside, with kids of all ages and in all types of weather. Go to EYI’s Pick-a-Park website to search for one of the 700 parks on Long Island where you can enjoy these activities.
As advocates of Screen-Free Week – coming May 5-11, 2014 – we strongly believe it is an important time to consider media in the lives of children. During this week, we ask parents to pause, and take an audit of screen use at home – when, how much, what is being watched, on what medium – for both themselves and their children. Then we want parents to establish some rules that put the time spent with screens in perspective with other activities that may be healthier for the child’s development and family relationships.
This year, however, we must add into the conversation a growing body of research suggesting that some media can benefit children “when those media are designed to be understood by young children, and used mindfully by the parents, teachers, and other caregivers around them.” Based on a report by Lisa Guernsey from the New America Foundation, studies have shown that both teachers and parents believe media can have a positive effect on children’s learning. Research also finds that there is little professional development for teachers on this subject and that parents are adrift in not knowing what media might be beneficial. Furthermore, many preschool programs and homes do not have access to the Internet to find appropriate learning opportunities.
The report proposed “five essential actions” that can improve the benefits of media and adapt to changing technologies:
- Aim high – Policies and practices should set high expectations on the use of technology to improve learning.
- Boost the workforce – Teachers, administrators and parents need more information about what media can be beneficial to children’s learning.
- Tap hidden assets – Consider the contributions that libraries, pediatricians and public media can make in advising teachers and parents about appropriate media.
- Connect to information and each other – Work on creating better connections for preschool programs and families so they have access to useful media for their children through the Internet.
- Investigate – Continue to research what really works in improving children’s learning with screens.
What is clear is that we are moving towards an era where a better understanding of how children learn will be integrated into new technologies. It is no longer, NEVER use technology, but, rather, consider which games, apps and screens may be appropriate and of course, how much is appropriate, especially at home, in light of increased technology usage in schools. You can read up on this during Screen-Free Week, but don’t start using it until after May 11th!
The Early Years Institute is launching its fourth annual campaign to increase awareness about the overuse of screen-based entertainment in the lives of children. Over 4,000 families participated in last year’s events sponsored by child care programs, schools and PTAs, libraries, and environmental centers. We were heartened by the creative events hosted by these agencies, largely to remind families about other forms of entertainment that are more stimulating to the brain, more conducive to developing social skills and far more effective in building family relationships. Many groups pulled out old board games, with senior citizens showing children how to play Clue, Candyland and card games. Others introduced children to music and outdoor activities that nurture the whole child.
The need to reduce screen time is ever more important because of the increased presence of technology in schools and the lure of new media and commercialization that is ubiquitous in all of our lives. Toys like Lego and Play-Doh that once inspired creative play are now marketed primarily in kits, many of them designed in partnership with companies interested in selling other products. Consider the success of the recent Lego movie. While there have been advances in some technology that can help young children learn, there is also more research on the long-term effects of screens on young children. There are some areas, such as the impact of watching violence, that have not been researched enough. Consider these findings:
- Studies of videos designed for babies have been found successful at keeping infants entertained, but they do very little to help them learn new words or concepts. Some researchers have found that children who watch baby media at early ages have fewer language skills than children who were exposed to videos at a later age. One author, Rebekah A. Richert, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, stated, “I don’t think we’ve seen anything to suggest that kids younger than 18 months, even with parents’ support, will learn anything from a DVD. http://wwwqa.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/261/news/fullstory_109698.html
- From the research that has been conducted in the past, we can roughly estimate that about 90% of movies include some depictions of violence, as do 68 percent of video games, 60 percent of TV shows, and 15 percent of music videos (Wilson, 2008). However, the presence of violent images seen by children has not been widely studied. According to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the research on TV is nearly two decades old, video game research hasn’t kept pace with current modes of gaming, and studies of online exposure are nearly nonexistent. There hasn’t been agreement on what should count as “violence.” In the widespread concern about bullying, this would seem a ripe area for research. http://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/media-and-violence-an-analysis-of-current-research
Visit our website to get more information and resources to participate in Screen-Free Week, May 5 – 11, 2014: www.eyi.org/programs/screen-free-week. Please let us know if you plan to hold any events and if you collect pledges from parents.
