Unschooling Panics Part 3: I wish my kids would read and write, not play on screens!

My children have been gaming on their computers for a few hours now.

I’m aware that I have started doing a bit of pacing about. Fretting.

I need to get them doing something ‘more constructive’ (what does that mean?) It must be damaging (why?). This is not learning (it is). They are not reading or writing (they are!)

That voice in my head is such a nag.

I’ll cut to the chase. I would just feel better if they were reading books. Even better if they were also writing about something! No more pacing and fretting. I would sit back and feel smug and satisfied. My work here is done, oh yes it is.

Since beginning unschooling, I’ve tried not to have this prejudice against anything with a screen. I’ve tried to view my kids’ screen activites with the same reverence I have for books and writing.

But just trying to make yourself feel differently never really works does it?

So its time for me to explore why I seem to have put reading, books, and writing on paper on a pedestal for my children, and disparage so called ‘screentime’.

So where have my fears about screens come from?

Only this morning there was yet another hand wringing article on breakfast news about screentime, saying amongst other things, it has been linked to slower learning and obesity. Clickbait articles doing the rounds on social media, using phrases such as ‘digital heroin’ also feed into my standard issue mother guilt.

Maybe I feel that somehow the electronic screen will melt my child’s brain or something equally unfounded and irrational!

I had a look into it. I found that studies showing links between screen use in children and negative outcomes are poorly designed. There is actually no evidence at all for this, as shown in this post by economist Emily Oster.

And not to be silly, but isn’t reading books often also all the things people identify as problematic about screentime?

It’s stationary, solitary, mostly indoors. Books provide escapism in a fantasy world. Reading can be ‘addictive’ and antisocial. Who wants to be interrupted when they’re reading?! It can also be physically damaging, causing eye strain or poor posture.

I still have this idea that ‘proper’ learning is only done with books and writing. My school years, along with our culture’s ‘book worship’, have well and truly hard-wired this into me. I cant help but blindly believe that my children must be wasting their time, unless I see them working through National Curriculum workbooks, their desks piled with books and bits of paper all in progress. Not computer screens with computer games!

But yet again, my schooly brain is coming up illogical.

In fact the opposite is true.

In spending so much time at school learning to write, and handwriting rather than typing most schoolwork, we may as well be teaching them to operate a spinning jenny. Handwriting is a wonderful skill, which many people find a pleasure to learn and practice. But it is hardly ever used now, apart from birthday cards and post it notes!

We’ve looked through those National Curriculum workbooks and textbooks, and boy are they dull and meaningless. Learning out of context, without interest or motivation. As unschoolers, just what we really dont want.

In comparison, for example, because they want to, Anabel is learning some Russian through one of her games at the moment, and Andrew is engineering in one of his. And once I take a genuine interest, asking them what they are doing, letting them show me the things they are excited about, and proud of, I see how much they are doing within their games.

They are continually reading and writing. Well, typing at speed on a keyboard. They are designing anything and everything. Creating characters and story telling. Strategising and problem solving. Socialising, and group working.

“Gaming takes a lot of effort. A person who doesn’t want to put effort into things, wouldn’t be at all interested in playing video games. Video games are for people who really enjoy solving challenging problems, putting to use their out-of-the-box thinking and long term focus to help them achieve their goals. People don’t seem to appreciate that”.

Karen James, sandradodd.com.com

But most importantly, by working freely, making choice after choice in their own worlds, they are discovering who they are. For me, there’s nothing they could be doing more important than this.

We are lucky to live in a time where ANYTHING can be learned at ANYTIME in their lives. What’s the rush to get everything by age 21?

A degree and the once in a lifetime funding it needs is in most cases wasted on an 18 year old!

What’s fundamental to me now, and the whole reason we are home schooling, is that they don’t have their energy and enthusiasm sapped by being force-fed a distant group of authority figures’ learning choices, all day and evening, five days a week.

