I had the coolest experience the other day. I had planned to have tea at my house with a friend we’ll call Leslie that afternoon, but her babysitter canceled at the last minute. She was worried about the havoc her two boys (aged 5 and 2) would have on my home, but I told her to bring them with her. My house is by no means child-proofed, but my friends’ kids are typically well-behaved and listen to ‘no’ if need be.
Leslie’s youngest, Eric, was more interested in antagonizing my cat than anything else – which was hilarious – but her oldest, James, needed more mental stimulation. Only minutes into our visit, he asked, “Do you have any toys?” My heart melted. I only have two stuffed animals I’ve saved over the years, so we started with that. Let’s be honest, stuffed animals aren’t much entertainment, and he grew bored after five minutes. I did my best to be creative. “Do you want to draw?” I asked. I happened to have a brand new box of Crayola colored pencils, which he thought were cool because he’d only had them at school, and gave him the choice between blank paper and lined. This kept him busy for another half hour.
A Tactile Experience
Leslie and I enjoyed our tea and made sure her youngest didn’t kill my cat. We chatted a while and affirmed the kids in their activities. Soon, James was bored again. He was very polite about it, simply looking around and beginning to wander. I began to consider what I could offer that he wouldn’t break. Behind him were the shelves that hold 90% of my studio. Directly behind his head, I noticed my Olympia typewriter.
“Have you ever used a typewriter?” I asked. I then realized that might have been the wrong question to lead with. “Do you know what a typewriter is?” Leslie and I waited while the wheels clicked in his brain.
“Is that what he used in Ratatouille?” James asked. “Yes!” said Leslie. Thank goodness she’d seen the movie. I went to my shelf and got the heavy machine down. I could already see James examining the tool’s intricacies.
“This is what people used to type before computers. It’s a keyboard without a screen,” I attempted to explain. I showed him how the paper wrapped around the roll, and how to punch the keys. He immediately pushed all the keys at once, locking the tines. “You have to type slower,” I instructed. He followed the order, but wasn’t hitting the keys hard enough for them to make an imprint on the page. “Harder,” I said. With the first letter that marked the page, his eyes lit up. It was as if I could see his brain working to figure out exactly how it worked. He was looking inside, and typing all kinds of letters. I showed him how to unlock the tines when they would lock up, as they often did due to his being used to a computer keyboard. He kept looking it over, exploring new parts. He’d lift the guard and ask, “What’s this for?” and I’d respond by explaining the paper loading process. He really enjoyed the capitalization key, which lifts the entire chassis so the roll is aimed at a different part of the tine. That took him down another road of exploration for a while. Leslie and I visited for two hours, and James was entertained for the entire time.
There’s Something About Olympia
Have you ever noticed that flipping through Facebook or Reddit is boring? Your brain is doing something menial, and your body is saying “ugh” the entire time. You start to feel like a potato after about a half hour. Finally, your brain says, “Ok, I get that other people are having fun. Now can we have fun?” Time drags in a different way when surfing the web.
Contrast that to enjoying a physical activity. Fixing something, playing ultimate frisbee with friends, attending a concert, dancing, or going for a joy ride in the car (at totally legal speeds). It feels like the entire brain lights up. I’m not a psychology expert, but I do know that time tends to fly under such circumstances.
I’ve interviewed former teachers, professors, and grandparents during this project, and one thing is apparent. Kids are growing up without these tactile experiences, and that’s probably effecting their brain development. I know you’ve seen 3-year-olds glued to a smartphone, oblivious to the world around them.
We all know the feeling of not having done math for a while, and then using that portion of the brain again. It kind of hurts and feels good at the same time. Synapses fire that haven’t for a time, blood rushes in. But what if those areas never grew? Schools don’t teach the times tables, let alone algebra. Could that part of the brain fail to develop as a consequence?
Take it a step further. What if a child grows up never experiencing the mechanical, the tactile. The television raises them, and the computer teaches them. An entire portion of the brain never lights up. It’s a known fact that at age three, the brain experiences a major neuron die off. By age twelve, another occurs. This is why people who only learn one language in youth find it incredibly difficult to learn any other in adulthood. That area of the brain wasn’t used, and the potential functionality was lost.
If we don’t vary our sense of touch, the focus of our eyes, the muscles or brains when young, what will happen? How will that affect our ability to cope in adulthood? To accomplish physical goals? To think? And, most of all, what will happen to our society? We will surely find out in the not so distant future. For now, I’m asking those who’ve seen enough change to have a pretty good idea.