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Plastic Toys and Computers - are they really the ruination of childhood?

by Beverley Paine, Aug 1999

I have often read in homeschooling articles passionate arguments why we must protect our children from the products of technology - even one of my homeschooling heroes, John Taylor Gatto, writes on length about the evils of television, plastic toys, computers and modern life in general. My own experiences tend to find a flaw in most of the arguments I have been presented with over the years. And that flaw is personified in my son, Thomas.

Thomas is eleven. He has been home educated since the age of five. We have deliberately chosen a lifestyle different from most of his peers, building our own home on a secluded four and a half acres, employing appropriate technology such as composting toilet and solar and wind electricity generation. Thomas has been fully involved in the construction of the house; he has grown up with the house and garden.

Thomas is unusual in another way. You won't find a cat and dog in Thomas's life - he looks after several guinea pigs, some pigeons and a dozen ducks, chickens and geese. Add to this a magpie that has befriended him and the many lizards he frequently finds when playing outside and you can see that Thomas is very much a person at home with nature.

Part of Thomas's education has been to grow and plant thousands of trees and shrubs and he regularly becomes involved in new landscaping adventures, creating new gardens for himself and others. Thomas's level of environmental knowledge is considerable, and this includes issues such as recycling and conservation. Most people looking at Thomas would say he would look at home on the cover of Grass Roots or Earth Garden magazines. That is, until they see his bedroom...

Thousands of dollars worth of Lego bricks lay strewn across his floor, or stacked neatly on shelves besides the many made up models. Under his desk lie boxes of the usual fare of junk a young boy collects - balls, bottles, small cars, broken electronic equipment, slot cars, train sets, etc. On his desk his rock collection overflows a narrow shelf, spilling down among piles of paper, more toys, more collectables, marbles, a bit more Lego, the latest Star Wars cards, and relics and toys spanning a decade of life.

Having inherited his brother's old bunk Thomas now has plenty of room to sleep, with his millions of teddies cascading onto the slightly lower bed. Thomas's room adjoins the computer room, now boasting two fairly up to date machines, a printer, scanner and modem. One belongs to his sister, the other to the family. This is also the room in which his brother and father repair and upgrade computers, or put together used computers for sale.

Thomas is immersed in computer technology, picking it up confidently and able to upgrade and trouble shoot problems with minimal help. I am amazed at the speed with which he learns and often wonder just how comparatively much more advanced in knowledge he will be in four years time than his brother at sixteen years of age. I can already see the benefit in his daily exposure to computers. Two years ago Thomas would mostly just play games on the computer. This was partly because his level of comprehension and problem solving skills had not matured enough to cope with or even want to understand the problems confronted each day with pulling computers apart and putting them back together. And he preferred simple arcade or racing simulation games to role playing action games. In time this changed, although his skill in these games often exceeds that of his siblings.

Two years ago, at age nine, Thomas couldn't read. Barely a word at least. For the last year Thomas's favourite reading material has been two computer magazines, one of them Computer Market, mostly a collection of advertisements. His need to plan for what he wanted to buy next, not that he could ever afford it, forced him into deciphering the text, slowly but surely. Just as his brother learned to read from gazing hour after hour at Lego catalogues, Thomas learned to read from gazing at computer adverts! In the last two weeks Thomas started to read a novel, something I always knew would happen, despite the dire warnings of the anti-technology homeschooling people. And not late at night or early in the morning while lying in bed like his brother, but at any time of the day, whenever the mood takes him.

Since early childhood Thomas has always confidently declared that he would like to be a writer, and we both know you need to read fiction to be able to write it well. He loves the world of fiction, and has always enjoyed books, although I rarely read aloud. But fiction is valued in our home, and I have just finished my first novel. In order to enjoy reading and books Thomas didn't need to be immersed in fiction for the first twelve years of his life. Or immersed in quality books at that. Like most boys his age he prefers modern authors such as Gleitzman than the classics.

Talk to Thomas and he will chat for hours on almost any subject. Two years ago I was told he was shy, but we knew better. He just didn't like talking to strangers. He still is fairly selective, but if he likes you he will engage in conversation for hours! He will talk about his favourite movie, or guinea pig, or ask deep and meaningful questions about the universe or the injustices of life. Or he will tell you in much detail about the many cars he races on the computer, or talk passionately about looking after the animals or what he wants for his birthday. He can tell you what year any particular Lego model came out - right back to 1992!

At the end of any day our family flakes out in front of the television. I've often lamented our lack of energy for a social life in the evening, and found fault with the fact that we don't play board or card games or make music. Only recently have I seen that flaking out is what we need to do, after being together, usually productively for most of the day. And when we watch television or videos we talk, sharing our thoughts about the program. We don't watch commercials, always channel flicking to avoid them. We've even managed to watch two movies at once this way! We are very selective in what we watch, having favourite programs and our viewing generally averages up to two hours a day, no more.

Thomas is exposed to much that is exploitative, commercial and consumerist. But all that is kept in balance by a busy and active life doing important things, like building a home environment that cares for him and others, keeping it nice and in working order, getting on with the chores daily life brings - staying warm, cooking meals, cleaning up, feeding and caring for the animals. He plays outside for some time each day, and plays inside for a greater period of time, depending on the season and on his brother's whim. We talk a lot at home, sharing our views and opinions in an honest and frank way, and he participates in conversations at what ever level feels comfortable for him.

I don't see a child damaged by modern life or the commercial, consumerist technology that surrounds him. It may have happened, but we were careful not to go down that path, recognising that our abdication of responsibility to provide balance would have created more problems than we needed.

Balance is the key. We don't do technology in moderation either - I know that the old adage 'everything in moderation' is completely flawed. When learning anything immersion is the best way to go! Rather we employ 'balance'. Instead of advocating the complete denial of access to technology such as computers or plastic toys for our children we have sought to give them a balanced life, where all experiences are seen as beneficial provided a balance is sought and met. I have noticed that

Thomas is a modern kid, but not in the suburban style so often lamented about in the media. He enjoys all that technology offers, without sacrificing his childhood. I can see that his imagination, creativity, sense of fun and ability to play are enhanced by the technology he chooses to interact with, whether it is primarily derived from nature, or manufactured by fellow human beings. Nothing is seen as evil or bad or wrong. All of life is presented as an opportunity to grow and learn. His lives in an aura of open and positive thinking, promoted by his parents. He is learning not to be judgemental and exclusive, but tolerant and inclusive. As I watch him grow into adolescence I am pleased at the way he naturally seeks balance in his life, and feel reassured.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine

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