As an aside, I wonder why we home educating mums don’t proudly post photos of our children playing computer games to the same extent we post photos of them reading, visiting museums, building lego or frolicking in nature?! I’ve posted a couple, but it’s hard to do. I’m just so bloomin grateful when they’re den-building in the woods I want to show it off! However, my gaming posts have been my most related-to posts. I guess a lot of us are in the same boat worrying about too much ‘screentime’, and it’s good when someone normalises it as (a big) part of home education.

Perhaps our culture’s reverence for books, and disparaging of screens, is confusing to children.

They are surrounded by adults, at work and play, on smartphones, laptops, ipads and consoles.

We limit their ‘screentime’ with pursed lips and worry, but go gooey-eyed with approval when we see them reading books. They must wonder why we parents talk negatively about all this electronic stuff that sparkles with information and fun, whilst using it all the time. It must make little sense to them.

As a culture, however, it is understandable we hold books in such high regard. Years ago, the printed word was revelatory as a way to communicate with large numbers of people. Access to books and print was utterly transformative. Learning through books could be a way out of poverty. Books were entertainment, art, knowledge. Truly amazing. And not everyone had this access, so books were extremely precious.

It would be great to help my children understand this. I think this would help them value books as the incredible medium they are.

A great thing to be acknowledged, to myself mostly, is that we live in a different time now, my children are not going to be living in my past. There are many ways now to access information, entertainment and art.

Books are just one, wonderful way.

But back to electronic screens.

It seems as though maybe I am somehow afraid of technology for my children. An irrational fear, not based on anything scientific.

“If I let them, they will play on them all the time…”

Well sometimes they will. And that’s a fantastic thing, given what they learn from them.

They may especially want to play all the time if they are used to having their use of them restricted.

Through their devices, my children can quickly and easily access a great deal of information. They can create and explore their own worlds in huge depth, in ways I don’t understand. So maybe I fear a loss of control over them. That they will overtake me. Leave me behind, with less power.

When I see them reading books, or writing on paper, I feel it’s all a known quantity. I feel I know what they are doing. I can see it quickly. I can also show others whom I fear may be critical of our unschooling. So it seems all this maybe somewhat about my need to control, and to justify what I’m doing to others!

Hmm, think I might be getting somewhere now…

Definitely need to curb my micromanaging!

Thanks Homeschool Snark. I love your Batslaps.

I also feel strongly, as an aside, that our culture’s ‘book worship’ also means that reading at school is pushed onto kids when they are not ready.

Although much teaching in schools is now delivered in different, more experiential ways, children are still forced to read books they are not interested in, at times when they don’t feel like reading. They are assessed and critiqued, moving through ‘levels’. Thinking about this matters, because some children’s reading survives this, but some doesn’t. Maybe they’re the kids who grow up to be adults who think reading isn’t ‘for them’, and this is a shame. I hope my kids, now they’re out of school, have access to the books they want, that they can read when they want.

A note about the direness of school reading:

With the world’s bookshelves loaded with fascinating and inspired books, the very manna sent down from Heaven to feed your souls, you are forced to read a hideous imposture called a school book, written by a man who cannot write: A book from which no human can learn anything: a book which, though you may decipher it, you cannot in any fruitful sense read, though the enforced attempt will make you loathe the sight of a book all the rest of your life”

George Bernard Shaw

Concluding, I must make it clear that I’m not trying to put anyone off books. I live for reading. Always have, ever since I can remember.

I would love for my children to be able to gain the same pleasure, find the same refuge I have, within books.

But they are not me. They live in a different time.

It’s unhelpful and confusing to them, for me to be inexplicably valuing books over their electronic activities, for which I have now worked out there is plenty of fabulousness, and zero negative evidence, for my childrens’ education.

Having had this exploration, maybe I have cleared the way a little in my mind, that I can now move beyond my blind book worship and screen prejudices.

Abandon that negative, meaningless term, ‘screentime’.

Go forth to meet my kids’ passions for gaming, apps, and tv with equal joy to books and writing!

