Michael Levine, the Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop is fond of reminding us of a statistic that comes from the LIFE Center at Stanford University: that children from kindergarten through high school spend only 18.5% of their waking hours in formal learning settings.
Add to that another recent statistic from the Kaiser Family Foundation: that children eight through eighteen years old are spending more than 7.5 hours a day consuming media. Because many young people are "media multitasking," they pack almost 11 hours of media content into their 7.5 hours.
What would have the late Fred Rogers made of these sweeping changes in children's lives? We, of course, will never know, but I suspect that if he had lived to participate in the discussions held in his memory this past week at the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, we may have been surprised.
Why do I say that? Because going into television around the time he broke onto the national stage with his children's show was a radical act. I remember those days well. I was just out of college, working at the Bank Street College of Education. The fierce, even contentious debates that went on among our faculty posed a black and white choice: "get rid of TV for children" versus "work to make it better." Fred Rogers was on the side of working to make it better and that's what he spent his lifetime doing.
The experts gathered at the Rogers Center Conference never discussed getting rid of the iPods, the texting, and the digital games that fill children's lives. That wasn't even on the agenda. What was discussed is why these media so consume children.
Among the most compelling answers is how these new media involve children. Yes, many of the games are frenetic, action-packed and way too violent. But in the best media, children are not treated as empty vessels into which knowledge is poured. They treated as active participants, as co-creators.
And so perhaps we had better take a page from Fred Rogers' playbook and work toward improving media quality. And perhaps we ought to look at what makes the best media provide learning opportunities for children and use that knowledge in creating out of school and in school activities.
This morning at the Conference Board Work Life Conference, futurist Bob Johansen from the Institute for the Future acknowledged that the best way to help our kids get good things from video games is to "go there with them." We may not like some of their games, but to help change gaming, we have to jump in with our children. I challenge parents to participate their children's media world, not run from it.
There is a reason that the leaders of the Rogers Center named this event in his honor, the Fred Forward Conference. So "forward" we must all try to go.