The Smartphone Challenge

I had volunteered to help out for the variety show at the daughter’s school and part of the rigmarole was to just keep an eye on some kids for some time. All very vague and intriguing thus far. I stepped smartly into the room, confidence oozing at every step till I drank the scene in front of me. It is surprising the number of ways in which children can affect you. These children had sass and verve, not to mention talent and energy. They were there for a talent show after all. One look into those eyes convinced me that they thought nothing of smashing up the egg crate and making omelets on your head or bundling up stray cats in twin sized bedsheets, but will not do. It did not help that they were dressed up for the occasion. Fairy queens, station thugs , band majors and kung fu masters swam before my eyes.

I bleated out a tentative “Hi” to the children and told them to make themselves comfortable.

Lesson #! : Do not tell children to make themselves comfortable in a room where they are not supposed to touch the walls with greasy hands, touch the books on the shelves, play with the water faucet in the corner, switch on the computer or do anything related to art projects.

As I said this, another volunteer (AV from now on) came up to me and whispered that the room was not to be disturbed from its current state and the children were to remain in the room for a span of three hours. I felt my legs buckle beneath me. Three hours? What were they supposed to do? Could they play, I asked anxiously. The volunteer gave me a sad look and pointed out to the manhole sized circular carpet in the middle of the room and said, they may play there. 45 children on that carpet? As I was thinking of what to do, one child switched on the computer. I walked over to plead with the software engineer to hold off on Computer Science for the evening. He was dressed like a balloon for an unfathomable reason and glared at me. “But I am hungry!” he said.

“Well, switching on the computer is not going to get you wafers, do you have a snack? “ I asked.

“Yeah! Wafers! Do you have wafers?” said the ballooner filling out in anticipation. I gave up.

I used a voice that has not been used for a while now and boomed to the class to ask if they had snacks. They did. I just told them they could eat whenever they were hungry. This AV came up and whispered in my ear that they weren’t allowed to eat inside the class. I shot her a belligerent look. Really!  I think I might have alarmed her a bit for she sizzled up to me and said, “Maybe they can go out and eat and come back. Just keep an eye on them from here. Tell them they are not to move beyond that tree.”

Lesson #@: Do not assume children want to eat during snack breaks.

“Yes! We can all go out and eat!” said a voice and the ballooner floated door ward with a bunch of kids in tow. The situation was quickly spiraling out of control. How was I to know how many children were there, how many were out eating snacks and which of the children I was in charge of? I have always suspected children of being more spiritual than they let on, and it was confirmed now. Most of those headed out were apparently going to snack on air for they had nothing to eat in their carefree hands. I called out to them, but  retreating backs from a dull classroom to a glorious spring evening elicited no responses and I was left there looking defeated and helpless. The AV came up to whisper something in my ear again. Apparently, the children were looking gleefully at the playground beyond the tree and this was not to be allowed. I shook her away. This, I felt was a bit much. Come on! Go tell them yourself, I said a tad severely.

“But they don’t listen to me!” she said in response, looking at a girl sitting in the corner of the class playing on her cellphone. She was the only one not interested in legging it outside. “Maybe I should have asked them all to borrow their parents smartphones. What will we do?” continued the AV.  I could only shake my head at this reliance on smartphones.

It came as no surprise, therefore, for me to read this news item:

It is also a no-brainer to draw upon its corollary, viz, that children who spend an inordinate amount of time on the cellphones have less patience with things less stimulating. We may have forgotten that smart phones are a convenience and no more.

It happens in every battle I suppose. The turning point. I know Yudhisthira felt it in the Kurukshetra when Drona was tricked into believing his son was dead. It was what turned the battle in the favor of the Pandavas again. This was that moment for me. I refused to be bogged down by not having technology. I summoned the brave teacher nestled deep in me and raised the conch to my lips, “Please come in children! For an evening of fun and frolic. Let’s play some games!” I boomed.

The AV was shocked. “What games? They are not supposed to touch anything.”

I calmed her down saying they were children and I believe in their ability to open their minds and try out something new.  I set about figuring out some games. I saw the eager eyes march back into the classroom. True, that our real estate was limited, so running and catching, hide-n-seek etc were out. But there was a game that was great fun when we were kids. Land and Sea. This sophisticated game was easy to play. When I said “Sea”, you jumped into the carpet and when I said “Land” you jumped out. I used varying speeds to play the land-sea game and it was a roaring success. Half the children were out in time, but I kept daring them to go again and again. The game lasted a good 45 minutes.

Land or Sea?

With the help of the older children, we played a variety of games: pass the parcel, whisper nonsense messages and pass them down to see how it gets garbled along the way and such. Several children beamed and laughed happily saying this was the best evening indoors they’d had.

Before we knew it, three hours of fun had passed and the older children who had helped me out received a beaming thanks from me. Only one child was too engrossed in her world to join in on the fun. She was still using the phone. “Games?” I asked her as she left the classroom. “Yeah…pretty good. Can’t stop!” she shrugged. Her friends tried to pull her in several times, but she was too far in her phone-world to stop.

When I read about this person who took down his top grossing app because it was being too addictive, I had nothing but admiration and respect for him. He saw what his creation was doing to people and chose to forgo his excellent fortunes and pull out.

Every generation faces its own challenge. Ours, it seems, is the smart phone.

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