Childhood, unplugged

A Grade 6 class in the Annex is keeping it low-tech -- and the kids love it, Deirdre Kelly writes

January 27, 2021
Globe and Mail
By Deirdre Kelly

Teacher Robert Teuwen is standing at the middle of his classroom with a box of salt and a fiddler's bow. It's a lesson about physics, about how sound can be made visible. With his Grade 6 students crowding around him, he plucks a chord and the salt scatters in a million different directions.

It's a decidedly low-tech demonstration but it yields high enough praise from this rapt group of 11- and 12-year olds.




As they sit down to draw what they've seen, their eyes darting up as fast as their pencils can dot their pages, one of the students quietly explains the appeal: "It's not video," says Jacob, behind a mop of hair that hangs to his shoulders. "It's a lot more artistic. I'm really into it."

It's a striking admission from a child in a society where gaming, the Internet, television, cellphones and other gizmos are dominant. And it hasn't come easily.

Jacob, and his classmates at Toronto's independent Alan Howard Waldorf School, have had to work hard to reduce the level of electronic media in their lives so that salt spray grabs their attention as much as, or more than, a PlayStation.

They have Mr. T, as they innocently call their highly engaged teacher, to thank for that. His mission: To give his students back their childhood by means of pulling the plug on the amount of electronic junk they ingest during the school week. Earlier this week, he issued a manifesto declaring his classroom a media-free zone. The ban, which dovetails with the Annex school's philosophy of fostering creative thinking in its students, extends with parents' support into the home -- where each student, having signed the document that imposes boundaries on the viewing of television, movies, video games and computers on all evenings prior to school days, is personally committed to finding alternative amusements for themselves after school hours.

This includes reading books and playing outdoor sports, activities that have grown to be almost foreign to children growing up in a media-saturated world.

Says 12-year-old Jonah, "After school and before the no-media manifesto, I would watch TV, mostly comedies and other stuff, and I would later go on the computer and chat with friends on MSN. But yesterday, I went outside and played hockey. That was different. I liked it."

If media has always been the message, then its absence, at least in this Grade 6 class, has become a cause for celebration.

Mr. Teuwen notes that with the media ban in place, his students have become more focused and more socially engaged. He says the talk these days is more about Rome, the city, than Rome, the new HBO miniseries.

"If a child is watching a lot of TV, it is immediately noticeable the next day in the classroom through very frenetic behaviour, through difficulty in engaging in imaginative play," he says. "Their play is instead a mimicking of the media they were exposed to, and usually it is aggressive and disruptive."

Others with an interest in child development endorse what he is saying. This past week, a coalition of Ontario teachers, parents, academics and police called for new measures to be taken to protect children from the increasingly violent and sexually explicit content of popular media. This includes amending the Criminal Code hatred laws to better protect girls and women, creating legislation that limits violent radio and TV until after 9 p.m., and developing an age-based restriction system for pop music rooted on what already exists for movies and video games.

While the proposals might have been asking government to take steps in shielding children, responsibility was also placed on parents to monitor the amount of media violence their offspring are regularly exposed to.

John Switzer, father of one of the young boys in Mr. Teuwen's class, believes that's a must. "There's nothing gained by negotiating with children on this issue," he says. "I think we, as parents, especially those of us who grew up on TV as I did, know the negative side of too much media exposure -- that it's a time-waster, for one, and that it takes up a large part of your consciousness."

(He knows of what he speaks. Like many of the parents with children at the Waldorf School, he is himself involved in media as a pop music producer. Among the other parents of Mr. Teuwen's classroom are a director, an actor, and a designer of interactive galleries in children's museums.)

Parent Bev Dywan, a filmmaker who helped implement the manifesto, says that media can be a good thing if properly regulated. "We are really trying to give children the personal strength and discretion to watch media effectively," she says. And she says she is happy to share the manifesto with other schools.

So far, however, the program in Mr. Teuwen's classroom has few parallels in Toronto. The Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board have a three-year-old program, Go Outside The Box, which asks parents and students to turn off the TV and the computer at home during education week (typically the first week of May). "This is to promote the benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle," says Mary Jo Deighan, a spokesperson for the Catholic board. "Any time teachers can encourage students to unplug is something we support. The dangers of too much media on students' minds is already well known."

But such efforts, Ms. Dywan says, have "got to come from parents. It's got to have the support of the whole family in order to work."

That said, some of the children crowding around Mr. T are finding it difficult to fight the digital beast on the home front where older siblings and couch-potato dads remain fixated on the tube.

But one step at a time. That's the philosophy newly adopted by 12-year-old Patricia:

"I watched TV a lot," she says, perched on her desk. "But now it just seems really boring. I started to play outside since we decided to cut out media, and I forgot about TV. And then when my cousin came over and all she wanted to do was watch TV, I came in and watched it again and that's when I figured something out. It's a waste of time. I'm happy to be doing something else right now."