December 24, 2004

The Time Tracker.

A few days ago, the NYT had an article about a new toy that was supposed to dismay us, the Time Tracker:
Shaped like a colorful peppermill, with a digital readout panel, lights that suggest a traffic intersection and an electronic male voice that booms "Begin" and "Time's up," the Time Tracker, which sells for a list price of $34.95, has turned into a surprise hit of the holiday season, according to some toy sellers. By using the tracker during playtime, homework or any other activity, children are supposed to develop a sense of passing time - 20 minutes, half an hour, an hour - that translates into better management during tests. Siren sounds indicate when a certain period has gone by, and the lights switch from green to yellow to red to demonstrate how close the child is to the end of the allotted time....

"It's obviously not the type of thing kids would want for themselves," said Andrea Galinski, product development manager at Chelsea & Scott, a Lake Bluff, Ill., company that owns Leaps and Bounds. But, she added, "We've had a very positive response from parents."

Supposedly, parents think the gizmo will help their kids adjust to a life of standardized tests. Duly dismayed Times readers weigh in today. A psychology professor writes that "the deepest and most creative thought often occurs outside clock time," so children ought to be left free of the awareness of time so they can tap this deep part of their potential. A professor of education writes that the toy won't help anyway, because "test preparation is not real learning." And the former editor of the Harvard Education Letter detects a political problem: politicians send their kids to private schools, which rely less on standardized tests, yet they "foolishly and cruelly" impose the standardized tests on other people's kids at the public schools.

Is a toy that teaches a sense of time really so bad? I sometimes set a timer as an incentive to get through a task quickly. Would it really be so bad to set a timer for 20 minutes and say, if you can get your toys picked up in this time, you can watch a TV show? It might be a good way to learn to get certain things done without dawdling and distraction. There are many little chores that children need to learn to do: life isn't all about dreamy, timeless, fantasy play.

I note that all the letter writers are men. I don't know anything about them as individuals, and I too like enhancing a child's capacity for deep thought, creative play, and true learning. But have these letter writers had to manage children trying to get ready for school in the morning, picking up their rooms, and helping with getting dinner on the table? Would these people who romanticize the child's ignorance of time abolish bedtime, that classic imposition of time upon the child? Do psychology professor dads call bedtime on their kids when they are duly engrossed in creative play?

Time awareness is a valuable thing to learn! It's not just about dealing with school. And even in the context of school, time awareness has many applications outside of the standardized test. The class period has a time limit (who has not watched the clock while a teacher speaks?), an essay test has a time limit, and many sports and games have time limits. Many people find competing against the clock stimulating and fun. And a deadline can unlock mental powers.

I wouldn't mind having a Time Tracker myself to push me on through a certain task that is piled up right next to my computer at the moment. Okay, if you grade exams for one hour, you can have 20 minutes to blog.

UPDATE: An emailer writes:
Had you ever heard that ADD or ADHD kids should use timers? Because they have such trouble focusing, the timer gives them structure and allows them to meet shorter-term goals. Thus, they do 5 min of homework (or whatever) and then they are permitted to do some other activity that they find pleasurable. And what's weird is, it works. My daughter is not diagnosed with ADHD, but has some of the symptoms (distractability being chief among them). The timer trick works like a charm. I can see where this gizmo would be a cooler way to do the same thing.