Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Unplugging" Children from Learning

Dan Yaccarino’s Doug Unplugged is the story of a little boy robot who veers off track from his parents’ “plugged in” lifestyle in order to experience a new kind of learning based on experiences than facts.
The book begins with:
“This is Doug. He’s a robot.
Each morning his parents plug him in to fill him up with lots and lots of facts. They love their little robot and want him to be the smartest robot ever.”

In this story, Doug’s parents can be seen as a representation of the contemporary parents who emphasize the importance of education for the betterment of their child’s life. They show their affection for him by providing him with the opportunity to fill up with “lots and lots of facts.” They even tell him, “Happy downloading” as they go to work, leaving Doug at home to learn on his own by “plugging in.”

Yaccarino’s text reminds us of the state of the 21st century family in this technologically driven culture, where television, computer games, and phone apps dominate the free time of the young child and adolescent. Assuming the children’s TV programing they are exposed to is educational, it still requires the child to be able to absorb the lessons being talked about in an abstract manner and apply it in real world experiences.

Doug’s absorption based learning is interrupted by a pigeon that lands on the windowsill of his apartment that day. Doug recognizes that the bird is a pigeon, but “he didn’t know they made such a funny cooing sound!” Doug is intrigued by this new information that isn’t told to him but rather experienced by him personally. Preferring this method of learning, he leaves home and goes out into the city to learn in a different manner.

In this adventure, Doug encounters a little boy that asks him to play. Unfamiliar with the concept, Doug is intrigued by the simple child games of “hide-and-seek” and “tag” that are both socializing aspects of childhood, but also a great form of exercise!

Once Doug’s newfound friend returns to his parents, Doug likewise returns home to his own parents, only to return in the second Doug book: Doug Unplugs on the Farm

Doug and his parents are on their way to visit “the grandbots” when Dad tells everyone to “plug in” so they can learn about the country on their drive. Doug learns “bushels of facts about farm things,” like “a baby pig is called a piglet” and “horses can pull plows.” But once again Doug’s downloading is interrupted when a flock of sheep runs across the road and causes their car to fall into a ditch, but “worse—the whole family came unplugged!”

While the parents try and fail to pull the car back up from the ditch, Doug wanders and explores the surrounding area, helping a local farm girl do her chores. Like his first experience with unplugging, Doug is able to learn not just facts but sensations such as smelly pigs and bossy roosters.

This experiential and sensory type of learning appeals to Doug and at the end he chooses to stay unplugged. I applaud Yaccarino’s text not just for the message to children to live an unmediated life rather than plugging in, but also for his use of a young robot for his protagonist as a critique of the modern child. The pressures from parents and school officials on children to memorize and spit back out information like a computer forces children into this life as a robot. The fact that children appeal to his robotic nature shows the correlation of our own cybernetic nature.

I leave you with Yaccarino’s message on the end cover of Doug Unplugs at the Farm: “Have you unplugged?”

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