Sitting on a bench in Schröders Park above river Elbe, I am watching the dancing spots of sunlight on the ground. Downhill, the waves of the river are gliding against the beach. Suddenly a window to my childhood is opening up. The leaves, broken twigs, small stones and crawling ants on the ground before me bring up a memory, or rather a feeling of childhood. A twig with some attached bast fibers is creating a strange feeling of fascination. I remember I played with such sticks and these fibers when I was small. I feel like I am looking at it with the eyes of a small child again. When I was a small child, I had been in this park with my mother, a memory that might have been kept alive by some old photographs and slides. Maybe there is no real memory at all but this environment, familiar from earliest times, might have helped to bring me back into that mood or mode of mind.
I am looking at the bench I am sitting on. The paint on the wooden planks is scratched and has scaled off from some parts. The bench is dissolving, bit by bit. It does not know in itself it is a bench. It becomes a bench by me taking it as such, by my perception and action and thinking. It is not a bench by itself; it is a bench by means of my cognition. Left to itself, it will go its own ways until we would no longer perceive it as a bench. It does not care about us. Things like this are things of a certain type not by themselves. There must be an active process of taking them as benches (or whatever). The active component in this process, the “ontological machine” is the human mind. This ability of perceiving and treating things as objects of a certain kind is the stuff our childhood was made of. As children, we impersonated all kinds of roles and turned things like sticks and stones into all kinds of things.
How totally different is the world of today’s children from the world of my own childhood. When I was small, there was no TV and no electronic toys. There were no computer games. Our toys were simple and often we just played with stones and sand and mud, with leaves and seeds.
In today’s games, the process is partially automated. The processor of a computer now partially replaces the human brain as the “ontological machine” building up worlds. The imaginative ability to turn arbitrary things into rich worlds is no longer trained and is lost. Some children never discover the joy of listening to stories and of delving into books. They easily become bored unless they watch films or play with automatic games. Playing is replaced by gaming. I wonder how this is affecting the way these children look at the world later in life. I am earning my money as a computer programmer and I am not opposed to technology as such, but I am worried about this trend to replace an active childhood with a more passive reception of prefabricated content.
People who have grown up with TV and with today’s toys and electronic devices might think we had a poor childhood. Instead, it is the other way around. My impression is that the childhood of at least some of today’s children is somehow impoverished. The real childhood, as I knew it, is missing. Childhood has turned into a resource being exploited by producers of toys and games.
Childhood is the time when our cognitive abilities form. In childhood, the foundations for our lives are laid. It is also a self-organizing process. Children will explore and discover the electronic world that has become part of our lives, but I suppose it is better to keep most of that out of the early experience of children and even to return to very simple toys that leave most of the work to the imagination of the children themselves. Read stories to your children and let them play with stones and twigs.
(The picture is from .http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leaf_litter.jpg)