I have a soft spot for a children’s television show called Ninjago.
The title is portmanteau of “ninja” and “Lego.” Legos, of course, are those brightly colored rectangular blocks—about the size of your little finger—that children use to construct houses and trains and ships on the living room floor.
The fact that Legos remain popular in this digital age is evidence to me that children want to create more than they want to consume. Who can doubt that children are natural builders? Dollhouses, tree houses, model airplanes, and pillow forts are the stuff of childhood, and a rehearsal for what we will one day create as members of the human community.
Watching television is more about consumption than creation. It is not at all like building model airplanes or playing with Legos. But I argue that reading is like these games. Reading is a constructive, creative act.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry tells us that children in the United States watch an average of 3 to 4 hours of television a day, which adds up to 28 hours a week—and yet, they are eerily silent about what they see. With a few notable exceptions, they don’t talk much about the dozens of programs they consume.
And overconsumption is not good for us. Children who habitually watch television are more likely to be overweight; have lower grades; read fewer books, and spend less time exercising.
But what are we building when we read? Why does reading a book call on us to create, when television does not? Let’s look at this description of a summer day from Charlotte’s Web:
“The early summer days on a farm are the happiest and fairest days of the year. Lilacs bloom and make the air sweet, and then fade. Apple blossoms come with the lilacs, and the bees visit around among the apple trees. The days grow warm and soft. School ends, and children have time to play and to fish for trout in the brook. Avery often brought a trout home in his pocket, warm and stiff and ready to be fried for supper.”
Lovely, isn’t it? The words themselves are deeply evocative. But I guarantee that the summer day you see is not the same one that I have conjured. The memory of your own childhood; the weather you’ve known; how you understand the meaning of flowers; your experience with and interpretation of the key words bloom and warm and apple blossom; the very mood you’re in right now—these are just some of the cognitive tools you use to paint your picture of summer.
Who could doubt that you are a co-creator of this passage, though E.B. White has penned it? After all, it is your mind that brings it to life, and without the active engagement of your mind, the book may as well be shut—the bees are silent, the lilacs are in hiding, and all is dark.
Not so the television screen. This is because someone else has done the work of imagining it—or a good portion of it. The best television digs furrows for your imagination, is rich and engaging. But much of television programming seems to have an intended audience of cauliflower, summer squash, and assorted other vegetables. Children must read for the same reasons they must play—it is a time to practice creation, to practice imagination. When reading, you activate the same type of thought that allows engineers to imagine bridges, doctors to visualize cures, and leaders to conceive of nations. With television, on the other hand, images are ruthlessly fired at us. The practice of winnowing images down into their important parts is a cognitive skill, too, I won’t argue otherwise—but let’s agree that it’s less important and less nuanced than the construction of something out of little, or nothing. Let’s agree that we need more practice in creation. Let’s agree that our children should be practicing this skill and delighting in it at every possible opportunity. Just look at the Lego. What possibility there is in the simplest of tools!