The media and small children - or where we can find the musicians in the radio

Philipp Gelitz

Small children are dependent on a protective space in which they can develop if they are to grow up in a healthy way. That includes first and foremost breathing, digestion, growth, regeneration. It further includes touch, smell, taste. And finally, movement, play, imitation and joining in. The child therefore has to take possession of his or her body and his or her spatial and social environment in order to become independent and assured. 

Truly understanding reality

In the infant and kindergarten phase, children need to experience reality themselves without restriction so that when they start going to school they can control their own body in such a way as to enable and not prevent learning; that is, through daily repetition: playing, falling down, getting up, watching, listening, dry earth, muddy earth, rough, smooth, warm, cold, kiss from Mummy, singing, laughing. But that means nothing other than that the world (including one’s own body) is conquered through activity. Nothing is learned passively, everything is explored actively and in endless repetition. Anyone who observes children under three – the period in which they learn the most – knows the extent to which learning to walk, speak and think is done in ceaseless movement.

The development of the structure of the brain is dependent on discovering connections through own repeated activity. Learning before school takes place implicitly through continuous and repeated exploration of the environment through movement and with all the senses.

The medium does not replace reality

But our everyday world also includes CD players, smartphones, televisions and computers. The child’s interest will also be directed towards these things, and all the more so the more they are used in its surroundings.

Media are not reality but they mediate it. And that is precisely where the problem for the infant and kindergarten child lies. The development of his or her own body as a “functioning” organ of perception, the organisation of the brain, the interlinking of the various impressions, the structure of the locomotor system, the blood circulation and the digestive system are dependent on direct experience. The indirect, the mediated experience in the first instance sweeps past the child and inhibits his or her drive of self-discovery; the more the former happens, the more the latter is inhibited. Where the world does not reveal itself to the child directly through the logic of facts but is mediated through a medium, the child is weakened in its own activity and becomes dependent on mediation through an intervening element.

That can best be seen when there is too little range of movement and too much is mediated. Children start to move like the cartoon characters they love so much whose postural pattern is set through the medium and replaces the child’s “own” gait.

In reality, the eye scans the shape of things in constant movement. Not so with a screen: flat, without depth and without the appropriate eye movement , the screen is rigidly goggled at. The associated sound impression does not reach the ear from out of the surrounding space as would happen in reality but out of the box. No surround-sound system will help in that respect. It remains a loudspeaker restricted in its frequency range.

That is quite apart from background music or a commentary whose speaker is invisible. The same applies to cassettes, CDs or MP3 players: virtual audio impressions from a single source corrupt the ear which in the first years of life first has to learn to take in sounds, noise and language. The organs, including the sense organs, learn their tasks only over the course of several years. The eye and ear, brain and intestine only develop fully at a slow pace.

“How do all the football players fit into the small television, Mummy”

An often-heard argument which trivialises the problem of “unreality” is that children after all know, or could quickly learn, that the impression coming from the medium is not real.

Small children ask themselves how all the football players can fit into such a small television and where the singer in the box might just be sitting.

There are also children who run to the door when Grandma is on the phone: that is the extent to which small children live in reality. “I can hear her already!” If children are then told that their perception is false – “It’s only a film” – we bring them up not to trust their senses. Imagine for a moment that you saw a cow in a field and said: “Look at that cow.” And then someone came along and told you: “Indeed, it might look like a cow but it’s not really there, it’s only a virtual image. But it looks very real, doesn’t it?” – you would no longer trust your senses.

Children only manage to distinguish with certainty between reality and fiction from the age of ten. Even children as old as eight still ask after a children’s film whether something like that could be “for real”. Reason enough not to overtax them with that kind of thing. The content, by the way, is secondary. The core of the problem stays the same, even in the most lovely animal film.

All in good time

The educational objective must be to learn how to handle media competently. Both an excess of virtual technology and its condemnation out of a sense of nostalgia limits the competence of human beings to deal with the world in a self-aware and thoughtful way.

The question is how that objective can be appropriately achieved. How do I become a safe road user? On what basis do I develop the competence to make sense of traffic lights, cars, bicycles and pedestrians in such a way that I can progress safely? Most certainly not through practice at too early an age! Tell a three-year-old to stop at a crossing and you would be foolish to rely on the result! It is an ability that must develop. Abilities are freed if they are given time to mature. Mastering traffic requires the ability to direct the senses. I have to know which visual or auditory impression is important and which can be ignored. Neither could you give a five-year-old 400 euros and tell him to make sure he divides it up so that it lasts for the month. The ability to do that has simply not been born.

Dealing competently with media requires someone with the secure ability to distinguish between reality and fiction (from about nine years old) and someone who self-reflectively and ignoring their superficial desires can weigh up the opportunities and risks, benefits and dangers of media consumption (from 18 at the earliest). Otherwise the child suffers under the influence of a medium which corrupts his or her senses and moral feelings.

Dealing competently with media as an adult is enabled through foregoing the use of media at kindergarten age and the balanced use of media from class three onwards. Anything else (including not using media in adolescence) hinders a person’s ability to come to terms with the world.

Without the other person everything else is worth nothing

There is one medium, however, which each human being needs from birth in order to survive. And that is his or her human counterpart. A child that has no role models around it with an upright gait will never learn to walk. A child that never hears speech will never be able to speak. No child could live without approachable, lovingly interested, moving, speaking and thinking people. The way in which we find our bearings in the world, everything that makes us human, including all successful learning, is always connected with our human counterpart. Without the other person everything else is worth nothing. And this other person, the essential mediator between the world and the child, is all too frequently replaced by a virtual  medium. When a small child falls down, it first of all looks at the adults to see whether it should cry or not. We have to become aware of this role model function and then we will never again allow the development of a moral sense to be left to a “funny” children’s film. Because all too often we encounter schadenfreude there.

Love, approachability, sensitivity and consideration are only ever experienced from another person. If the child does not watch television for that half-hour in a day, that is an extra half-hour in which it experiences empathy. And that is what it needs.

About the author: Philipp Gelitz, born 1981, state accredited child care worker and Waldorf child care worker, trained at the Rudolf Steiner Institute Kassel, Waldorf kindergarten teacher in Kassel, father of one daughter.