What is it with kids and buttons?
The other day my family arrived at the National Aquarium in Baltimore on the way home from vacation. Everyone was excited to see the dolphins. Or at least I thought so.
As we descended the stairs to watch them under water, my 3-year-old was faced with a choice. On the right was a giant window — the size of the side of a house. Six of these beautiful creatures were swimming by, turning over, playing with each other inches away from the glass. On the left was a single button, which, when pressed, would light up something on a small screen above. Do you know where my daughter went?
Of course you do. I don’t mean to single out the aquarium. All over the country, museums, historical sites, nature centers and even zoos are using technology to entice families with young children.
There are times when this can add to the experience. At the visitor center at the Jamestown, Va., historical site, kids can press buttons to see different trade routes between Europe and the New World and Africa. At Stepping Stones, a children’s museum in Norwalk, Conn., kids can press buttons to find nutritional information about different foods.
Older kids are slightly more interested in the information, but looking around these exhibit halls and watching other families, many seem more interested in the buttons than in the actual exhibit. Walking through the indoor exhibits at the Bronx Zoo, one can see fights breaking out over who gets to press the buttons to light up information about reptiles.
There’s some deep satisfaction that children get out of pressing circles that light up. Even before the touch-screen technology so common now, kids enjoyed clicking on computer icons or even the Speak N Spell. Heck, elevator buttons still seem to excite my kids.
Maybe it’s because they’re making something happen. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, suggests that certain apps provide kids with the ability to say, “I did it.” In an interview with NPR last year, Christakis described the way even babies like to drop things from a high chair and watch an adult pick them up and put them back. “They love that they make something happen in the real world.”
Many adults seem to enjoy this sense of agency too, getting the same kind of jolt from pressing buttons that kids do. The games Candy Crush and Candy Crush Soda Saga have 92 million users daily. That’s a lot of buttons being pressed. But why?
The 2012 book “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas” offers some insight. Interviewing a woman named Mollie at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, author Natasha Dow Schül, a professor at MIT, asks if she’s hoping for a big win. Mollie “gives a short laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand. ‘In the beginning there was excitement about winning,’ she says, ‘but the more I gambled the wiser I got about my chances. Wiser but also weaker, less able to stop . . . The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win.’?”
So why does Mollie play? “To keep playing — to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.” What’s the machine zone? Mollie tries to explain: “It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there — you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”
Schül argues that people engaged in machine gambling or video games get to a point “where their own actions become indistinguishable from the functioning of the machines.” The gamblers describe how what they want to happen and what happens seems to occur at the exact same time. That’s the power of the button.
It’s tempting, whether as parents or educators or museum curators, to use technology to draw in kids (and adults). And a few buttons with light-up maps are hardly going to make or break any one experience. But it would be naïve to think that these bells and whistles won’t affect the way we learn. And maybe not always for the better.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.