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06 August 2017

As Many Schools Look to Outfit Every Student with a Laptop or Tablet, These Two Minnesota Schools Choose to Go Without

Waldorf's guidelines include no screen time during the
week and a willingness to work toward limited to zero
screen time on the weekend.
As many schools look to outfit every student with a laptop or tablet, these two Minnesota schools choose to go without
by Erin Hinrichsminnpost.com, 27 July 2017

Grant Olson, a local software architect for CenturyLink, has made a living off being tech savvy. He’s been in the industry for 19 years. But when it came time to enroll the eldest of his three kids in school, he decided to enroll him in the Minnesota Waldorf School in St. Paul — a tech-free preK-8 private school.

Olson was initially drawn to the experiential nature of the school model, which was grounded more in building relationships and fostering creativity than administering grades and standardized tests, he says. As far as the school’s technology guidelines went — no screen time during the week and a willingness to work toward limited to zero screen time on the weekend — he wasn’t completely sold at first. But he found a compromise that could work for his family and stuck with it: one hour of media per day.

“We’ve kept that pretty faithfully over the many years,” he said, noting his youngest is now heading into seventh grade and prides herself on staying device-free even though “nearly everybody in her class has some sort of vehicle — an iPad or iPod touch or smartphone — to do some sort of textural conversation.”

His eldest son, now a senior at an area public high school, spends time on his cellphone like any other teenager, he adds. But he says that doesn’t detract from the value of those early years, when is son learned how to play, socialize and study without computers and tablets.

Reminiscing, Olson says his eldest boy read the entire Harry Potter series out loud to his younger siblings, from a book. “That’s the kind of thing I think I wouldn’t have been able to witness my children doing if they had a bigger media diet,” he said.

While books and libraries won’t be disappearing from schools anytime soon, these staples are increasingly supplemented by digital content. As more and more schools move toward a one-to-one device policy — outfitting each student with their own laptop, tablet or iPad for use at schools and at home — parents and educators are still trying to figure out how to set healthy parameters for how much time children spend in front of a screen. Here’s a look at how and why two Twin Cities-based Waldorf schools are resisting that trend, along with insight from technology proponents who say things are moving in the right direction.

1:1 device programs
According to a 2016 report published by the state Department of Education, about 55 percent of Minnesota schools had already implemented some level of a one-to-one device program, assigning a laptop, iPad or tablet to students for use at home and school. Another 30 programs were projected to start over the next year, and existing programs were expected to expand.


The Waldorf model

In addition to keeping technology out of the classroom and asking parents to cut back on or reduce screen time at home, both the Minnesota Waldorf School and its sister school — the City of Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis — follow some key tenets like having teachers follow student cohorts all the way through eighth grade, spending lots of time learning and exercising outdoors, and integrating art throughout the curriculum.

To an outsider, the tech-free element is the part that may seem a bit extreme. Paradoxically, however, it’s the very thing that attracts many parents who work in the tech industry, or who work closely with technology in their job, to these unconventional schools.

With two daughters enrolled at the St. Paul-based Waldorf school, Ben Richards and his wife still have multiple laptops and “super crazy fast internet” at home because they both work in the tech field. But they haven’t had a TV for the past 10 years. And apart from the occasional YouTube video, they’re aiming for zero screen time exposure for their girls, at least until it’s “developmentally appropriate for children,” Richards said.

Asked if any of his family members raised concerns when he enrolled his girls in a Waldorf school, he said it took his father, a retired engineer, a while to see how delaying exposure could actually put them at an advantage later in life.

“Technology is changing so rapidly that what kids are learning today is not what they’re learning tomorrow,” Richards said. “Also, creativity and problem-solving and understanding how to look for solutions is a bigger part of what technology facilitates.”

For Aneela Kumar and her husband, who developed and manage a startup called HabitAware — a smart bracelet that helps people overcome behaviors like hair pulling and nail biting — the decision to enroll their preschooler in the City of Lakes Waldorf School came about after noticing how screen time was negatively impacting him. When he was on his iPad, he was like a zombie, Kumar said. And when they’d take it away, he’d throw a fit.

“My hope is that by studying at a school that sort of offers a little bit of a different viewpoint on how to learn, as well as seeing us at home, that they kind of balance each other out so he embraces technology in a way that helps him learn and grow as a person, but he doesn’t becomes addicted … as we have become,” she said.

It’s a situation that Vaara Ostrin, a Waldorf parent and enrollment and outreach coordinator at Minnesota Waldorf School, can relate to well. When her son entered fifth grade, he got sucked into the Minecraft craze, she said. Not wanting to create a “forbidden fruit,” she said he could play it outside of school. But she soon pegged it as a failed experiment and took it away, as it had quickly grown into an insatiable hobby that triggered tantrums.

To her disappointment, months later at a parent-teacher conference, she found out her son was still hanging out with the exclusive group of Minecraft players during recess, sitting in a corner and only talking about the game, rather than joining the non-players in activities like building marble runs, reading and running around.

It served as a reminder of just how all-consuming, socially disruptive and stifling video games and screen time can be for children. That’s exactly the sort of thing the two Minnesota-based Waldorf schools make a concerted effort to resist — not by banning technology completely, but by keeping it at bay a bit longer.

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