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“We have the whole evening to do whatever you choose. What do you want to do?” My friend asked her grandson, Derrick. “I want to watch videos or go to a movie,” he replied. Todays children are following the example of many adults to become watchers instead of doers, consumers instead of creators, observers instead of active participants. Some studies have shown preschoolers spending roughly one-third of their waking time watching television. As we saunter into summer, here’s some things to be aware of.

Things Children Aren’t Doing When They Are Only Watching

“Pediatrician John Rosemond notes the things a child is not doing when he is watching TV or videos:

  • Scanning
  • Practicing motor skills, gross or fine
  • Practicing eye-hand coordination
  • Using more than two senses
  • Asking questions
  • Exploring
  • Exercising initiative or motivation
  • Being challenged
  • Solving problems
  • Thinking analytically
  • Exercising imagination
  • Practicing communication skills
  • Being either creative or constructive

(from the book Meeting the Challenge by Jim Fay, Goster W. Cline, M.D. And Bob Sornson)

At an essential time of brain developmental readiness for task mastery, today’s three-and four-year-olds are spending much of their time glued to a screen. In the 1950s Erik H. Erickson characterized this age child as being at the stage of initiative and industry (Erik H. Erickson, Childhood and Society—second edition (Norton) “Eight Stages of Man”).

And therein lies the basic problem—instead of exercising initiative and industry, most of our children today are encouraged to WATCH instead of DO. “In fact, reflecting the television and video game generation, most of the items for younger children in Toys “R” Us or any toy outlet emphasize sensory input and rudimentary motor skills, but rarely encourage creativity, task focus, job completion or mastery. Even if they are offered for sale, Tinkertoys, Legos, Lincoln Logs, and alphabet blocks are not the big sellers. What sells big are video tapes and video games “ (Meeting the Challenge, p. 62).

What Has Changed and What Has Not

Have children changed in their basic needs? Have parents changed in their desire to encourage the total development of the child? Not at all. However, parents and grandparents are just as likely to be caught up in the “watching” instead of “doing” mode as are the children. Today when parents ‘do’ something with small children, it seldom involves really “doing” anything at all. Parents are most likely to suggest they watch TV together, go and watch a game, go and watch a movie, or go to the zoo and watch the animals. They rarely sit down and create or produce or create something with their small children. Instead of singing, they watch others sing, instead of making up stories they watch or listen to stories someone else made up. Instead of figuring out how to do something and developing a new skill they watch someone else perform. Parents have a relatively few precious hours to teach, train, and encourage the development of children’s minds and hearts. Yet in today’s society, during those hours, shared focus on a mutual task may not take place at all. (ideas drawn from various pages of Meeting the Challenge.)

Have We Forgotten?

In a “watching” society, we may have forgotten what children did before all these TV and video screens and organized sports and entertainments were available. Maybe we need some reminders of what to encourage our little children and grandchildren to “do.” When I was little we entertained ourselves by cutting out paper dolls and dressing them with tabbed clothing. I created a whole set of paper dolls and designed the clothes myself. We made corncob and hollyhock dolls and mud pies, played “store” with empty cans and play money. We sewed buttons on a cloth in any pattern we chose, or hand cut and sewed rough but original doll clothes. We climbed trees, hid in tree houses, made up games—indoors and out. I liked to make up stories and create sound effects for them—like thunder or footsteps or fairy dancing—on the piano. In my early school days I loved to read books and color pictures and dance with scarves to music on the record player.

“Doing” Ideas

Here are “doing” ideas from lists I made when my children were young:

  • Cut pictures from catalogs and magazines and paste into collages, favorite things books, or ABC books (find things that start with each letter of the alphabet)
  • Paint pictures or posters, color in color books, sculpt with clay or play dough
  • Build with blocks, legos, construxs, etc.
  • Put together costumes and play make believe. Be a doctor, a dentist, a cowboy, a barber, a dancer, a sports hero or super hero
  • Play camping and sleep in sleeping bags under the stars in the back yard, in a tent, or in the family room. In winter have a picnic on a blanket on the family room floor
  • Put together puzzles or make puzzles by gluing a picture to light cardboard and cutting it into fun-shaped pieces
  • Do an experiment—books to suggest experiments are easy to find at the library. Experiments are fun!
  • Read stories or have someone read to you
  • Find an easy recipe you’d like and make a treat for family and friends
  • Plan a family home evening lesson or prepare your assigned part
  • Learn to sew on the sewing machine
  • Write your best memories in your journal
  • Write a letter or thank you (now it may be an e-mail) to grandparents
  • Practice music, learn to lead music
  • Work with flash cards to learn spelling words, music, times tables, etc.
  • Play card games or board games. Play word games. Play games that teach colors, ABC, numbers, shapes and sizes, professions, etc.
  • Deliver treats to neighbors or shut-ins or go with Mom to retirement home to visit an elderly person who is lonely
  • Pick a new arts and crafts project and learn how to do it
  • Write stories or poems (younger children may dictate while Mom writes)

