Fall 1992, Volume 1, Number 2

Theft of the Imagination: Fast paced TV robs children of play-time

by Wally Bowen
Fred Rogers PhotoEvery day in America, children are being robbed of one of their most precious gifts: their imagination.As the Berlin Wall gives way to the Berlin Mall, this phenomenon will become increasingly global. This theft is the result of the wedding of the culture of consumption which treats children as an especially pliable and lucrative market with the technology of television.Heres how the theft of imagination works: young children are full of wonder and curiosity. Their imaginations are easily engaged, and they have powerful natural abilities to play and create. They naturally participate in what child psychologists call magical thinking.Television with its movement, color and sound is very appealing to children. But the fast-paced, quick-cutting of stan dard TV programming is too rapid for young children. Children love to linger over an activity, image, or character. Time and space to linger is the essence of play. Play is the avenue of the imagination.Television does not tolerate the childs need to ling er, nor does it serve the childs developing mind. It simply arrests a childs attention and conforms it to machine-ordered experiences of space and time.

The child has no control over what is being presented, nor does the child have an opportunity to interact. The rapid, non-stop movement of television forces a child to be still in order to keep up with the action.This stilling effect dramatically confi nes a childs realm of play, both physically and psychologically. TVs demand that viewers remain in constant eye contact in order not to miss anything reduces a childs ability to explore the world kinesthetically, through body movement. For children, kines thetics is one of the main avenues of play and exploration.When I tell my five-year-old son the story of my dream about a tsunami wave hitting the coast of Florida, he makes overhead swinging motions with his arms and vocalizes swooshing sounds. He will d o this repeatedly until he has fulfilled his need to play with the image of a great, green wall of water rushing toward shore. He fills out the story with his own, self-created experience. He makes the tsunami wave his own.TVs rush of movement, color, and sound overwhelms childrens needs to explore experience and make it their own.

Even the most well-meaning programs, such as Sesame Street, unwittingly employ production values, such as rapid pacing, which work against a childs need to linger and play with experience.One television show, however, is an exception. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is paced for the mind of a child. Key words are carefully enunciated and repeated. Scenes move slowly, leisurely. Children are invited to linger. They are also invited to talk back to the TV set. Mister Rogers also carefully helps childre n distinguish between fantasy and reality. When children are invited to visit the Neighborhood of Make Believe, the camera passes through a curtain, and we know we are about to see a story told with puppets. How TV robs children of their imaginations is difficult to see because all of us adults and children live in a culture thoroughly saturated with electronically-generated images. Our immersion in this media environment blinds us to its effects. When we do question its effects, we can be made to f eel guilty for denying our children the latest popular video experience, whether its Nintendo or Ninja Turtles.

We rationalize our surrender to technological baby-sitters by convincing ourselves that somehow the video experience is mind-expanding or educational. But our children pay a high price for this indulgence.We know that childrens powers of memory and ret ention are retarded by video experiences which do not allow them to actively engage their imaginations. We now know that childrens development of language skills is retarded when they are involved in experiences that deny them ways to practice these skil ls such as the simple act of conversation.And we know that children who spend an inordinate amount of time watching TV have less time for fully interactive experiences, less time and space to explore and play at their own pace. Experiences such as r eading a book or hands-on play are controlled by children. The experience is self-paced. Children can take time to linger over an activity or experience such as my sons fascination with the tsunami wave. They can elaborate it and make it their own.

This ownership phenomenon is well-known to adults who read a book, and then go see a movie based on the book. The movie never lives up to our expectations because our imaginations have engaged the story, wrestled and played with it, and made it our own .Children who become addicted to TV gradually lose their ability to engross themselves in self-directed, creative play. They become easily bored.The arousal effect of TVs rapid movement and boisterous color and sound produces restless and aggressive behav ior among children, and makes it more difficult for non-video activities to engage their interest. Their ability to concentrate on tasks is impaired. Their ability to grow and develop in school and in the home is retarded. We all suffer.Yet TV is not the culprit. It is our use of TV thats at fault.As adults, we must first take a hard look at our own preconceptions about TV, how it fits into our lives, how we let it shape our experience. Only then will we be able to help our children.We can also use citize n action and public policy to force broadcasters to be more responsive to the developmental needs of children, rather than treating them as just another market. We can also work with our teachers and schools to make media literacy part of the standard cur riculum.The Childrens Television Act of 1990 was passed by Congress to require local stations to serve the educational and informational needs of children. The legislation, however, is not self-enforcing. It's valid only if a community monitors and holds its local broadcaster responsible for the law's provisions.

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