Lessons from a Screen-Free Summer
My oldest child loves her TV shows. “Can I watch a show?” is the first thing she asks me in the morning. She plans what show she is going to watch the next time she has the opportunity. We deal in the currency of shows. Good choices mean more shows. Poor choices equal no shows. When she watches cartoons or movies that are being broadcast on a television station, rather than streamed through Netflix, she is confounded by the presence of commercials interrupting her show watching experience.
This summer I decided to do something extreme to get our show-centeredness under control. I say “our” because I am the one who helped mold this show-loving little girl. I thought I was doing ok because we don’t have cable and we only have one television in our home, it had become far too easy for me to allow screen time to be the answer to boredom or the easiest way to achieve quiet. So I introduced a rule for the summer, no screens unless it’s raining. That meant no television or Netflix, no iPad movies, no games on my phone, no screens unless there was water falling from the sky. It may sound extreme, and we had moments of "what was I thinking," but we made it.
With the start of the school year, our summer screen experiment has drawn to a close, but there are some things I learned from our ten weeks without screens that I hope I’ll remember as we move forward.
1. You can’t take away the screens, without a plan to fill the gap.
We created a summer bucket list, so I had a list of fun activities readily available. Sometimes I used the bucket list items as a way to fill the time that could have been filled with screens. But more often, it provided my daughter with something to look forward to so she woke up thinking about the fun things we had planned, rather than thinking about time in front of the television. We’re going to create a fall bucket list, so we continue to have activities we can look forward to and we don’t default to screens on the weekends.
2. Enjoying real world entertainment can be taught.
Staring at a glowing rectangle takes a lot less effort than playing in the real world. I had to be an active participant in helping my child realize the joys of play without screens. One simple way we did that this in the summer was by planting tomato plants, a red cherry tomato plant for her, and a yellow pear tomato plant for me. The tomato pots sat on our deck, and I taught my daughter how to take care of them. At first I had to remind her about to care for the plants, but eventually, she started talking to grandma about her tomato plant and proudly told her dad how many tomatoes she picked each day. I allowed her to use the hose to water them, which became an endless source of entertainment. It was so simple, but I had to be the one to take that first step to show her something in the real world that could be fun and interesting.
3. Don’t be afraid of boredom.
Lest you think we spent every summer day dreaming of sun-filled activities and harvesting tomatoes, rest assured we had plenty of “I’m bored” moments. I had to learn not to always fill the void with an activity. Boredom breeds creativity. Sometimes that creativity had to be channeled, but providing suggestions and then moving away allowed my daughter to fill the boredom gap with her imagination.
4. I have the same screen tendencies as my four-year-old.
One thing I realized as I went through this screen free summer with my daughter is that I also need planned time away from my screens. It is too easy to fill my free time and ease my boredom by staring at a screen. I want to have screen free space in my schedule so that I have time to be creative. I want to remember the simple pleasures of caring for my flowers or watching the birds on the bird feeder. I want to read good books so that I have interesting tidbits to share in conversation with family and friends. If dialing back the screen time is good for my children, it’s good for me too.
Screen entertainment isn’t a bad thing and screen time in its many varieties will continue in our home, but I think because our of screen break we’ll be better at seeking real world entertainment when the sun is shining and maybe even when it’s raining too.
Photo by Ashley Wittmer