The income gap portends the achievement gap in large part because of all the extras that wealthy parents provide to their children and the opportunities that are lost to the poor. The proliferation of baby products and supposedly educational toys is highly enticing to well-educated parents who all believe their children are above average – a statistical impossibility. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 in 2012 is $241,080. Wealthy parents spend far more than the average. We can start with the $4,495 Roddler custom stroller.
The size of the baby product industry is estimated to be $49.2 billion, according to Packaged Facts Market Research. Despite a decline of 324,000 births from 2006 to 2012 (or 3.2 percent drop), there has been a 23 percent increase in spending on young children, or $9.2 billion during this six year period.
Between the 1880s and 1930s, children were seen as critical to the economic survival of the family. In fact, parents took out life insurance plans on their children to make up for lost wages in case the child died. Given that 20-30 percent of children under age 4 died before 1900, this seemed wise. In 2010, fewer than one percent of children under 4-years old died. Not only did children’s health improve, but increased societal wealth and child-labor laws led parents to reclassify their children as “a separate sphere, untainted by economic concerns,” according to Viviana Zelizer, a Princeton sociologist and the author of “Pricing the Priceless Child.” Parents also developed a more sentimentalized view of children in which all of their needs and wants became paramount.
As distinct from our history, having children in the U.S. today is an economic cost to parents. This is worrisome for families who do not have the resources to spend on all the new gadgets and resources for children. This may have some advantages because some of those costly items do not provide the educational benefits they tout. But the gap is too large and the advantages that affluent parents are creating for their children are shredding the prospect of equitable opportunity for our youngest children.
One of the factors complicating the expansion of pre-K is that Kindergarten isn’t secure. Many people are surprised to learn that Kindergarten is not mandated in New York State. In fact, according to a new report from the New America Foundation, “only 11 states and the District of Columbia require their public schools to provide free, full-day kindergarten by law. Alternatively, six states have no statute requiring any Kindergarten at all. And though the remaining states require at least a half-day be provided, 12 allow for districts to require parents to pay for the second half of the day.”
The majority of New York State’s 695 school districts offer full-day Kindergarten. Only 36 districts in the state offer half-day Kindergarten and 11 of these districts – over 30 percent of the state total – are on Long Island:
|East Meadow||Central Islip|
In recent years, Kindergarten has been on the proverbial chopping block during annual budget seasons on Long Island. In wealthy districts, it is assumed that non-working parents prefer half-day programs and can afford to pay for Kindergarten in the private market if they want it. In high needs districts, there aren’t enough funds to support Kindergarten.
The fact is full-day Kindergarten classes have shown better results than half-day classes, where they receive 2-4 hours of class time compared to 4-7 hours in a full-day class. Research indicates that full-day Kindergarten yields:
- Quality instruction
- Teaching strategies that align with children’s learning, e g. developmental centers, child choice time, play, investigation
- Better engagement between teachers and children in activities that develop critical learning skills and self-regulation.
If we are to pursue pre-K expansion, it must be aligned with K-3 education. Continuity of learning is critical and full-day Kindergarten would assure the appropriate developmental trajectory for young children. Now, if we had policies and communities that strengthened and supported parents from the time children are born, we might not need Kindergarten. We could start school at age 7 as they do in the countries such as Finland and Korea, whose 15-year olds score highest on international achievement tests.
Recent polling captures the state’s response to the hoopla around pre-K and early childhood education. This is largely in reaction to the President’s proposal for Preschool for All and Mayor De Blasio’s election promise for universal pre-K and how Governor Cuomo responded to the Mayor’s proposal. Generally, Democrat, Republican and Independent voters believe pre-K investments are needed and would be effective in helping young children succeed in school and reducing poverty.
Here are some highlights of what these polls found:
- Quinnipiac University Poll, February 12, 2014:
- 70 percent of New York voters support universal pre-K in general, including 91 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Independent voters.
- 78 percent of voters say UPK would be very or somewhat effective in improving education for all New York State children while 74 percent say UPK would help poor children get “on a path out of poverty.”
