Tips for Supervising Students on the Digital Playground

As teachers and administrators at Catherine Cook School in Chicago, we are familiar with the playground antics of young children creating games, revising these games, and truly exploring their creativity and developing social skills through imaginative play. But the playground isn’t the only place where kids explore through play, and teachers and parents must begin preparing children for the new digital landscapes they encounter.

Most of today’s parents grew up with more unsupervised time than their children have. There may not be anything wrong with so much adult monitoring of children today. However, children need to experiment and explore. The digital world meets this need. Children of all ages have found freedom in online social networking sites, digital games, and electronic communication to create, learn, play, connect, experiment, and navigate relationships without constant input from adults.

Children of all ages have found freedom online to create, learn, play, connect, experiment, and navigate relationships without constant input from adults.

Online, just as in real-time relationships, children can make amazing connections. Kids may play Minecraft with a child from a different state and form an amazing friendship. A child can share a funny YouTube video with his or her cousin and have fun together watching and discussing it. A child having a bad day can connect and get support from other kids.

However, just as in real-time relationships, there can be misunderstandings, hurt feelings, gossip, rumors, and exclusion. Kids can be impulsive, mean, and out for revenge.

Monitoring children at all times is not possible or desirable. As a parent, it is hard when your child is a victim to cruel words or behavior. It is also difficult to see your child get upset, lash out impulsively, say and do things that hurt a friend, and have to face the consequences. However, managing social problems and friendship issues is one way children learn.

So how can adults be helpful without hovering and allow children the freedom to explore without exposing them to harm? How can we help our children learn from their social experiences if we aren’t there to watch? With a little new knowledge, we can apply the same kinds of strategies parents have always used to raise healthy and resilient kids.

The foremost strategy for dealing with the digital playground is talking with our children. Through conversation, we prepare them for navigating friendships, having empathy, calming down, using self-control, solving problems, owning up, standing up, making amends, apologizing, and being a good friend.

Parents can show interest in their children’s digital activities and be open and curious when they want to share. Valuing their choices and the connected world they occupy builds trust.

So how can adults be helpful without hovering and allow children the freedom to explore without exposing them to harm?

Limits are also necessary. Setting guidelines and limits based on a child’s age and parents’ values are important. My two-year old granddaughter may want to watch Elmo every time she sees a smartphone, but her parents decide when that’s an experience they want her to have. Your five year old may be obsessed with the games on your tablet, but you decide whether to dole it out or put it in the toy box, just like any other toy. Hannah Rosin’s recent piece in The Atlantic talked with experts about this very thing. Just as we teach children to say please and thank you, or to apologize when they hurt someone, adults teach and model digital etiquette as a matter of course. Teach them that the same values apply to interactions online.

Don’t overreact when something goes wrong. Some of the most powerful learning in and out of school happens from the not-so-positive experiences—the mistakes children make and the hurt they inflict on one another. When that does happen, the investment parents and schools have made in talking with children ahead of time pays off when they let you know that something has gone wrong. Talk with your child calmly, listen hard, gather information carefully. If your child is a target of social cruelty, make sure he or she doesn’t respond, but save any offensive messages. Share those messages with people who can help, whether the parents of the offending child, a school counselor, or a school administrator who can help sort through the issues and develop a plan of action. If your child is the offender, be firm in sharing your values and applying consequences.

Build connections with parents of your child’s friends and discuss how you might handle situations or online behaviors that bother you. Parents can be powerful allies of one another and effective at helping children build a more positive online culture.

In classrooms, dialogue is just as important. It is important that teachers invite conversation. In early childhood classrooms, teachers often use the “class meeting” approach to democratic social problem solving. Class meetings are a structured, yet flexible venue for children to voice their observations and concerns regarding classroom or outside-classroom events. Solutions and strategies to address these issues come from the group rather from the teacher. As scenarios are discussed and solutions are developed, children begin to develop emotional vocabulary.

During these meetings, children may need to see reenactments of events in order to truly experience empathy for others involved. At Catherine Cook we worked with fourth graders to produce this video about kids ganging up on each other in digital play spaces, reenacting a real-life conflict that had arisen when two students blocked their peers out of the house they’d all been building together online in Minecraft after school. In the video students were able to practice problem solving and owning up—skills that had been difficult for them to gain without the adult guidance.

It is in these experiences that children begin to develop social skills necessary to respectfully participate in the play spaces that are their future.

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