Why iPad playgrounds are a bad idea for shops and kids

Can modern childhood get any more weird?

In my travels I have found the folks of Canada to be pretty sensible. One of the best conferences about early years development that I have ever attended was in Vancouver in BC in 2012, and there were over 750 participants there exploring mental wellbeing in children under 5.

So I was pretty gobsmacked to read about the innovative project in a shopping mall, the Guildford Town Centre Surrey, BC that saw an indoor play area with some climbing structures, a small slide and carpeted play areas removed and replaced with a bank of iPads for kids.

That’s right. A wall with iPads built into it, with a few child friendly graphics around them has taken the place of an area where children could move, play with other children and have a break from the grown up world of the shopping mall.

Thankfully many parents have been outraged and so my original assertion about Canadians seems to be correct – well about parents anyway.

‘We will not be coming to this horrible excuse of a play park. This will in turn limit my shopping at GTC,” one parent said.

The owners of the mall were mystified as to why the parents were so outraged. They had decided to make the play area safer:

“In our experience providing slides [only 1 metre high] and things for climbing leads to much more active play and can result in children being hurt,” centre management wrote in response.

Of course let’s pull out the fear card of children needing to be kept safe so they don’t take risks by using their little bodies doing what children are supposed to be doing – moving and growing!

I am a mother of four sons and I am guessing that given the small amount of iPads to go around in this indoor play centre, there could actually be some serious injuries happening when the number of children is larger than the number of iPads. Especially when the concept of sharing – which is usually learnt when children take turns on things like slides and climbing things – is surely tested.

My main concern in this story is that people making decisions about what is good for children have no (or very little) knowledge of early childhood development.

Often shopping centres, some councils, even some primary principals without early childhood training make well-intentioned decisions about what will be good to build for children without consulting people with the expertise.

The mall staff wanted to do something ‘different’ and be ‘new and unique’ and those goals would have been achieved had they consulted someone who is an expert in children’s play and how to create engaging play areas that can make children and parents happy!

Recently I had an email from a concerned parent whose school had decided to fundraise to get some more technology for students to play on during recess and lunchtime because there was a shortage of shade in the school yard.

I was a bit stunned at first however I suggested they plant fast growing trees or put up some shade cloth – the last thing the children needed was more passive time sitting using technology rather than playing and being physically active.

Technology is fascinating, engaging and a wonderful support for learning however it needs to be kept in balance with allowing children to do what they are wired to do – learn by moving their bodies, interacting with other living beings and challenging themselves to stretch and grow.

Most children have significant access to hand held devices as anyone can see in any cafe, restaurant or even the back seat of most cars. It is part of the new world and the same as anything else in parenting, healthy boundaries are important.

Next time you hear of an organisation, shopping centre or a school wanting to create something ‘different’ that is ‘new and unique’ take your plans and dreams to someone who has a deep understanding of early childhood development, especially around play and how it enhances all levels of development for children.

And maybe they could do something really innovative — like consult with the parents and children — before they do anything drastic.


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