Is Multitasking Good for Kids?

I’d like to start this blog with a quick discussion of a subject that comes up often in my conversations with parents: multitasking. Specifically, whether letting kids do a million things at once teaches them flexibility, or destroys their ability to focus.

The arguments line up about as you might expect. In one camp, the flexibility crowd offers a pretty good reason why they keep all those blinking devices around: the world is a frenetic place, media are everywhere, and we might as well let our children get used to the reality of this “always-on” moment in history.

In the other camp are educational psychologists such as Jane Healy, who makes a fairly compelling case for pulling the plug:

Attention deficit disorder is a new “epidemic” of psychiatric diagnoses in our young people. Fundamentally, it means having a mind at the mercy of changing stimuli. Multitasking may be “cool”, but if it means losing the ability to reflect, imagine, plan, execute, and evaluate one task at a time, we should all start paying attention.

I must admit that I am somewhat sympathetic to the Healy camp, if for no other reason than I have seen the singular benefits of unbroken focus in my own teaching. Children who are presented with a dozen stimuli at once learn to juggle and delegate, to be sure. But children who are allowed some space and quiet learn to deepen their ideas and enhance their creativity in startling new ways.

Of course every parent knows their own child best, and there is no question that balance is often necessary to preserve the sanity of all parties. But if all is well at home and you are presented with a choice between an iPad and a sketchpad, I heartily recommend the wonders of a magic marker.