Summer holidays. Two words which can evoke a variety of emotions. For teachers, a giddy sense of relief. For parents, the all too common clutch of dread mixed with guilt. For kids, pure thrill - hazy days stretch out before them, 6 weeks feeling like an eternity.
Summer holidays of yesteryear involved tennis clubs, summer camps and activity days. In short, 8 hours of running around, whilst organisers in bright orange t-shirts tried to keep everyone in one piece until home time. If it wasn't this brand of organised fun, it involved riding bikes round the streets, kicking about in front of the newsagents or learning all the lyrics to singles your friend recorded straight from the radio.
But childhood in 2016 operates in a very different landscape. Children today are more connected, digitally savvy and hyper-stimulated than ever before. One in four parents say they struggle to control their children's screen use, but at the same time we are providing children with phones and tablets at increasingly young ages. Some kids are learning to navigate iPads before they can construct full sentences: a 2015 French study found that 58% of under-twos had already used a tablet or mobile phone.
There are many reasons for this: wanting to be able to contact your child when you're elsewhere; not wanting them to feel left out amongst peers; and (the one people don't like to admit) because they keep them entertained. Seeing a buggy being pushed down a high street, toddler glued to an iPad inside, is now commonplace. Screens keep kids happy and provide a wealth of entertainment. They are highly intuitive and perfect for tiny hands.
With two tech-savvy children of my own, the summer holidays shine a light on this. During a previous school break, my wife took the kids on a coding course. Working in tech, I'm keen to ensure they develop the skills a future workforce will value, so it seemed like a good idea. The kids loved it. They came home fizzing with enthusiasm about what they had learnt, excited about the power their fingertips could command.
I've no doubt it sowed important seeds of knowledge, but it also got me thinking. With a world so digitally obsessed, should I be encouraging them to spend even more time staring at screens?
Over the years, researchers have found that being constantly entertained or distracted (or having that distraction a mere swipe away) stops people from developing their imaginations and creative instincts. Being 'bored' can encourage children to play, imagine and create. But our screen-obsessed culture is depriving them of the valuable lessons boredom can teach.
So whilst parents obsess about filling children's hours with activities to keep them occupied this summer, it is worth seeking out a balance. Our children are growing up in a world where touch screens are taken for granted, where navigating software is par for the course, and being constantly in touch with their mates is akin to a human right.
Because of my work, I see trends developing in the tech space. I wouldn't be surprised if the summer camps of the future are all participated in via virtual reality headsets. Coding in schools will achieve parity with maths and English in the curriculum hierarchy before long. And the days of building dens in gardens or kicking a football against the garage wall for want of anything else to do might be numbered. Research released earlier this year supports this, with 75% of UK children now said to spend less time outside than the typical prison inmate.
The lightning pace at which tech is developing brings with it huge benefits. We are lucky that our children will be able to operate comfortably in a software centred world; one where so many of their parents feel off the pace. And the jury's still out on whether excessive screen time from a young age causes lasting damage. But we must also strive to retain the elements of childhood which help kids learn to be kids.
So this summer, for every coding camp you research, see if there's a nature workshop or art club that could be fit in too. Change the Wi-Fi password each day to try and limit their screen time. Or leave the kids to their own devices in the garden or park.
Whilst the power tech of should be embraced and learning encouraged, a little bit of boredom this summer won't do our kids any harm either. It might even do them the power of good.
Ran Berger is the CEO and Co-founder of Flat Rock Technology and a father of two, living in London.
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