Filling the Void

Yay! It’s here. Two-weeks of spring break. No morning rush to catch the bus. A little vacation on a beach. And then spring followed by summer. I’m counting down the days until the sun is shining, the heat is off and the windows are open.

And then the panic sets in. The flight is 5 hours, maybe more. Screen-Free Week is next month? Then summer. That’s a lot of unstructured time.

It’s exciting and horrifying all at the same time.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, right? You feel it, too? I’m assuming you’re here because you have some desire to reduce the amount of time your kids are spending engrossed by screens. You’re hoping to get off on the right foot.

Can we not only survive, but thrive, without turning on the TV, removing the restrictions on the iPads, handing over the xbox?

Yes! It’s all about preparation and deep breathing. Like right now. Take a deep breath, we can do this.

Preparing yourself.

Express your love and set expectations. Spend some time thinking about why you are interested in reducing screen-time. For instances, my kids need a lot of sleep and screens before bed interfere with the quantity and quality of their sleep. So if we’re in the car at night, instead of watching a movie, we listen to books on tape and save the movie for an afternoon. Start by talk with your family about your intentions, your love for them, your concerns for their health and your desire to connect with them without the distraction of screens. Tell them you want them to be strong, creative and interesting adults, and that relying on a screen can interfere with the development of those skills.

Start slow. If you’re a family who spends a lot of time with screens, don’t expect to quit cold turkey. Start each day by reducing the amount of time that your family uses screens until you’ve achieved the right balance for your family. Think in terms of connecting IRL (in real life) with yourselves, each other and the world around you. If you’re interested in almost completely eliminating screens, go for it. It can be challenging at first and may seem unrealistic at times, but from my experience the less time kids spend engaging with screens, the easier it is for them to think outside the screen and enjoy screen-free activities. Don’t be afraid to go far. If I can do it, you can do it!

implement screen-free times and zones. Before school, in the car, during dinnertime and an hour or two before bed are all reasonable times to expect your family to remain screen-free. Research supports these as being the most important times to disconnect from screens and reconnect with your family and yourself. Once your family is accustomed to these new screen-free periods, self-reflect. How is it going? What changes have they noticed? How does being disconnected from screens make them feel? Most kids tells us that they’re most memorable, happiest experiences did not involve screens. Make adjustments. Consider extending screen-free periods to include before homework is complete or during the week, if this isn’t already part of your routine.

Be gentle with yourself. Accept that sometimes you might give in or experience set-backs. Don’t feel guilty. It happens. Everyday is a new day. Also understand that often times it’s much easier to distract a child with a screen. Screens generally keep kids quiet and contained. Kids may even fight less. There have been many times I’ve contemplated giving in and handing over a screen just to keep the peace. But psychologists have reminded me that using screens as a distraction, especially during dinner or in the grocery store, interferes with the development of self-soothing skills, resilience, interpersonal skills and communication. So even though withholding screens and dealing with the chaos makes me want to pull my hair out, I know it’s worth it for my kids’ development. I just keep taking deep breaths.

Embrace the mess. For me, this is the hardest part. Screen-free and screen-lite homes are a mess. We might as well embrace it! Without screens, fine motor and gross motor skill development really takes off! Your little humans will use their creativity to create amazing things and along the way, an amazingly huge mess. We’ve contended with paint on the walls, tiny pieces of construction paper all over the floor and slime on the ceiling. Tell yourself, it’s worth it. It is worth it, right?

Use Screen-Time Apps - Most kids’ brains are not developed enough to manage tech use. Take advantage of built-in screen-time limits on Apple products or apps on other products. Hide the xbox controllers. Reset the password on the computer. You’re the parents. It’s up to you to set limits.

Remember, the more time kids spend on screens, the harder it is for them to self-motivate and engage with screen-free activities. Those activities often feel boring because kids are accustomed to being entertained by a screen. Technology companies employee an army of psychologist, neuroscientist and gaming theorist to design products to be “persuasive” - to capture our attention and keep it. So disconnecting and finding joy in other activities can be tricky at first. To be a successful adult, kids need to develop creativity, resilience and self-motivation. Entertaining themselves without a screen-crutch is a pretty great way to develop these skills.

Preparing your kids.

Let’s Talk. Have an open dialogue about what they enjoy about technology and why. Talk about what other activities they enjoy. How can you link the two? If they, like many adults, depend on technology to communicate with friends, think of ways they can achieve this offline. You’re probably going to have to set up play dates or, if your kids are older, drop them off at a park or recreation center to meet up with friends. If you work, find screen-free places that are well-supervised for them to go after school. These face-to-face interactions are so important to social-emotional development. They’re worth your time.

Feelings. Prepare your kids to deal with feelings that will surface because they’re using screens less. Of these, boredom and frustration will probably be most prevalent. Remind them that these feelings are ok and that as adults, we experience these feelings, too. Work together to find ways to express and manage these feelings. I often tell my kids that being bored is part of childhood and that mixed up with that boredom is a really interesting idea just waiting to be found. If that doesn’t work and they’re still bored, I tell them I have at least 100 chores for them to do. That gets them moving.

