A family comes into a waterfront restaurant. They’re seated but before the menu is perused or the view is appreciated, the children are given iPads.
Nicola Yelland, a Professor of Early Childhood Studies at University of Melbourne, calls this approach ‘default technology’. She is a big technology advocate but doesn’t believe it has a place at the table.
Learning the art of conversation
If children are distracted by devices, it’s a missed opportunity to teach them some crucial life skills, says Dr Yelland.
The best place to start is considering what adults do in a restaurant: they have pleasant conversation.
“Children can learn restaurant discourse from a very young age like the types of behavior you practice there and the art of reciprocal conversation,” says Dr Yelland.
“You can talk about the car journey there, which is in the past, and the holiday you’re going on, which is in the future, and help them to understand time.”
You can teach them to not talk with their mouth full and about menus and waiters.
“You ask them ‘what does a waiter do?’ You say ‘sometimes it’s a boy sometimes it’s a girl, sometimes they’re old or young’.”
Perhaps because it’s so obvious, parents may miss opportunities to tease out life skills from everyday life. Yet Dr Yelland believes this parenting habit is more effective than educational toys – and it’s also free.
“If you're stopped at a traffic light you can observe and describe things together,” says she says.
“Toys are only educational if you actually interact and put some work in with a child.”
A parent's role to model, encourage and talk
She defines life skills as the ‘Cs’: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication and citizenship. She also adds empathy, ethics and everyday skills.
“An everyday skill is something like making a cup of tea or buttering a piece of toast, which relies on sound motor skills,” says Dr Yelland.
By five years old a child should have experience with all of these. But before you get intimidated by the task, remember the majority of your role is to model, encourage and talk. Talk a lot.
“Modelling relies on children absorbing by osmosis,” says Dr Yelland. “It’s effective but talking makes things explicit and raises children’s level of awareness.”
For example, while it’s recommended parents help with a life skill such as teeth brushing until a child is eight-years-old it will be more effective if a parent also talks about why twice-a-day brushing is important.