With as little fretting, restriction, and disapproval I can manage?! Certainly going to try.

Further Reading:

Sandra Dodd’s website has further reading on book worship and screentime.

Jane McGonigal’s books, Reality is Broken, and Super Better, argue how the expert collaborating and problem solving skills of gamers could be used to resolve real world issues such as oil supply, poverty, and climate change, and how ‘living gamefully’, could help us all lead happier, healthier, more engaged lives.

Many fantastic articles, detailing the incredible benefits of computer games for children, compiled here by Unschooling Mom2Mom.

10 Things That Are Worse For Your Child Than Playing on the iPad by Lulastic and the Hippyshake, is a wonderful, put your mind at rest read.


9 thoughts on “Unschooling Panics Part 3: I wish my kids would read and write, not play on screens!

  1. Have loved reading this (on my little screen). I follow you on Instagram and followed you over here. I love your photos and now I love your words, too.

    I am kind of an unschooling-light mum, that is what I often joke. We do some project-based learning and arts and… I am certainly not a ‘radical unschooled’ at this point… but I also feel I am softening. Softening my need to control things ‘screentime’ and sugar-eating-time, especially, things which I feel are a) especially hard for them to self-regulate on (yes, I think of them as addictive) and b) which I perceive as potentially having a negative impact on them which I see as my job to safeguard them against. In other words, if they get cavities because I let them have unfettered access to sweets while trusting they one day spontaneously learn to self-regulate, then those cavities are on me. 😕

    I am sharing my thinking here,not necessarily because I think it is right. It is just what I observe to be coming up for me…

    I do put screens in the same category. I had very progressive, liberal parents who read John Holt in the 70s (not that I was unschooled I was not!!) but I did have unlimited screentime… and I would say that is still a issue for me, today. I do have a low-level but sometimes impairing ‘screen addiction’. Now, I love Facebook and love the connections I have made and maintain inthere. They are real to me. But I also love nature and just being present to what is… and screens do have a way of interfering with that – taking you out of the moment or just keeping you in doors and distracted, when you could be (in my case) connecting with your kids, building rafts or other memories.

    I am processing all this. I truly loved your article and it has made me re-think (again) whether these beliefs I hold (e.g. Around screen-time being ‘evil’) are true and/or serving me.

    Keep the thought-provoking reading coming!


    1. So lovely to have your comments, and to hear you thought my piece was thought-provoking. That’s all I can hope for, as I sure don’t have the answers!

      Interesting to hear you had John Holt reading 70s parents! And that you are loving nature as well as the screen stuff.

      Think we all need varying degrees of doing stuff indoors where we are just in our own world, could be watching TV, gaming, or reading books. The healthiest thing is being aware of your own needs and being able to find your own balance. And this is difficult for us as adults if we were mostly coerced, limited and restricted as kids. Or it just takes us longer to work it out!

      You sound like such a thoughtful parent. Lucky kids you have 💖


  2. Yes, I resonate with all that. I have been sitting on this radical unschooling fence for a while. Just thinking about taking the leap makes me come out in hives. My inner control freak does not feel comfortable with this thought. Thanks for shaking her up a bit! 🙂


  3. This article is thought provoking.

    I restrict screen time a lot. And it’s interesting to consider where my fears/worries come from.

    Our son, in particular, gets stuck on screens if left to it and his behaviour changes when he’s allowed – for the worse. Without screens he is very imaginative and loves to play, and play both outside an inside. We talk. We do stuff as a family. He plays with his sister and whoever else is about. He loves reading. Children’s novels/stories as well as fact books and he loves writing stories. I know that from reading he has learned to write, his imagination has grown, his vocabulary, his empathy – his knowledge of the world around him.

    If I allowed him unlimited screen time it would reduce the time he has for all these things that make him relax, bring him into his body and make him comfortable in his own skin. Screen time makes him distracted, irritable and stressed.

    You’ve made me think with your ideas, but they’ve also made me more strongly believe that more screen time is not for us.

    Liked by 1 person

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