My toddler and I light stuff on fire.
We have a new routine at my house. When it’s getting towards bedtime my two and a half year old stands expectantly by the couch and begins her nightly chorus of “can I play Stickman? Can I play Stickman? Mommy, can I play Stickman? Just a tiny tiny bit?” I get out my phone, tap on the game’s icon, and she cuddles up next to me on the couch to play a slow-paced, low anxiety game called Draw a Stickman: Epic (available for Android and iOS, among others). In Stickman, you draw your character your friends and your tools, and then complete tasks to find puzzle pieces to ultimately complete a picture puzzle. My daughter likes to draw a new Stickman every night; she carefully scribbles layer upon layer of color onto her digital canvas. Then I ask what it is (a whale? a fork?) and add some lines to make it so.
Stickman is all about matching the tool to the task. See a glittering tree? Draw an ax to chop into its mysteries. See a padlocked gate? Draw a key to unlock it. See a vegetable garden? Draw a cloud to water it and make the veggies come up and feed the bunnies. But most importantly, see a stick of dynamite? Better draw some fire and run for cover, because that baby’s gonna blow.
When my daughter and I play Stickman together, we really play together. I don’t just hand her the phone; she doesn’t just watch me complete challenges. As she sits snuggled into the crook of my arm, we talk about our moves in the game. And through talking, she’s getting all sorts of other learning that she can take with her the next day and beyond.
Her: Oh oh I see some didomine (dynamite)! Let’s draw fire.
Me: Hold on a sec, you have to back up far enough that the dynamite doesn’t light you on fire too. You have to be careful around fire.
Her (next day, observing her dad lighting the grill): Daddy, back up so you don’t catch on fire! You have to be careful around fire.
She isn’t just learning safety lessons through our nightly gaming ritual. She’s learning about exploring your options before you set out on one course. (If you stick to the path you’ll miss the cute white creatures that give you green balloons. And she loves the balloons.) She’s learning about physics too (a heavier weight (in this case, a fatter bunny) on one end of the pully will result in the bridge on the other end raising). She’s learning patience and courage (you have to let the armadillo-esque monster get mighty close to you and rear up before you can scribble fire all over its soft underbelly to knock it out). In the bigger picture, she’s also learning that interacting with screens while interacting with real, live humans is the most fun.
I’m no fool; I know that media will be an integral part of her life (singularity, anyone?). We limit screen time at my house, but I also want to make sure she has the right attitude to live in a screen-driven world. And though I can’t predict the future, I like to imagine that someone who can balance human and media interaction will be prepared to take on whatever challenges the futuristic world will throw at her, even if lighting everything on fire isn’t always the solution.