Pam Simon
Turn screen time into learning time

In one corner of the building, a 3D printer hums and whirs, rhythmically building a bright blue sculpture designed by a 9-year-old boy. Across the room, a girl sporting a virtual reality headset explores a mountain range. In an adjoining room, a middle schooler attentively designs his own video game using the programming language Scratch. And in the center of our space, a group of kids are taking apart and building computers.

At Fidgets2Widgets, the after-school program I cofounded in Eugene, Oregon, students engage in deep, student-centered learning projects. They design and build, they program, they collaborate and they problem solve. And, yet, whether I’m chatting with the parents of the kids who attend our program or speaking at a conference of educators, the most common question I get is, “But what about screen time?

It’s understandable. Screen time gets more bad press than a Hollywood star in rehab. But the fact is, not all screen time is the same. Screen time is like food: some of it’s bad for you and some of it’s good for you, and moderation is key.

It’s not the screen but what you do with it that matters.

The ISTE Standards for Students offer clear guidelines for the skills, knowledge and approaches students need to succeed in the digital age. Among them, creativity and innovation; information fluency; communication and collaboration; and critical thinking, problem solving and decision making. Those skills are crucial for a healthy digital diet.

At Fidgets2Widgets we strongly believe that parent/teacher/adult oversight and involvement are key to raising successful children in the digital age. If we don’t want our kids to be passive, then we can’t be passive either. We need to dive in and discover how rich, diverse and miraculous the dawn of this digital age can be — for all of us!

Here are four ways our screens create opportunities for deep learning.

  1. Computers. The internet houses a gold mine of powerful resources for generating content and accessing information. Both in the classroom and at home, trivia games engage youth as they search online for information. They become adept at searching for valid information and are quick to discern falsehoods. But the real learning comes from creation, and a wealth of free and paid online resources allow children to express themselves in so many ways. At Fidgets2Widgets, our kids use Go Animate to create animation videos, Soundation to compose digital music, GameStar Mechanic to make video games and Kodu Game Lab to learn computer programming.

  2. Gaming consoles. Our program has a “no gun” rule. That means, no games with guns, no gun videos, no gun mods on Minecraft. That eliminates a lot of content on gaming consoles, but not everything. Our students use Super Mario Maker to design and execute their own Mario games. They also use the wildly popular Minecraft on the Xbox to build elaborate structures, collaborate on projects within the games and experiment with circuitry using Redstone.

  3. Tablets and phones. There are thousands of apps available on iTunes and Google Play that are productive, creative and fun. We load our tablets with puzzle apps like Flow Free  and 2048, moviemaking apps, 3D printing apps and word games like Scribblenauts. We project our tablet on the TV and play games like 4 pics, 1 Word or Stack the States. The kids love to play as a group. In addition, MIT’s App Inventor software gives them an opportunity to create their own apps or modify existing content. Many app inventor platforms are operating system specific and help children feel inventive.

  4. TV. Although television is a passive medium, there are ways to get youth active and vocal around the content they watch. All shows, including the news, now have links to social media. Blogs and YouTube have comment sections. In the classroom or at home, kids can take advantage of the real global audience to improve written communication skills and practice expressing their opinions through civil and respectful discourse. This is how kids become good digital citizens.

Pam Simon, MSW, is a tech educator and mom. She and Sydney Ashland, a counselor and mom herself, founded Fidgets2Widgets, an innovative STEM after-school program, in 2012. Their passion and mission is to steward and mentor children through the miracles and pitfalls of the digital age. In their program, they follow the ISTE Standards for raising digitally literate youth.