As children, we were walking on a ridge of excitement, between boredom on one side and frustration on the other. Boredom arose if the games we were playing were repetitive or did not pose any challenge. Frustration or confusion, on the other hand, was the result of trying something we could not yet master. Between the two was the ridge of excitement and fun.
Bit by bit, we expanded our abilities. By doing so, we turned things that were once exciting into something that had become boring and we learnt to master things that had frustrated or confused us before. We were climbing up and growing.
We did not need many toys. I remember we built houses, ships, space ships or cars from tables, chairs and blankets. Many of the toys we had were “open”, allowing for lots of different ways to use them. We could spend the whole afternoon with some sticks or stones in an old, abandoned garden. On a recent trip to Cameroon, I observed children playing with a ball they had made themselves from an old stocking stuffed with some leafs or paper. It was enjoyable to watch them play. You really don’t need more.
Today, I increasingly observe children who seem not to know how to play again. Let me share my impressions about these children. Of course, these observations do not apply to every child and there is a wide spectrum of different cases, but many of you might recognize what I mean.
These children spend a lot of time with computer games or in front of TV screens, watching silly cartoon films. These films are boring, but the boredom is masked by fast sequences of cuts. You can never get a feeling of achievement, of mastering something, by watching such a film. You don’t get insights. You don’t learn how to interact with others. There are no challenges and no experiences of success. Interestingness is simulated by flickering pictures that keep the perception busy. Before you realize that the picture you are seeing is actually boring, you are presented with the next one. Many toys these children have are complicated and blink and beep. These toys are regarded to be “cool”, but it looks like one cannot really play with them. Many of these children have no opportunity to listen to stories and nobody reads to them. They do not learn to read books.
If left to themselves, they sink into boredom. They do not know how to play in an interesting, exciting way, how to give tasks to themselves that they can master. They need somebody to stimulate, to animate, to entertain them. They have never learnt to walk on that ridge, step by step, always staying in a spot where playing is exciting, building up increasingly sophisticated skills in the process.
My impression is that these children grow up without the rewarding feeling of success and achievement that arises from making the next step, resulting in reduced self-confidence. Many get such a feeling only from computer games and they become addicted to such games as a result. Some are dependent on permanent “action” happening around them. They become unable to concentrate and create something interesting by and out of themselves. The flickering images in front of their eyes create flicker inside their heads. In school, they are in trouble, but instead of addressing the real causes of these problems, people give them drugs like Ritalin.
These children are betrayed of their childhood. They have been pushed off the ridge and have fallen into the valleys of boredom and frustration, not knowing how to find their way out.
It looks like childhood, once a self-regulating process of creativity, learning and growth, has been taken out of the hands of the children. It has been turned into a business opportunity. The self-controlling process of playing and creating, of climbing the ridge, has been destroyed by the commercialization of childhood. The children have been turned into consumers. Instead of spending their time with those things and activities that are best for them at their respective stage of development, they spend their time with things that are useless and without quality but give a profit to big companies. Peer pressure between children and between families is used to squeeze these corruptive things into the children’s rooms and into the children’s lives.
I think we must not allow commerce to take over childhood. The purpose of our lives is not to be consumers providing business opportunities to others and this holds to an even greater extend for the children. Our children are not yet in control of their own lives and must be protected. Commerce, fashion and showing off do not belong into the world of children. I suggest taking the computer games and computers, the TV-sets, the blinking and beeping pseudo-toys away from the children and to give them back what they deserve: their childhood.
(picture from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gameboy-micro.jpg)