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The Balancing Act: Screen Time vs. Active Learning in Elementary Math Classrooms

James Sanders
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In a recent edWebinar hosted by Unruly Studios and EdWeb, educators explored the ever-present question of screen time in elementary math classrooms. With technology woven into the fabric of education, finding the sweet spot between leveraging digital tools and ensuring kids remain active, engaged learners is crucial.

The Screen Time Dilemma

Technology has become a double-edged sword in education.  While offering endless possibilities for interactive learning and access to information, excessive screen time can create significant challenges.  As the edWebinar revealed, educators like Christine Danhoff and Laura Kennedy have witnessed firsthand the negative impacts on students:

  • Attention Drain: Students are increasingly reporting their own desire for less screen time, feeling overwhelmed by the constant digital bombardment. Laura Kennedy shared, "The students themselves have asked to limit the use of Chromebooks, saying their world has devolved to just screen time everywhere."
  • Stolen Focus: Research, such as Johann Hari's book Stolen Focus, points to technology as a major culprit in diminishing attention spans, leading to difficulties with concentration and deeper learning.
  • Social and Emotional Impact: The potential for increased anxiety and decreased social interaction adds another layer of concern for educators and parents alike.

Active Learning: The Math Classroom's Secret Weapon

The good news is that active learning offers a powerful countermeasure to screen time overload.  Active learning shifts the focus from passive consumption to hands-on exploration, collaboration, and movement.

Here are a few active learning strategies highlighted in the webinar:

  1. Hands-On Math: Activities like creating cityscapes to explore angles allow students to physically manipulate and experience mathematical concepts. As Christine Danhoff emphasized, "When students are actually doing the activities...they remember the content better and make meaningful connections."
  2. Project-Based Learning: Laura Kennedy's shoe design project, incorporating measurement and area, exemplifies how real-world problems can spark creativity and critical thinking.
  3. Movement-Based Math: Unruly Splats and other tools transform math into a game, encouraging physical activity while reinforcing key skills.

Unruly Math: A Game-Changer for Active Learning

In the webinar we had an opportunity to showcase Unruly Math, a K-5 program designed to leverage active play to reinforce math skills.  Unruly Math combines physical activity with standards-aligned math activities, minimizing screen time while maximizing engagement.  Educators who have used Unruly Math report increased student participation, improved math confidence, and a more positive overall classroom atmosphere.

Beyond the Classroom: A Growing Movement

The conversation about screen time isn't limited to classrooms. Waldorf schools like the Otto Specht School have long embraced a tech-free approach, emphasizing hands-on learning and interaction with the natural world. Meanwhile, lawmakers in states like Ohio and Kentucky are considering legislation to limit screen time in public schools.

Play-Based Learning: Where Fun Meets Fundamentals

Play isn't just for recess – it's a fundamental part of how young children learn.  Incorporating play-based learning into the math classroom can reduce screen addiction while fostering creativity, collaboration, and a love of learning.

Striking the Right Balance

The key takeaway from the webinar? It's not about banning screens altogether, but about being mindful of their use. Here's how:

  • Intentionality: Choose technology tools that truly enhance the learning experience, not just occupy time. Consider innovative options like Unruly Math that blend technology with physical activity.
  • Collaboration: Prioritize group work and peer-to-peer interaction to build social skills and reduce individual screen time.
  • Integration of Interests: Make math relevant by connecting it to students' passions.
  • Clear Limits: Set clear expectations for screen time in the classroom and encourage balance at home.

Dive Deeper into the Discussion

For a more in-depth look at these strategies and insights, be sure to watch the full recording here. The debate about screen time in elementary classrooms is far from over, but one thing is clear: active learning and play are essential ingredients for a well-rounded education. By striking the right balance and exploring innovative solutions like Unruly Math, we can empower the next generation to thrive in a digital world without sacrificing the joys of childhood and the foundations of critical thinking.

We Want to Hear from You!

How do you balance screen time in your elementary classroom? Share your tips and experiences in the comments below!

If you're looking for innovative ways to boost math engagement and reduce screen time, consider exploring Unruly Math.  Their K-5 program is designed to do just that!

Visit Unruly Math

Unruly Studios makers of Unruly Splats, programmable, stompable floor tiles that help kids learn fundamental coding skills through recess-style play. Best for elementary and middle school students from PE to science or coding class, a great addition to the classroom for active STEM coding and play!

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