To Screen or Not to Screen?

Today is Saturday morning. Right now my two boys are snuggled up in their room watching one of their latest and greatest kids’ shows on Netflix (Dad has the remote with him next to the bed so that they do not accidentally veer into “inappropriate for children” territory). We chose to put a television in their room mostly to play Pandora lullabies as they go to sleep at night, and so that if they don’t feel well, they can contain themselves and their germs in their room while watching mindless television as they get better [Because, let’s be honest: lying on your back watching hours of tv is kind of the only perk when you’re sick!].

Today they are neither going to bed nor ill, but they have earned some extra time by earning all their “smileys” for the week: picking up toys, clearing the table, that sort of thing. And also, they are quiet and getting along, which is no small feat for two preschool aged boys!

As children of the 80s, my husband and I are well acquainted with the joys of television. We grew up on the Dukes of Hazzard, all the cheesy sitcoms with their “very special episodes,” and of course, the time-honored tradition of eating bowl after bowl of Lucky Charms while watching Saturday morning cartoons! One night after the kids were in bed, we found a series of YouTube “name that tune” tv theme song quizzes from the 60s through the 90s. Interestingly enough, we did the best on the 70s shows. Apparently we watched a lot of reruns as kids!

So to tell our boys “no screens EVER” would be a bit hypocritical. Because we still have our shows that we enjoy!

But lately, we have struggled with every parent’s dilemma: how much is too much? They got tablets for Christmas, which come with a plethora of new challenges. Parental controls. Making sure they don’t accidentally spend our money on random game apps. Setting limits. Right now, the tablets are “on vacation,” and will make a brief reappearance on the hour-long drive to Grandma’s house, because they had gotten ridiculously attached to them.

[We bought them as “big boy” toys to encourage an end to some toddler-like habits, and to help work on fine motor skills, letters and numbers, problem solving, etc. Which had been happening, along with an increased overdependence on Shark Boy and Lava Girl for entertainment!]

All this to say, screens have their place. We all use them. And we all struggle with overuse. And when we see our kids struggling in this area, we need to be the adult in the situation and pull the plug, because children lack the self awareness and impulse control to do this themselves. This is the same reason we feed them vegetables, make them brush their teeth, and wear a seatbelt! This has been a challenging week for us as we have worked on limiting screen time, but here are some things that have saved us:

  1. Magna Tiles!! My 5 year old loves to build. My 4 year old loves to create patterns and work on shapes. Magna Tiles (whether they are the “official” brand or a knock-off!) are a win for both of them. Since they are magnetic, clean-up is a breeze, too. And they hurt less than Legos when you step on a stray one that didn’t make it back into the box!
  2. Forced outside time. We live in Minnesota. So far, in January, the temps have been ABOVE zero – in the 20s and even upper 30s some days. This is unheard of. So most days, we bundle them up and send them to the backyard to explore, play and work through their boredom. They have planted trees (and then cut them down because they are infested with bugs, like some of the trees in our neighborhood!). Sculpted pretend turkey dinners out of snow. Made “soup” in a stray bucket. That one backfired a bit, because all the sloshing and stirring of water turned our patio into a skating rink until we salted it! But something magical happens when kids play outside: they get along and cooperate, create whole new worlds, and work through their boredom. You could, I suppose come up with some activities for them to do, but I like just sending them out and seeing what they come up with on their own.*
  3. Kiwi Crates. This is a subscription box service that sends monthly boxes for kids ages 3-18. They have boxes for every level and interest – from STEM to crafts to whatever! It is generally $20 a month, but they have deals all the time – and it is totally worth the investment – especially if you homeschool or are still distance learning. Our boys have worked on “glow in the dark nature” and “world of bugs” so far, and have had a blast making the crafts that come with it. It has also led to further interest – this week, they asked if we could make frog puppets because frogs eat flies! So we made them out of paper lunch bags and are looking forward to a puppet show later today.
  4. Books!! I cannot emphasize this enough. Expose your kids – even very small kids! – to all sorts of books. Silly ones, sweet and touching ones, rhyming, educational. Eventually, you will hit on something that sparks interest. Our library is offering curbside service right now, but if yours does not, check thrift stores or set up a socially distant exchange with friends.
  5. Random craft day. Set them at the table with a bunch of craft supplies and see what they come up with! Last month, my five year old took cut up pieces of paper and glue and pieced everything together to make a picture frame. He asked me to attach a piece of ribbon to it and we found an old baby picture of his that he wanted to put in it. This was all on his own, just because he had an opportunity to tinker with paper, scissors and glue!!

What are some of your favorite screen-free go-tos?

*Our house is set up with top to bottom windows on the doors facing our backyard, so we can easily see and supervise them, and be there at a moment’s notice if they need help. So they can learn independence even while we are really there!! You may need to figure out another way to supervise small kids outdoors if your house is set up differently.

(My son, age 5, combining two of his favorite things: Play Dough and Magna Tiles!!)

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