Get them involved. Brainstorm ways to stay busy. Write lists of screen-free activities and post them where they can easily be seen or create a jar full of ideas. Share experiences that made them feel connected to you and themselves. If your child spends time home alone, write out a list of activities they can work on before you get home - including a mix of suggestions from below.

Preparing your home.

You’ve prepared yourself and your kids. Now you have to actually fill the void with other options. Below are some suggestions that have worked for us.

Art Supplies - Egg cartons, boxes, paper bags, markers, crayons and watercolor paints are always good for entertaining kids of all ages. Encourage them to use these materials in different ways. We’ve hot-glued crayons to canvas and cardboard, and melted them with a hairdryer. Use big boxes to build ramps or jumps or a car. Mix paint with water and paint the snow.

Building - If your child is a tinkerer, take out the legos, blocks and snap circuits. Encourage creativity - what else can he build with? My 9-year-old is often using macaroni shells, vinegar and baking soda and paper to create. He’s probably assembled enough paper chains to circle the earth - 5 times - and we have more paper boats than the US Navy.

Baking - Even if you’re less like Martha Stewart and more like Betty Crocker, you can still have fun with your kids in the kitchen. Bake chocolate chip cookies, banana bread or cupcakes out of a box. For kids who might be home alone, there are many no-bake options out there. My 12-year-old daughter often bakes with friends. It’s messy, but they’re busy. Not into baking? Teach your kids how to cut veggies, rinse rice, make a marinade. My 6-year-old makes a mean salad! Research shows that kids who participate in cooking a meal are more adventurous when trying new foods. Don’t forget to insist they clean up after themselves. You’re teaching them how to follow directions, be considerate and follow through.

Sports - My son is all about sports, all the time. We have no shortage of balls, bats, lacrosse sticks, golf clubs and nets scattered around the yard and garage. In the winter, he uses his lacrosse stick to throw snow. He plays basketball and soccer nearly year round, sometimes alone, sometimes with his siblings.

Get outside - Encourage your kids to climb trees, to race around the house, to roll down a hill. Tiny humans love building fairy houses or frog huts. Jump in puddles, blow bubbles, decorate the driveway with chalk. In the summer, let the kids loose with the hose. Ask them to wash your car. Encourage sledding and animal tracking. Go ponding, crabbing or fishing. Venture into the woods!

Games - Think board games, card games and interactive games. Our favorites are Life, Monopoly, Yahtzee and Secret Door. Teach your child how to play solitaire, war and 21. Uno is fun for all ages and our games last forever. If you have enough participants, play charades, hide and seek or ghosts in the graveyard. We often play “treasure hunt” and search for items in the yard or the house, like a missing bracelet or library book. Put them in the tub or let them play in the sink. Look at old pictures and create a timeline. Dedicate a space for puzzles. Have a dance party.

Chores - Nothing builds character, empathy and responsibility quite like chores. Kids of all ages are capable of helping to care for your shared home. Kids can sweep and vacuum. Ask them to empty the dishwasher, wipe the counter, clean the sink, wipe down the baseboards, sort the socks. Older kids can help with laundry - washing, folding, putting away. Shoveling snow, raking, and pruning are all great outdoor chores. Send them outside to collect kindling for a fire.

Math and Literacy - You can’t imagine how much paper and printer ink we go through. We are constantly printing coloring pages and puzzles. You can buy books of sudoku, cross-word puzzles, word searches, and dot-to-dots. Fill your home with books. Read to each other. Practice cursive and math facts. The web is full of free printables. Coloring is great for developing fine motor skills. Play tic-tac-toe. Write stories.

Host playdate - Before the play date, pow-wow with your kids to write a list of possible activities. Sometimes they come up with the most bizarre ideas no adult would ever think of. Make the list long. But assure your child that they don’t have to get to everything and if they do, they can find ideas in their own brains! Have materials, games and more ideas ready. Establish the expectation that “people come first” and this is a device-free get-together. For older kids, collect devices at the door. You can put them in a box, shopping bag or basket. Be light about it. Tuck the devices in with small blankets and assure their owners that they’ll be ok - themselves and the device.

Outside the Home

If you’re looking for ways to fill the void outside the home, just take some of the above items with you. We bring paper, crayons, colored pencils and books to restaurants. We play “Which Hand?” with sugar packets and I Spy. In the grocery store, have kids write the list and cross off the items. Ask older kids to find items. Have younger kids find different-colored foods. Give fruit and veggies the old smell test. Encourage them to talk to other shoppers.

Don’t give up

Reducing screen-time can be challenging but once you help your kids figure out how to fill the screen-time void, it’s so much more rewarding. Your kids’ abilities to entertain themselves, communicate with others and work through difficult situations will improve. It wont always be sunshine and rainbows but in the end, it will be worth it. You will find that you’ve not only survived but your kids have thrived.

Adrienne Principe