The Worth of “Doing” Work

In addition to “playing” kinds of “doing” children need to be involved in lots of “working” kinds of “doing.” Helping Mom and Dad with household chores is the training ground for adult living. Competency is such an important part of a child’s self-concept. Every time a child masters an essential life skill a brick is laid for a solid foundation for his life.

One of the problems that curtails “doing” is that most children today live in the city. I’m old enough to have peers who helped with farm tasks—gathering eggs, milking, etc. I myself helped with gardening, quilting, sewing, mending, ironing, cooking and canning. Tasks for children to learn to DO are greatly minimized when families have no animals to care for, no garden to tend and no produce to preserve. Most of us today cannot imagine spending days quilting by hand when for just a few dollars you can buy perfectly good quilts in the store. Few of us sew our own clothes when we can go to a 90% off sale at Kohl’s. Most families wear perma-pressed clothes which they do not iron and which they discard instead of mending. We don’t have to plant and weed and water and pick and shell peas or shuck corn or even wash bugs out of the lettuce! We can easily fix dinner by throwing some ready-to-eat package in the microwave or a ready to bake pizza into the oven.

I am not proposing or wishing we could go back to the “good old days” when most of the day was spent on survival chores. I recently read about the life of Abigail Adams, wife of U.S. President John Adams. There is nothing to be nostalgic about in regard to back breaking work from 5 in the morning till 10 at night. But heaven only knows, even in the 21st century plenty of tasks are still necessary to keeping a household running—and children can be part of the “doing” early on. We do children no favor by playing maid, cook, and personal servant, leaving them out of important training for life.

Real training means more than saying “go clean your room.” Some parenting experts suggest we post checklists, and specify which level of “clean” we mean, and not take for granted that a child knows how to do any of the tasks unless we have done it with them and tutored them on each step. An example of a checklist for cleaning room for an older child would be:

Make bed. Change sheets when necessary
Pull everything our from under the bed and put away
Pick up everything on the floor and put in proper places
Vacuum thoroughly and dust
Straighten closet and drawers. Sort and discard unused items
Wash window and light fixture
Polish furniture

Now, which of these things do you want done when you say, “go clean your room? Obviously some of the above tasks would only need to be done once every few weeks, others daily. A child needs to know that “cleaning a room” does not just mean picking up what is laying around. And they need to know what you expect when you make a request. The same principle applies for each area of training in daily tasks. Each item on a checklist involves “doing.” And each involves life skills that can increase a child’s competency and make life easier for him in the long run.

Living Life Fully Means DOING

This summer let’s remember thaat life is not meant to be a spectator sport. We were not born to watch the adventures of others on the screen of life. We were meant to be the stars of our own life story. We were born to “DO” much more than “WATCH.” True, much can be learned from observing, but what is the worth of the lessons if we don’t quickly apply them in our own “doing”?

Wisdom dictates that we encourage our children to DO. Parents and grandparents can so easily take the path of least resistance, the easy way out of real involvement with children and sit them in front of mesmerizing videos and TV programs hour after hour. Sometimes the rowdiest children will calm right down and seem almost hypnotized by the bright colors and rapidly changing images. I’m the first to applaud the educational videos available and I know my grandchildren have benefitted from them. But thankfully they’ve also been encouraged in “doing” activities.

When we take children on an outing, we can look for places with interactive hands-on activities and not just watching. For instance, in the Salt Lake area there is the Discovery-Gateway that used to be called the Children’s Museum and the Church History Museum, both of which have many interactive activities. Nature hikes with definite learning goals and activities would be another good example. Swimming lessons, art classes, and dance and soccer camps and camps that include “ropes training” could be good ways to get children moving and doing in constructive ways.

Our challenge as adults is to encourage and engage in the kind of DOING that fits the criteria listed in the first list above. This summer, let’s not just watch others have fun, watch others live and learn and develop skills. Let’s take a child’s hand and dive into DOING!