Airports and Playgrounds

Vancouver International Airport apparently has a lovely new playground for children in the domestic terminal area. My wife was telling me about this recently, and I initially thought this was a great idea. Any parent who has traveled with young children and ended up waiting for any period of time in a boring place with a bunch of uncomfortable seats will surely view this new development as a source of great relief. That said, I also heard that there is a television inside some kind of tree structure within the playground. For some reason, this soured me to the whole idea. Estimates suggest that children ages 5 to 16 spend upwards of 5 to 7 hours a day in front of screens. This includes television watching, the use of computers, tablets, or other electronic devices, and so on. In many schools, students are now required to bring a laptop or tablet, and much of the instruction involves interacting with that technology during class. Now, I’m not a total Luddite. I have almost every Apple product that exists, except for the watch. My job involves spending a fair amount of time in front of various screens. Indeed, I am in front of a screen right now. I am wondering, however, why a television screen is necessary in a playground. I greatly enjoy hiking in the forest, but I would be freaked out if I noticed a television screen (let alone a clock – for those of you who are big fans of Lev Grossman’s Magicians series) attached to one of the trees in my local trails. How did we get to the point where a playground is not enough stimulation for our children? I remember spending hours playing at the playground when I was younger, with no thought of checking my email, television programs I was missing, or video games that I should be playing. I wonder what kind of message we are sending to children and parents when we incorporate screens into the exact type of activity that has the potential to counter the negative effects of too much screen time? That is, physical movement and playing with real things and people. This reminds me of a Star Trek Next-Generation episode years ago in which the crew was introduced to Google glass type devices that involved playing an addictive video game. Anyone who started playing this game ended up hooked on it, and crewmembers were seen walking around with these game glasses on constantly, or lying around strung out with decidedly bovine stares. As a parent, I would certainly be a hypocrite if I were to say that I am totally against the use of the electronic babysitter. I do think, however, that it might be worth stepping back and giving some serious thought to the message we are sending to our children. – Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.