When I’m depressed, I have a hard time keeping up with my Austin. Unfortunately he spends a lot of time watching Kid Tube, which is not recommended. Of course, the experts are adamant that these little people should have NO screen time. I can only assume that they don’t have a child of their own, they have a live-in nanny, or they have managed to live with themselves having never taken a shower.
As a broken mom living in a fallen world, I kind of love Kid Tube, and I’ve watched quite a bit of it myself with Austin. We have snuggle time in the morning before school and at some point he asks for the I-Pad. He will start watching a video, but he doesn’t have it full screen, so that the algorithm suggestions of other videos cross the bottom of the screen. If he gets bored with a video, he taps a different one. Because of these algorithm suggestions and his browsing, I have observed some very interesting things about his taste and preferences. Many of the assumptions I have made about children and Austin in particular are not as accurate as I thought.
First, Austin likes nothing better than to watch little boys play with their moms. His favorite thing to watch is Ryan’s Toys, which I assume used to be a toy review channel. Most of what I have seen of it though, is a little boy, playing with his mom and sometimes his mom and dad. They play silly games involving cardboard sets, what looks like cell phone video with occasional cheesy special effects, and lots of imagination. To say it is low budget is insulting to low budget films. It is more like no-budget. In spite of this, the channel has hundreds of thousands of subscribers and the videos have millions of views. Ryan’s Toys even has a product line at Walmart apparently. Austin also watches other video channels that have children playing with their parents who seem truly engaged and excited about spending time doing silly things with their kids. I thought that little ones liked animal characters and bright cartoon colors best. It would seem Austin most craves what he experiences vicariously through watching Ryan’s channel, he wants my undivided attention engaged in fun, imaginative activities with him.
Second, I used to think that educational programming for children this age involved learning letters, numbers, and progressing as an emergent reader. Those things are important, of course, but as I’ve pondered and observed my children I have learned to trust my instincts. My instincts say that children this age know what they need to do learn and if you can let them take the lead, they will learn so much just by playing. My little ones, from age eighteen months to four years old or so, seem drawn to repetition. They want to watch the same shows, read the same storybooks, and hear the same songs again and again. Even if the media is not specifically educational, the child is constructing vocabulary and syntax in the brain and comprehending more information each time he watches, reads, or hears it repetitively over and over again.
Cocomellon is another channel that Austin loves. I adore this channel which is animated and usually focuses on a child playing with his mother, his older sister, and sometimes friends. They do everyday activities and solve problems. One of Austin’s favorite videos which he has watched probably ten times or more, features a baby boy with his mom at the playground. It is called No, No Playground Song. His mom or sister sings a song while trying to put shoes on the baby. The baby says no. She takes a stuffed toy from her wagon and puts the baby’s shoes on the toy, then the baby insists that she put the shoes on him. This scenario is repeated with several other activities at the playground like climbing the bars, swinging in the swing, etc. This video demonstrates a parenting strategy that has been very useful for me. I have observed that when I play act an activity with a toy, Austin loves it. For example, I take his stuffed bear and change his diaper. I give the bear a kiss when he gets hurt, I give him a pacifier and put him to bed, I put bear in timeout to think about his choices with his stuffed dog friend. Seeing these interactions from a distance rather than actually experiencing them first hand is a good way for the child’s brain to process it a different way and understand it better.
So today we let Austin take some of his new birthday toys to church. He was playing with them during the sacrament, and I tried to redirect him to what was happening. Using this Cocomellon video as a model, I whispered in his ear, “See? It’s Devin. What is Devin doing? He has some bread. He’s giving it to the friends. They are thinking about Jesus.” Then I said the same script with Layne. “See? It’s Layne. What is Layne doing? He has some bread.” He loves Devin’s friend Michael who was also passing, so I repeated the script with Michael too. When the bread came to us, before I ate my piece, I put the bread up to his toys one by one so they could have some. “Look, Owlette took the bread. She is thinking about Jesus. Jesus will help her make good choices and be a better superhero.” I repeated the same script with the water, although there was some disruption. It took time to give each toy their pretend sip before I could dispose of my cup. People had to wait a few extra seconds and they noticed I was not behaving myself. What was that crazy lady doing? I was talking during the sacrament, albeit quietly, and isn’t it terribly irreverent to pretend to give sacrament bread to toys? Scandalous! I should get the stink eye even worse for this than waiting too long to take my screaming child out of the meeting! Or think again…..
The thing is, at risk of seeming scandalously blasphemous, the sacrament is a kind of play. If you think about most ordinances, they are God’s way of teaching his children through symbols and play acting. Bread is not the body of Christ, it is a symbol the same way a stuffed bear is a symbol of a real bear. We are pretending to take Christ’s body into ourselves just like we take food into ourselves. He becomes a part of us. It is play acting with toys or symbols.
Perhaps the reason we find our gut response to my interactions with Austin today uncomfortable is not because they are wrong, but because we perform the ordinances of the gospel like adults do everything, with too little of our minds and hearts engaged. Perhaps we would rather be zombies, going through the motions of the ordinances with important adult thoughts going through our important adult brains, than think of it as a playful learning experience given to us by a master teacher who knows how children learn best. I would rather engage my mind and soul while making a little noise and making a few church people uncomfortable if it means my baby grows up learning that the sacrament is a time to engage the brain and not zone out. I’m a rebel like that! Judge me, but it’s not going to change me. In fact, I might go further……
If you expand this idea, you could demonstrate baptism with toys. You could set up a baptism of Superman with stuffed animals or action figures witnessing and recording it. You could teach about the covenant being made. Then you could have Superman confirmed and teach your child about the Holy Ghost and how it will help Superman be better at helping others. The temple ordinances would not be appropriate to teach children in this way since we don’t have children attend the temple, unless a child is preparing for a temple sealing. Then an altar could be made of a box of tissues covered with a wash cloth, etc, etc.
It may seem silly and irreverent, but it doesn’t have to be. Church doesn’t have to be boring and robotic to be reverent. Sometimes teaching children has to be out of the box. The religious box is too boring and ritualistic for children. They are alive and vibrant. Most of all, they are greatly loved by the Savior who has much more compassion for them than most adults probably realize. I keep coming back to the time when Christ told his disciples that in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, they had to become as little children. I wonder if that is part of what he meant. We have to learn to experience the gospel ordinances as play/pretend like a child would do. We have to engage with our inner child and give her permission to participate more fully in the ordinances. Not silly and carelessly, but as earnestly and intently as my son plays with his PJ Mask figures.