Making Digital Technology a Part of Outdoor Play

That image on the right side of the whiteboard of my front yard is projected from inside that picnic bench on the left. We'll project photos, videos, etc, and play music from this front yard media center.

Pretty much all of my colleagues in the movement to advocate outdoor play recommend that parents restrict their children’s digital technology activities. “Pull the Plug!” is their common refrain. I agree that large amounts of sedentary, solitary use of digital technology (e.g. hours sitting alone in front of a screen) is bad for kids, and takes away from time that they could be spending outdoors playing.

However, as Don Tapscott points out in Grown Up Digital, digital technology is like air to children of today. In other words, it’s such an integral part of children’s lives that they can scarcely live without it.

Thus, we parents need to find a way to embrace digital technology for our children. I’ve been searching for ways to integrate digital technology with neighborhood play so that they complement each other, rather than compete for children’s time. I think I’m on to something, but it’s way too early to draw any conclusions.
First, in my front yard family room I’ve installed an outdoor media center. Inside a picnic bench is a projector, computer, set top box, and speaker. The bench has plexiglass on one side so the projector can shine through. It’s pointed at a white board.

All this is locked down and permanent, so we can use it at any time, whether or not we’re right in front of it. In addition, the whiteboard is only a foot or two from the sidewalk, so it’s very easy to view for all pedestrians and cars passing by my front yard.

So, what do I plan to do with this media set-up? Obviously, there’s tremendous potential, and our use of it will evolve over the coming years, but I envision three primary uses:

  1. background accent: We will play photo slideshows (more on this later) and music from the computer while we’re concentrating on other things. Intermittently, it may grab the attention of people in the front yard, as well as the attention of passers by, but in this case it will not be the focal point of activity there.
  2. media theater: We’ll stage media events there like a regular weekly movie night or dramatic live television broadcasts like a special sporting event or news coverage of a dramatic event (e.g. an election or natural disaster).
  3. scoreboard for mobile phone-based games: I plan to implement various games for children and adults that utilize mobile phones. The computer screen projected on the white board can function as a scoreboard for these games, summarizing the activity of the participants. I have a great deal to say about this idea, and will write about it in a future article. Suffice it to say here that this application area is a “pandora’s box” for being the focal point of play on lots of mobile phones scattered throughout the neighborhood.
  4. My hope is that, as my kids get older (my oldest is about to turn 5), they’ll start adding content ideas and even create and implement new applications on their own. Thus, it can be a hub of creativity for them. However, computers and game consoles inside homes today are also great potential hubs of creativity for children.

    The crucial difference between this front yard family room media center and digital technology inside homes is that it is very public, and therefore very likely to encourage face-to-face social interactions. Digital technology use inside homes is likely to have the opposite effect – i.e. to discourage face-to-face social interactions.

    In addition, besides merely being outside and public, this media center is surrounded by other interesting things to do in my front yard. There we have a large picnic table for eating and other activities like board games and crafts; a huge white board for drawing and writing graffiti; a basketball hoop and a life-sized maze on the driveway; a very calm street where we often play street hockey and ride bikes; a sandbox; and a water fountain (I’ll be discussing each of these items in future articles). Thus, this media center is just one part of a rich outdoor play environment.

    Between all the other people passing by and all the other compelling things to do in our front yard, I’m betting my kids won’t sit like zoned-out zombies in front of the screen there. Instead, it will become an integral part of their social neighborhood life. Stay tuned!

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