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Online Work and No Play: Implications of Online Education on Young Children

By Aradhya Sharma

Young children have been stuck within the walls of their homes for almost six months now. Even now, these children will not be able to meet their friends, go outside to play or attend their preschools for a couple more months. This is likely to hinder their cognitive development and impact their social growth. 

Most children have been used to spending time outdoors, whether they were busy coming up with their own games or just strolling around. While recent years have seen a decline in the number of children taking part in outdoor activities, 2020 has only made it worse with the introduction of online schooling. Children are left with very little play and very little agency. This is going to be the first generation that will be growing up in an environment so vastly different from previous generations. Thus, it is important that we explore the consequences this could have on them. 

Play is a critical part of a child’s healthy development, making it an integral part of all early childhood education curriculums. Why is play important? Play catalyzes the cognitive, social, and emotional learnings of a child. It helps a child learn how to share, negotiate, regulate emotions, practice decision-making skills, and provides children with a means to understand the world around them. Simultaneously, it also builds language, memory, and other cognitive abilities such as fine motor skills. When a child pretends to be a mother by taking care of her barbie doll, this requires children to carefully observe their mothers, understand the norms and rules of family-functioning, and replicate it. Similarly, when a group of children decide to build a fort together, they learn to work together, negotiate and make decisions while working on their fine motor skills simultaneously. 

Now that our children are unable to attend any kind of early education centres, their cognitive and social development could be severely delayed and can even impact other parts of their personality. According to a study in Karnataka, the cognitive development of children attending preschools showed a 0.82 standard deviation. This study showed that cognitive skills such as memory, reasoning and creativity, were almost doubled after attending preschools compared to children who did not attend. The impact that play-deprivation has on social and emotional learning is much more detrimental. Without enough peer interaction, young children may have trouble fostering a sense of self, especially in relation to others. In later stages of childhood, these children may have more explosive reactions to circumstances and behave in asocial or antisocial manners. They may also have more difficulty feeling comfortable with new kinds of people and experiences as they grow up. Studies have found a correlation between play deprivation and poor early childhood development suggesting that it leads to issues such as isolation, depression, reduced self-control, and poor resilience. This is because the rumble and tumble, inclusion and exclusion of complex play provide nuanced social learning to children, and those without these experiences will lack ambiguity, openness, and empathy in their way of socializing. 

Even if you are lucky and your child’s preschool has managed to conduct online classes, they won’t be very useful. Online education could be helpful in teaching numbers, alphabets, and a few other educational purposes, however, it cannot replicate play. Social interaction, motor skills, and pretend play will probably be difficult to replicate during online classes. This is an important point to note for parents. Educational TV shows, games, or videos are not the same as play. It’s common for parents to be inclined to keep their kids busy by turning on educational digital content, especially now as most parents are trying to navigate work from home. This, after a certain level, is useless and may even be harmful. Digital educational resources cannot spur the same kind of imagination, creativity, or action that ends up being the means of social and cognitive development. Furthermore, with children being dependent on parents on controlling the device, online classes take away one of the most important requirements of play – autonomy. Being in control is one of the main features of young children’s spontaneous play. They are supposed to be able to self-initiate and self-regulate their play sessions. With adults controlling devices, this autonomy is taken away. In fact, according to Josh Golin, the executive director of a children’s non-profit organization, “It just goes against everything we know about child development and what’s best for children. Children at this age learn best when they’re engaging all of their senses, when they’re using their hands, when they’re in social situations with peers and teachers, none of that can happen when a young child is on a computer.”

The situation at hand is serious, but there is one silver lining to all of this. Even though the world has turned upside down, it is also the first time in years that parents have had the opportunity to spend so much time with their children. Instead of resorting to TV or iPads to keep children engaged as parents work from home, parents can spend time with their children. This time together will hopefully not only strengthen their relationship but also help prevent or lessen the impact of play-deprivation on children.

Aradhya is a psychology major at Ashoka University. In her free time you’ll find her reading books, drinking chai and cycling at odd hours.

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