During the summer and other school breaks, kids may suddenly have a lot of unstructured time on their hands. Normally, that's a gift. After all, most children don't get enough downtime these days.
One of the greatest skills we can foster in children is teaching them how to "fill the blank canvas" and not think of boredom as a negative. But it's all too tempting for kids to fall into the tech trap: becoming glued to screens, isolated from one another and passively consuming content rather than engaging with the world.
Limiting screen time is hard enough during our regular routines. How can we help kids scale back on tech during school breaks?
How to avoid the school break tech trap
One great way to do this by creating a Family Media Plan. This interactive, online tool can help you and your children set media priorities that matter most to your family. You can go back to revise your plan as often as you need to, such as during breaks and the beginning of each school year.
It also helps to think about what aspects of media use and screen time your kids enjoy most, and find real-world ways to experience them. Read on for tips.
Think about why your family uses media
When thinking about alternative activities for digital media, video games and time spent on phones and tablets, ask yourself this: What function the technology is serving for you and your family?
Once you reflect on the underlying purpose, you'll better be able to find a replacement game or activity that meets those same needs. Some examples:
If your kids are drawn to action-packed video games with clear winners and losers, they likely crave competition and the thrill of game play. They are also probably interested in mastering strategies and techniques to improve their performance. Luckily, there are loads of options for competitive play in the analog world.
Try these screen-free ways to play: Brainstorm activities that spark competitive spirit but won't make children fall to pieces when they lose! Kids can generally handle card games, timed obstacle courses, sock battles (best done with clean laundry), and age-appropriate board games, especially those involving strategy.
Visual-spatial problem solving
If your child is obsessed with video games like MineCraft or your preschooler loves to move shapes around on a screen, they are probably experiencing the joy of fitting pieces together to build something original or the accomplishment of getting from point A to point B. Keep in mind, however, that
studies have shown toddlers don't transfer the knowledge they gain from "manipulating" objects on a screen (2D skills) to manipulating them in the real world (3D skills). That's why it's essential to offer kids hands-on opportunities for building and problem-solving play.
Try these screen-free ways to play: Visual learners love puzzles, mazes, "I Spy" games, and dot-to-dot activities. Try building a town using wooden blocks or bricks, or design a marble run and race away!
Sometimes kids (and grown-ups!) use technology as a soothing pacifier to simply zone out and unwind from the day. But its addictive design can lead us down the rabbit hole of surfing for stimulation that ultimately may not serve to provide relaxation at all.
Try these screen-free ways to play: Some children calm down through reading or coloring and others through sensory input: bean bag chairs that hug the body; visual input from snow globes, watching their flakes floating gently around; or auditory input from calm or beautiful music. If the weather's not frightful, go outside with your children and observe birds or other creatures, trees, and clouds. For physical kids, try choreographing a dance or gymnastics routine, or try some simple stretches or yoga poses.
If you find your child tends to spend their screen time watching streaming shows or movies, they're likely responding to narratives, characters, and plot. See if you can channel that impulse into activities inspiring imagination and fostering connections.
Try these screen-free ways to play: Listen to audiobooks with children to help stretch their attention over multiple chapters. In addition to reading books, you can also look at photo albums and ask aunts, uncles, grandparents to tell your children interesting stories about their childhoods.
Many families tend to use digital devices as a way to keep children occupied and entertained—as grown-ups cook, clean, run errands or go about their busy lives.
Try these screen-free ways to play: Enlist children as helpers, giving them a small piece of the big task that you're working on. Kids can be eager and enthusiastic partners in chores. They thrive on our attention and interaction, and love the satisfaction of doing "grown-up" activities. And while, yes, perhaps their involvement will slow down the job at hand, the conversations and emotional bonds that develop as you tackle a project together are worth the extra minutes. As you're cooking, try giving children age-appropriate tasks (gathering ingredients, stirring, chopping). While running errands, appoint your child as special assistant who can hold your checklist, search for the shortest checkout lines, and bag and carry items. When you're working from home, give them "work," which could be projects as simple as cutting scrap paper into 3-by-3-inch squares for use as note paper or drawing pictures to adorn your work area.
Have a kid who gets sucked into watching silly prank videos or swiping through funny memes? They are clearly looking to be entertained and let off steam in laughing. See if you can flip the script and have them take an active, rather than passive, role in the entertainment. Making their own fun and actively developing their senses of humor are skills that will serve them for a lifetime!
Try these screen-free ways to play: "Mad Libs"-style activities are great for one-on-one interactions. Also try charades, joke books, and funny board games that involve drawing or silly word play. One of our family favorites is the "finish my sentence" game—each person says one word and the next person keeps building the sentence, leading to lots of laughs. And lastly, have kids create their own "Broadway show," devising homemade costumes, and creating a program and tickets to boot!
Trying to scale back on technology use can be stressful—especially when kids start stomping and screaming when you impose limits. But try to resist the impulse to give in. Take a breath and be enthusiastic about introducing new activities. As parents, we must strive to make our enthusiasm and energy contagious, so our children pick up on it.