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Last year, Cazenovia Children’s House teachers asked the parents of school-age children to vote on whether the use of hand-held electronic gaming devices, cell phones and MP3 players should be restricted. After reviewing various opinions, administrators banned the devices.

Overwhelmingly, parents said devices like Nintendo Game Boys, Nintendo DS, Playstation Portables and iPods shouldn’t be allowed at the center under any circumstances, recalled Penny Noll, the executive director. Of the 16 who completed surveys, only three said hand-held electronic devices should be allowed at CCH, but for a limited amount of time.

“In general, respondents felt that they wanted their children to participate in after-school programs with creative, social, physical and health activities, and that these electronic devices did not foster positive activities,” Noll said. “They also felt that these electronic devices are too hard to supervise and they were very concerned with inappropriate content.”

Other Central New York child care centers discourage students from bringing them in. There’s always the possibility that the devices could get damaged or stolen, but teachers and administrators say that’s the least of their problems when video games enter the classroom.

Learn as You Grow, which has centers in Cicero, Camillus, Solvay and Syracuse, restricts gaming devices to “share days,” where the child can show it to the class and demonstrate it briefly before putting it away for the rest of the day, explained co-directors Kathy Lagrow and Colleen Kavanaugh. The centers care for children up to age 12.

“We discourage them from coming into the building at all,” Lagrow said. “If one kid has one, everybody wants one.”

One of the biggest problems with the devices, she said, is that most of them allow only one player at a time, which is contrary to the institution’s goal of encouraging socialization.

Moreover, Kavanaugh said, the children won’t be as interested in physical fitness activities if they are getting screen time at the center. But she was quick to point out that Learn as You Grow will be getting Wii Fit programs for school-age children. That system is a multi-player video game console, and its Wii Fit package has sports and exercise games that require players to move their entire body.

“Child obesity is a big issue these days,” Kavanaugh said. “We want to encourage any kind of physical fitness they can have in their lives. In this case, video games aren’t entirely bad.”

At the Jewish Community Center in DeWitt, hand-held video game systems aren’t allowed in the after-school program. They are allowed during school breaks during the academic year and summer vacation, but the teachers watch the users very closely after the devices are turned on, explained Lori Innella-Venne, director of children and teen services and camping.

Any problem or arguments, she said, the device gets put away for the day. They are also allowed on buses during field trips.

“We’ve found that the problems occur when you get a large group watching one kid play,” Innella-Venne said. “Our days here are very structured, and we don’t like interruptions to the activities.”

At Sonshine Child Care in Manlius, hand-held games are limited to a 30-minute time period after the child arrives for the day during vacation times. The devices aren’t allowed on school days. The policy, which pertains to children in grades 1 to 4, has been in place for about four years now, said Carol Leubert, executive director.

“After the half-hour they have to put them away and socialize with the other kids,” Leubert said. “When they’re here all day and all morning—and their friends are home all day playing video games—it doesn’t seem unreasonable” to allow the games on that limited basis.

Childcare Solutions, a referral service and training resource for area day care centers, encourages centers to restrict hand-held gaming devices as much as possible. Executive director Peggy Liuzzi said reading and homework are acceptable solitary activities, but not gaming.

She said area child care center workers have noticed a sharp increase in the number of children who own these devices, possibly because they’ve become more affordable and there are many places to buy used systems and games. The games have evolved in terms of graphics, strategy, and their ability to absorb users’ undivided attention.

“If you don’t (ban them), you’d walk into classes and see a lot of kids with their heads down,” Liuzzi said. “It’s another kind of screen time, just like TV and computers. They are not real experiences, and our role is to provide kids real and different experiences.”

Dr. David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and Family, says video games are not all bad for children. They can aid in the development of hand-eye coordination, pattern recognition, spatial skills and memory. Some games require players to follow direction closely, and require them to use problem solving and logic skills.

“They have some definite advantages over passive forms of media like television,” he said. “The interactive nature of gaming puts the player in the role of potential strategizer, problem solver, creative agent and learner. They can try out different roles in different worlds. I foresee a maturing of the gaming industry where more of these games will have greater and greater educational benefits.”

However, games can also desensitize children to violence and, over time, cause them to lose interest in other activities like sports, homework, and interacting with friends and family. Walsh, who established a national report card for rating video games, said research has shown that 50 hours or more of screen time per week isn’t unusual for children, unfortunately.

“Too many kids are wired into virtual worlds but disconnected from the real world,” he said. “Day care centers and after-school programs are staffed by professionals who are well aware of the obesity epidemic and the growing concern about screen time. I think that since screen time is so out of balance that these folks are well advised to come down on the side of active play. I’m in favor of ‘Get outside and play and don’t come in until your hands are dirty.’”

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York