- Voters prefer no-new-taxes to pay for pre-K as proposed by Governor Cuomo (47 percent) compared to De Blasio’s proposal to tax households earning more than $500,000 to pay for pre-K (37 percent).
Mr. De Blasio criticized the wording of the question which he felt made Governor Cuomo’s plan sound like it had no budget implications, while his plan raised taxes. De Blasio commented, “The way they phrased this question was the equivalent of asking, ‘Would you like a bowl of free candy?’ To which most people would say, ‘Yes.’ ” The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute stood by the wording of the question.
- Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, 2013
- This poll was commissioned by the early childhood group First Five Years Fund and found that voters ranked quality early childhood education as a national priority, second only to job growth.
- They found that 86 percent of registered voters rated universal high-quality pre-K as a major national concern. And about half said they “strongly support” President Obama’s $75 billion universal pre-K proposal.
- Over two-thirds of voters (68 percent) believe that about half of children are arriving at Kindergarten without the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.
- Fully 70 percent are willing to support a federal plan that helps states provide better early childhood education programs to low- and middle-income families without increasing the debt, with strong majorities of support among Republicans (60 percent), Independents (64 percent) and Democrats (84 percent).
When Governor Cuomo was asked about the Quinnipiac poll, Mr. Cuomo said that voters did not care about the particulars and just wanted prekindergarten to be expanded. “I think most people say, you know, as long as it’s being paid for by government, that’s what’s important. I think they’re saying there should be pre-K.” I agree that these are the sentiments being expressed. I just wish they would all expand the agenda to include more aspects of early childhood education than just pre-K, e.g. home visiting, medical homes, child care subsidies, after-school care. But we will get there. We have to.
In early February, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held hearings on the President’s plan for “Preschool for All.” Among those who testified was John White, Louisiana State Superintendent of Education, who shared an incredibly succinct description of the dysfunction and inefficiencies in the current non-system of early childhood services, along with an innovative strategy that Louisiana has developed that is creating systemic change.
Mr. White stated that early childhood education, “if done well, it is a potent arrow in the quivers of those fighting the effects of inequality and poverty.” He said that the greatest barrier to success, besides financing, “is the fragmentation of our country’s early childhood education system.”
Mr. White went on to talk about the different governance structures and funding streams that create multiple definitions of quality outlined in various sets of regulations. He bemoaned the lack of a single point of access for parents, leaving some programs with waiting lists and others nearby with vacancies. Further, after assessing all Kindergartners in the state, Louisiana found nearly half (46 percent) requiring “intensive support” in literacy. Mr. White said, “Tracking those Kindergarten numbers back to four-year old settings shows that we have wide disparities in the extent to which centers are equipping children with fundamental literacy skills.”
What Louisiana did was create a statewide early childhood network, bringing child care, Head Start, pre-K, and publicly-funded private preschools under one system. They developed pilot networks of local providers around a set of “core principles: unified enrollment and access for families; minimum academic and developmental standards, birth through five, with shared measurement of child development to guide the way; and a basic standard of teacher effectiveness with equal access to professional development for teachers in all program types.” A local organization, e.g. a school or nonprofit agency, was identified to coordinate the network.
The networks also help identify the number of children ages zero to five who are eligible for publicly-funded services. They will eventually develop enrollment targets and operate a fully united enrollment process. “This means that parents will have clear, comparable information in making choices and, rather than driving from center to center hoping for a spot, will be able to rank all choices in one application. Coordination will enhance parental choice.”
One of the most exciting parts of this strategy is that it is being designed so that the state is able to learn from the local networks prior to crafting statewide policy. This is how policy should be formed. It takes the lead from localities and creates policies based on the supports they need to sustain a coordinated system. This helps the state create flexible policies that suit the various urban, suburban and rural parts of the state. In New York, we keep trying to coordinate statewide, and frankly, we have not ventured out of our silos. We are not using the tools of government wisely. We can learn from Louisiana.
