Teachers at Mountain Oak say they can immediately detect who has been using devices at home.
In the far corner of the desolate looking yard outside Mountain Oak Charter School, a boy of 9 or 10 is digging a hole. A few other children are standing nearby, periodically checking his progress and taking a turn with the shovel.
Mountain Oak is a charter school that offers an education inspired by Waldorf, a progressive model that encourages exploration of the natural world and rejects the use of technology in the classroom and even in the home. When I ask later in the afternoon about the ditch digging, eighth-grade teacher Jeffrey Holmes smiles. “Oh, they’re playing Minecraft,” he says, referring to the popular online game. Last year “they had a whole system of ditches and they were bartering with rocks too.”
Waldorf private schools have been around for almost 100 years—the first was launched by educator Rudolf Steiner in Germany. But they have been experiencing a resurgence in the U.S., where Waldorf has become popular with wealthy parents, including Silicon Valley types, who are attracted by the more simplified approach to learning.
In addition to eschewing technology, the schools tend to delay formal reading instruction—say, until the age of 7—and testing, and to reserve kindergarten entirely for imaginative play, especially with blocks and natural materials such as leaves and other things found outdoors. Students at all levels receive extensive instruction in music and art. They also do physical exercises in the classroom to break up their lessons.
But this model is no longer limited to private education. In recent years Waldorf-inspired charter schools have begun popping up—there are almost 50—especially in the West. Mountain Oak is one of the older ones, launched in 1999. It serves about 150 students in grades pre-K through 8, about half of whom receive a free or reduced-price lunch.
Mountain Oak students perform at the state average on tests, but the school has been given an A grade by Arizona’s state education department because of the academic improvement its students experience compared with their peers with similar backgrounds at public schools. Unlike parents at the private Waldorf schools, though, many Mountain Oak parents must be persuaded by teachers that the elimination of tablets, smartphones and even television at home is an important part of this success.
Sunshine Reilly, who lives on a farm near Mountain Oak and has a son in sixth grade there, recalls putting him in front of the television for hours a day when he was a toddler while she did chores. It wasn’t until he started kindergarten that she understood that the screen time was hurting his ability to entertain himself, to enjoy books and even to like playing outside.
Teachers at Mountain Oak say they can walk into a classroom and immediately tell who has been using devices at home. “We see it in their behavioral problems, their ability to reason, their cognitive skills, even their ability to communicate with other people,” one teacher tells me.
Jennifer McMillan, who teaches kindergarten, says she has to “have the conversation in a gentle way.” Many of these parents simply don’t understand the effects that staring at a screen can have on children’s behavior and their ability to learn.
Why would they? Most schools that cater to low-income children are trying to get them more technology, not less. Los Angeles spent $1.3 billion in 2013 to put an iPad in the hands of every child in the district. Schools show parents these shiny new toys as evidence that they are giving their children a leg up, helping to bridge the so-called digital divide.
While there’s evidence to suggest that poor children are slightly less likely to have access to laptops and tablets, those without are a pretty small slice of the population. According to a Pew report this year, “Fully 87% of American teens ages 13 to 17 have or have access to a desktop or laptop computer.”
For families earning less than $50,000 a year that number is 80%. As for a racial divide, Pew found that African-American teenagers are more likely to own a smartphone than any other group of teens in America.
What no one tells low-income families is this: The real digital divide is between parents who realize the harmful effects of technology on their children and try to limit them, and those who don’t. It’s the difference between parents buying wooden blocks this Christmas and those racking up more credit-card debt to buy a Leap Pad.
Research backs this up: In December the Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, published a study showing that electronic toys hinder verbal development. An article in the journal Mind, Brain and Education found that traditional toys “sparked higher quality conversations.”
The teachers at Mountain Oak say they have the toughest time trying to reduce media use among children in single-parent households. Typically these mothers tend to be younger and less educated, and it is very tempting after a long day at work to come home and turn on a screen to keep a child occupied. The teachers keep prodding anyway.
Felicia Fishback, who is recently divorced, has never liked videogames, but once she started sending her four children to Mountain Oak, she realized that these were making her oldest son’s behavior worse and hindering his academic performance. He had been diagnosed with ADHD and was gaining weight from a lack of physical activity.
Now her children are not allowed any screen time during the week and a little on weekends. “Mountain Oak,” she says, “has made me a better parent.”