As I approached my daughter’s bedroom, I'd expected the usual eerie silence and occasional irresistible chuckle as my head-phoned little girl immerses herself in the screaming happenings of her favorite YouTuber or fights for survival in the virtual worlds of Roblox.
Approaching the room. I was surprised to see a procession of soft toys and Barbie dolls, all riding in different vehicles, with one on the back of a unicorn. As I turned the corner, it became clear that the toys were on their way to a show, which featured yet more dolls and unicorn toys dancing and singing their hearts out in front of a fully furnished dolls house, complete with disco ball.
Delighted to see such creativity and joy, I quietly backed out of the room and reflected upon what steps I could take to encourage more playtime and less screen time to help my little girl to grow her wild imagination.
Technology has advanced so much that many kids have come to embrace hours of screen time as the norm, drinking from a hosepipe of endless entertainment and magical worlds that require little to no imagination. Let’s be realistic though, for many of us, the digital tablet has become an affordable babysitter, providing hours of peace and quiet for tired and busy parents.
I'm frequently blown away by the clever vocabulary, humor and new insights that some of these online characters impart on my little girl. It's just that this leaves little space and time for her own make-believe and can negatively affect her health. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend no more than 2 hours of screen time for 5-18 year-olds. Studies show that excessive screen time increases the chances of obesity, and disrupts sleep patterns.
Beyond these well-reported symptoms lurk other issues than can stifle your child's development in crucial areas of imagination, creativity and exploration. If you can relate to your little one throwing epic tantrums as you try to prize an iPad out of their clutching hands or rely a bit too much on the “iPad sitter”, then you should think about taking some action.
These areas can be addressed but let’s be realistic, we aren’t likely to find the extra time or energy to become the perfect ‘unicorn’ parent. We need to find practical ways of helping us do better, without giving up that precious free time that we cling to. Family bonding time is important but so is the need to for your child to play alone or with a friend or sibling, with minimal supervision and interaction on your part. This gives her the time space to create, explore, imagine, think critically and find fun in boredom – all essential life skills that will serve her well as she grows.
So what can we do to reach the perfect paradise of a happy child who embraces life without Minecraft. Here are 5 quick steps that will get you on track to success.
1. Give them Alternatives. Organize a clear, clean space and lay out a number of toys and games to pick from. Choose simple toys and activities that are open-ended and vary enough to keep them immersed. Think of the toys you loved the most as a child and get hold of the modern equivalent - there is a reason you remember them. Here is our pick of theTop 10 Classic Toys for Girls You can Still Buyand our selection ofTop 10 Retro Boys Toys You Can Still Buy. Check it out to see how many you had as a child.
2. Set Boundaries; Tech is your Friend. Make a weekly schedule for screen time and be consistent in enforcing it. An hour after school and an hour after dinner might work for you. Technology is here to help you; tablets such as the Apple iPad now allow you to set limits. Try to avoid use in the hour before bedtime as the blue light emitted from screens can inhibit the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your little one’s sleep cycle. Only allow device time in common family spaces so they you can better observe and control their habits.
Top Tip: Turn off “Auto-Play” on YouTube to create natural breaking points where your child would have to make a choice to watch another film. Click on the profile photo in the top right and then settings, before toggling-off autoplay.
3. Arrange Play Dates. This family favorite of mine can be win-win! Ask your little one which class mates they enjoy spending their time with the most, look up their parents and invite them over for a playdate. My daughter has developed some wonderful friendships through 1-to-1 social time with her schoolmates. While they play for hours in dollhouses or making slime, we get to enjoy our own time while keeping a quiet eye on them. We’ve seen creativity and exploration levels go through the roof when kids play together and it always seems to make them happier and ready for bed!
\4. Set an Example.Many of us parents are also guilty of spending too much time on our phones. Without realizing it, we could be setting an example that it’s normal to have our head down in a virtual world rather than openly communicating with our family members. When you can, organize family activities where one or more of the parents take the child out of his normal routine and engage in very real activities. Our favorites are board games, swimming, trips to the park and long dog walks in the forest.
Top Tip: Let your kids have a ‘Binge Day’ on which they can watch however much they want or at least have a few extra hours to soak up some content. This makes them feel like they are getting more, without losing control.
5. Watch the Results.Every time you pull them out from behind a screen and into a real, fun and creative activity, sit back and observe how their behavior changes. If yours are anything like my strong-minded girl, you’ll see a near instant decrease in emotional behavior, increased levels of calm and a laser-like focus on a creative task.
We are not all super parents with super obedient children and so we can’t be expected to achieve perfection. However, we can at least give the 5 steps above a good go. If you do, I guarantee that you’ll at least see immediate emotional improvements but over time you’ll notice that they become more imaginative, better at creating their own fun, dealing with the boredom that we grew up with, and solving problems.
What do you do to reduce screen time? Do you rule with an iron fist? What are you favorite techniques to get kids more engaged away from screens. Please let us know in the comments below!