We continue to hear that just about everything we become, starts in early childhood. The link between early childhood experiences and the diseases and afflictions of old age is well substantiated in a groundbreaking report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Commission to Build a Healthier America entitled Time to Act: Investing in the Health of Our Children and Communities. The report “focuses on ways to influence the upstream determinants of American’s generally poor health, including low levels of education and incomes, unsafe environments and non-nutritious food.” The top recommendation is to “invest in the foundations of lifelong physical and mental well-being of our youngest children.”
Many of the conclusions were drawn from a long-running “Adverse Childhood Experiences Study” conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente. Following 17,000 members of Kaiser’s HMO plans since 1995, they found that “more than two-thirds of study participants reported at least one adverse childhood experience, including psychological, sexual or physical abuses.” These experiences were consistently linked to disease of the heart, lung, and liver, as well as cancer and depression. This association led them to conclude that we need “major new initiatives” to strengthen families and communities. Based on the fact that the U.S. currently ranks 25th out of 29 industrialized nations in guaranteed access for all low-income children to high-quality preschools, their chief recommendation was to expand preschool opportunities.
The health perspective in early childhood education and school readiness initiatives is critical because it helps us look at the whole child in the context of where they are developing. We seem to accept that the environment has an influence on our health. Most people take that literally, associating the environment with factors such as lead paint, contaminated water, and mold. In a broader sense, the environment also includes conditions at home and in the community. We now know that security and love in the environment has everything to do with protecting children from toxic stress and “adverse childhood experiences.”
Incorporating health into the framework of school readiness helps us remember the importance of the child’s environment to their full development. We need to transfer that focus into educational attainment in the preschool years. Too often, the “education” focus on early childhood leads people to support the child’s cognitive development and ability to recognize numbers, colors and letters. People don’t necessarily accept that the environment at home and in the community also affects a child’s ability to learn. The RWJF report stated that child care programs shouldn’t just focus on children’s educational attainment, but should also focus on “building the resources and capacities of parents and other caregivers to promote resilience in young children.”
And here is where policy needs to take a critical turn. We keep developing top-down programs that sprinkle funding on a specific service in the community. On the other hand, if funds were given to the community and it was allotted to a child care center and a health clinic that worked together to assure all children had been screened for developmental delays or the library and the school that partnered on family literacy, then we would reach children and families in a more meaningful and effective way. We keep missing the boat on how early learning environments at home and in the community stimulate the whole child. The RWJF report takes a critical first step towards calling attention to this much needed change.
If reading scores are indicative of our future, we may be hearing about developers building prisons rather than affordable housing or walk-able communities. Research suggests that if children are not reading proficiently by fourth grade, they are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to end up in jail. Based on a new study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters and Early Warning Confirmed,” we have much to be concerned about: 66 percent of ALL fourth graders are not proficient in reading by this time; this is also true for 80 percent of low-income fourth graders.
Most groups of children have seen reading gains in the past decade, but the disparities among children from different income groups has widened. While reading proficiency levels increased by 17 percentage points among children from higher-income families, the increase was only 6 percent for those from lower-income families. As a result, the gap in reading proficiency between high- and low-income students grew by 20 percentage points over the past decade. Gaps persist in every state and grew in nearly all states over the past ten years. The gap increased by more than 30 percent in 12 states and the District of Columbia, with the largest increases in the District, Hawaii and Tennessee.
Gaps persist among racial and ethnic groups as well. While 55 percent of white children are not proficient in reading by fourth grade, that number rises to 83 percent for black children, 81 percent for Latino children and 78 percent for American Indian children. The group with the greatest percentage of children not proficient in reading by fourth grade is dual language learners (93 percent) – “one of the few groups for whom reading proficiency rates did not improve over the past ten years.”
The report wisely calls for comprehensive, early investments to assure children are reading proficiently by fourth grade. Their beautifully-worded conclusion says it all, “Research points to the need to make certain that children are physically healthy so they can be present and learning every day, socially and emotionally on track and exposed to as much language as possible in the early years to increase their chances of meeting this important milestone. To do this, we must encourage and support parents, families and caregivers to be co-producers of good outcomes for their children. This means ensuring that families are economically stable, emotionally healthy and actively engaged in children’s learning every day.”