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Why kids probably don’t need an actual digital sandbox

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Technology for the sake of technology won’t educate the next generation of kids. As if we needed another reminder, just take a look at what Japanese game maker Sega plans to introduce soon — a new “digital sandbox” for kids that attempts to update the classic childhood experience of playing in a sandbox for the digital era. Instead of playing with sand, children participate in an arcade-like video game experience that integrates a special type of technologically-enhanced “sand.”

The YouTube video for the digital sandbox is like some kind of day-glow psychedelic fantasy — as kids scoop up the “sand,” all kinds of digital effects happen to the sand — mountains form, insects appear and rivers flow and then freeze. It’s impossible to tell what’s happening here — and that’s the point. (Sega refers to it as projection mapping, and in all fairness, some of it does look fascinating, even for adults). Maybe this digital sandbox is a way to teach kids about virtual reality or sensors or projection mapping techniques — but most likely, the digital sandbox is just technology for the sake of technology. Plastic shovels and buckets are quite fine, thank you, when it comes to sandboxes.

It’s fantastic that there’s so much technology being introduced into the classroom these days, especially for the pre-K and kindergarden set. It’s clear that the educational system needs to change in response to the new digital reality. But for every app and every tablet promising to educate our kids, it seems there is also technology that over-promises and under-delivers: baby carrier seats for iPad-using toddlers and digital potties. Children are now learning about virtual reality before they learn much about reality. We may have reached a point where there’s simply too much tech and too many gadgets for young kids these days, and not enough thinking about what we’re actually trying to accomplish in education with all these gadgets.

According to the latest survey from Common Sense Media (October 2013), 38 percent of babies under the age of 2 now use smartphones or tablets — and that’s despite a pretty clear warning from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under the age of 2 should have no screen time whatsoever. The AAP also suggests that families set up “screen-free” zones around the home. The problem is that we don’t know how all this technology is affecting our kids. It’s only recently that we have attempted to study the cognitive neuroscience of what these devices do to the brains of young kids. For every study that warns against toddler screen time, there seems to be a counter-study that hints that tablets and smartphones might help toddlers learn.

You can think of this as the “electronic gadgets vs. wooden blocks” debate.

On one side, you have parents who honestly believe that they are preparing their kids for the digital future. They argue that kids who don’t grow up embracing technology in all its forms — even digital sandboxes — will fall behind. On the other side, you have parents who believe that the secret to developing kids is through educational experiences that have nothing to do with touchscreens. These are the parents that you see buying wooden blocks for their kids.

What’s interesting is that even the people who you might think would be huge fans of technology for kids — innovative thinkers such as Steve Jobs — created very clear guidelines to limit technology use by their kids. As Nick Bilton of the New York Times explained in a recent piece, Jobs was not as big a fan of technology for his kids as you might expect. In fact, he was what you might call a “low-tech parent.” And he’s not alone. A number of big names in the technology world — including Chris Anderson and Evan Williams — also set strict guidelines for how much tech their young children can use.

So, if all these gadgets may — or may not — help people learn, and even fans of innovation aren’t always fans of them, what exactly are they doing? The one possibility — and one that you would have a tough time forcing any mom or dad to admit — is that all these gadgets and gizmos are not about laying the educational groundwork for their kids. Instead, it’s about keeping their kids busy (and quiet) punching all kinds of buttons. Digital tech is the new guilt-free TV for single-parent families and dual-income families whose kids spend all day in daycare.

The ultimate solution may be some kind of middle ground – an “electronic gadgets” meets “wooden blocks” compromise. Two examples of this compromise would be playing with classic wooden train models while also learning about 3D printing or playing with Legos that teach robotics. These are the type of compromise solutions that embrace technology for its ability to improve or enhance childhood learning experiences, but don’t unnecessarily fetishize technology for the sake of technology. Otherwise, we may wind up with a new generation that knows how to consume technology, but does not know how to use it.