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In America, Independence Day means celebrating our freedom through the time-honored sharing of hotdogs and burgers on the grill. To paraphrase a sentiment from Warren Buffett, we are sitting in the shade of freedom today because someone planted a tree a long time ago. The right to be individual and independent, to have agency over action and belief, has been part of our cultural DNA from the inception of our nation. As instinctual as it is, however, it must also be cultivated with intention and purpose within our children. This is especially true in the digital world where freedom thrives but also threatens.
In honor of Independency Day, here are five tips we as parents and educators can employ to help children along the path to digital independence.
From the earliest of ages, our children can learn from us about the digital world and our collective responsibility within it. Just as we model waiting for the “walking man” to safely cross the street, we should model online safety and awareness practices. The opportunities to also model activism, connected work ethic, and learning thrive with digital tools. Watching TED videos together (there are several by incredibly innovative children) and using social media to connect and collaborate allow our children to observe the most purposeful and powerful benefits of the digital world.
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#2: Learn the Language
To be truly independent within any culture, knowledge of the common language is essential. Though most of us learned to navigate the digital world within knowledge of code, today it is possible to empower children with a creative voice not just using digital tools but creating them through code. Tools like Tynker, Khan Academy, and Scratch provide coding environments for children to learn the language of programming. These kid-friendly environments cultivate independence in its rawest form--creation.
#3: Create & Innovate
To create is to bring individual thought to existence. Creative energy flourishes in children, especially at a young age when the conventions of the world have not put boundaries on untamed ideas. By using digital tools to create music, film, design, art, choreography, and writing, children are embedded with a maker, rather than consumer, mindset for the use of digital media.
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Our children may be digital natives, but just as one born native to New York City is a native to it, we would not expect that child to instinctively understand how to safely navigate the city independently. Such learning takes place over time, from “walking man” to independent subway navigation and street awareness. Just as we start giving children boundaries of safe independent neighborhood navigation, we too must establish these safe exploration boundaries online. Outlining where, when, and with whom it is safe and productive to travel online is an essential prerequisite to independent exploration. As children age, we broaden the landscape of independent travel but remain connected with them.
#5: Teach and Model Balance
To speak of online independence without balance of offline agency would be remiss. Too often, children explore the digital world without a healthy balance and thereby establish an unhealthy reliance on the digital world for meaning, voice, and independence. Where they have them online, they may suffer offline. We bear the onus of establishing balance through boundaries and exposure to offline tools which similarly cultivate independence. Taking children to maker events, empowering them with the tools to create offline and explore the “real world” with us are as, if not more important, as the digital world becomes more and more integral to our lives.