At Esplora Interactive Science Centre, we use lots of technology, but we also agree that technology can be unhealthy if it’s misused.
Let’s take at a look at what technology really is, and how we can make it safe, educational and inclusive for our kids.
Technology – What is it, really?
Most people mean “electronics like smartphones” when they talk about technology, especially when it comes to technology and children, but the real definition might surprise you.
At Esplora we often use the word “STEAM”, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths.
Science is knowledge about our world.
Engineering is how we use science to make useful things, like buildings and cars.
Technology is what we produce through our engineering.
So really, anything man-made is either technology, or uses technology!
A book is an excellent example – the pages are thin, and smooth, and white, and of a uniform colour. The ink is dark to make the text easy to read, it’s not lumpy, and it’s the same colour throughout. The book was printed (not hand-written) and only costs you a few euro to buy. All this is the culmination of centuries of book‑publishing technology!
Technology – Why is it harmful to children?
As we just saw, pretty much everything around us is “technology”, and really it’s not technology that’s harmful, it’s certain uses of it.
Recent studies have linked increased use of screens (TV, tablet or smartphone) by children to everything from decreased language and cognitive control abilities, to increased risk of damage to the eyes, to increased risk of internet addiction, depression and suicide in teens.
One of the main areas of concern is what happens when an infant or toddler watches videos instead of being read a story – a video removes the need to visualise the scenes that the words are describing, and the child doesn’t have to think so hard in order to follow the plot, and this deprives the child of the opportunity to exercise and develop these mental skills. In short, the child becomes much more passive during the video, and this can harm their development, although the video may be relating the same story as the book.
When screen time replaces most of a child’s physical play, this is alarming, because as adults we might think that play is just for fun, but in the words of Jean Piaget (and later, Maria Montessori), “Play is the work of children”.
Through all kinds of play, children learn how to use their minds and their bodies, learn how to interact socially with other people, and also learn how the world around them works. It’s not just about developing physical, emotional, cognitive and social skills – playtime is effectively a series of experiments, and our little scientists learn from the results, then design and conduct new experiments to learn more about what they’re interested in. You can usually see this in action if you leave children unsupervised in the kitchen or the bathroom for five minutes!
This is why some of our most popular exhibits at Esplora, such as the “Stronger Shapes” construction set in the engineering gallery, are those which are open-ended and allow for infinite variations by the user.
Screen time, particularly TV and videos, short-circuits this process of experimentation, and children become observers instead being doers who observe the results of their doing and then go on to do some more.
Does this mean our children should never use devices with screens?
Of course not – but moderation is key.
Technology – Can I make it safe for my child?
The two main concerns when it comes to digital technology and children are (1) spending too much time on devices and (2) exposure to negative influences.
Give your child controlled access to devices like TVs and tablets or smartphones in a way that is appropriate to their age, and don’t let videos replace story time, or devices replace play time. Encourage older children and teens to have sports, hobbies and face-to-face social activities, and seek advice if you’re concerned that your child is addicted to screen time.
Remember that technology comes in many forms – Esplora is a science centre and all our exhibits use technology in some way, however, most of our exhibits don’t use screens! This is especially true in our LittleEsploras section for children under 8 years old, where they can experiment with all kinds of mechanisms inside, or head outdoors for water play, running, climbing, sliding and tricycling.
The screens that we do have, are part of interactive exhibits, so the user is engaging in a process, and the screen is there either as a touchscreen interface, or to display the results of the experimentation. Through making digital technology interactive instead of passive, we enable the user to keep on engaging, learning and growing.
At home, look for reviews before installing any apps for your child and try to choose those which encourage creativity. Use parental settings to restrict what apps your child can install, and whether they can interact with other players online – and this applies to gaming consoles as well as tablets and smartphones! Teach older children and teens about online safety (there are many resources available), encourage them to be open with you about their online activity, and take action if you suspect they are being bullied.
Privacy and security are important issues, especially when it comes to sharing sensitive information or images online, so we address these points in our telecommunications exhibits too – you may be surprised (and alarmed!) to find out just how much of your personal information is visible while you browse online!
Technology – Revolutionising education
Technology can open doors for children to resources which they otherwise would not have access to. Information itself is available in books, but digital technology can bring concepts to life via videos, as well as provide engaging interactive activities that feel more like playing games than doing homework.
The chemistry gallery at Esplora has a digital Periodic Table of Elements – users can drag atoms from various elements in the periodic table into a central area of a large touch-screen, and when there are enough atoms in the correct ratio, the exhibit displays the chemical compound and lots of information about it. Drag in two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen, for example, and congratulations, you’ve made water!
This high-tech exhibit brings together the thrill of a molecule construction set and the information of a chemistry textbook, but then it also adds something for which you’d usually need a face-to-face teacher – identification of the molecule that’s been built.
Here we see digital technology providing an excellent educational opportunity that would usually not be possible for most students, and it turns what can be quite a dry topic into a fun and entertaining experience. It’s common to find children as young as six years old enjoying this exhibit, while the topic is only introduced in school at secondary school level.
If you do some research, you can find recommendations for age-appropriate educational apps for your child to use at home, as well as a wealth of educational video channels on platforms like TED‑Ed and Khan Academy. Don’t forget that educational doesn’t have to mean academic – encourage your child to learn from tutorials in music, singing, dance, art, craft, sport, and much more!
Technology – Increasing accessibility for all!
The area of accessibility is where modern technology really shines. Some features available on digital devices are specifically designed for a certain user group, for example text-to-speech software for vision-impaired users, but these features can often be expanded to assist other user groups, for example using the text-to-speech software for children who are too young to read, adults who have difficulty reading due to dyslexia or interrupted schooling, and users who find it easier to concentrate when listening rather than reading.
Many of the exhibits at Esplora have been designed to lower the barriers for performing certain science-related activities. For example, our “Sound Loops” exhibit in the media gallery is based on a typical DJ digital audio workstation, however, instead of having to learn how to use complicated software, our visitors record sounds onto physical components, and then plug the loaded components into a table-top grid of sockets for playback. The process is intuitive and doesn’t require literacy, or even fine motor control, as a computer interface usually does. We’ve found that while these exhibits were designed to make these concepts more intuitive for the general public, in the process, they’re also now easier for all our visitors to use.
We believe that science should be accessible to everyone, which is why we are always happy to accommodate visitors with special needs, whether these are sensory, cognitive, physical, behavioural or age-related needs.
Technology – Their future
We live in an increasingly digital world, and it’s safe to assume that most of our children will be using digital technology as part of their jobs as well as their daily lives. As parents and educators, it is our job to prepare our children for their future, and this includes introducing them to digital technology and teaching them how to use it in ways that are beneficial and safe.
Fortunately, there are plenty of creative ways to do this, for example using Esplora’s “Bee a Coder” workshop for children in early primary; they get to write code for cute bumblebee robots while learning how to build and troubleshoot an algorithm – and not a screen in sight!
You can find out more about Esplora at esplora.org.mt or call on 2360 2300.
Esplora is part-financed by the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund.