Screen-free parenting for an entire month? What happened when we tried it.
A whole screen-free month seemed like a dauntingly long time. For me. I was nervous. And the first 3-days were miserable. But then things changed.
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Last year [2017,] I was feeling guilty about one aspect of our home environment: our dependence on screens.
It felt like the kids were always either on a screen or asking about using one. The time limits were vague and based upon how my husband and I were feeling. Videos, tablets, iPods, and screen-games were incorporated into every single day.
I felt frustrated with the boys’ growing dependence on screens. I knew how important it is for kids to be bored. It is in that space of boredom that they really develop creativity. It seemed like anytime anyone was bored, a screen turned on. Then, they’d fight over what was on the screen or whose turn it was. I finally had enough.
At the end of June, I made a proclamation: July is going to be screen-free.
Note: This blog is all about your whole health. This post will be a slight change from the regular info about gut-health, weight, metabolism, and stress. Today, we’re going to cover the home environment we have created for our kids and what it looks like to try screen-free parenting.
My Main Goals:
It might have been the result of my frustration, but this decision was not without thought and goals. I had three main goals that I was hoping to accomplish by a month-long break. We had tried occasional day-long breaks or even a week at a time, but this time I wanted it to be long enough that they wouldn’t be constantly counting down the time until the screen-free time was done.
My goals were:
Break the screen dependence.
Let them experience boredom.
Initial Reactions and Arguments
This declaration, of course, was greeted with whining, grumbling, complaining, and general discontent. Then they started looking for loopholes and ways to get me to rescind this decree. “What about school stuff on the computer?” “Well, if it’s no screens, that means you, too! If we can’t, you can’t.” “Can we play the Kinect? When we play that, we’re moving!” “But we paid our own money!”
I didn’t just say a quick “no,” I actually considered each argument. (And then said “no.”)
My youngest taught himself to read by playing on the tablets and listening to his older brother’s phonics lessons. I’m not discounting the value of screens in education. But even for this, I’m saying no.
There are tons of books here in the house and at the library. The kids can keep working on their reading skills. They can do some math worksheets if they want. Their typing proficiency will be fine after a month off. (They love playing on nitrotype.com)
Mom and Dad
The no-screens rule is for the kids. It does not apply to mom and dad. I run my Holistic Health business through the internet. I am not taking a month off from helping my clients. After the boys are in bed, Jon and I can still work out to DVDs, we can still watch movies. (This year (2018) is the World Cup. The rule about that is, if Daddy turns it on, anyone can watch.)
However, during the daytime, we are also taking the month off from games. One online game we play as a family (HayDay) Jon and I play for fun, but also to make sure we have the resources to help the kids’ farms. Another farming game is just on M’s kindle, Jon plays it occasionally during July so that when M gets on in August, he’ll have a bunch of money to buy the big tractors and combines he wants.
Active Screen Games
I love that when they play the games on the Kinect they are moving the whole time—running, jumping, dodging obstacles, kicking balls. It is a fun workout. However, they can do all those things in the great outdoors. And when they’re outside, they are all participating. There isn’t anyone sitting on the couch, passively watching.
Their Own Money
Yes, it is true that they saved for months to buy their Kindles with their own money. I commend them for that. But it doesn’t impact the no-screens rule. I’m not throwing their kindles away. They’ll get them back in August.
I purposely picked a month that had activities going on. One full week they’d be sleeping over with my Mom. Another week they will have soccer camp in the mornings.
A whole month seemed like a dauntingly long time. For me. I was nervous. No movie to set them all in front of when I need the house to be quiet for a client call? No telling them to go play on their kindles when I was sick of hearing them argue and whine at each other? As I thought about why a month worried me, I realized (ashamed) that it was for my own selfish reasons. I knew they would do fine. I was worried about my use of their screens as babysitters and pacifiers.
The first 3 days were miserable.
I’m not going to lie to you. The beginning was rough. The worst time of day was early morning. Prior to July, they were required to do their “morning stuff” (dress, eat, chores, Bible, and pray) and then they could watch a movie together. They all worked to help the others finish the “morning stuff” and then cooperated and negotiated to pick a movie all four could agree upon. This pattern allowed Jon and me to sleep in. (Both of us were working late shifts that year and our sleep schedules were different than the kids’.)
Instead of peaceful mornings full of cooperation and a race to watch the TV, the kids were lost. What would they do? Why would they want to help each other get through the required items when there wasn’t a reward at the end?
The bickering, arguing, and whining woke me up. Throughout the rest of the day, they seemed to constantly be trying to irritate each other. I questioned if I could get through a month of this. It was hard.
It wasn’t just mornings that were hard, the rest of the day was too. Although there was plenty to do, the boys had forgotten how to play. Sure, they had their regular stuff (legos and farming vehicles) but they didn’t want to play with those all day long. There were voids in the day to fill. The first three days were rough. They weren’t used to that much free time. They were bored.
And then …
Boredom is good for kids. But it can be hard on Mom. I wrote out a list of chores. Anyone who complained of being bored got a chore. It didn’t take long before they figured out how to fill their free time without complaining to Mom. I didn’t just give them chores, though. I also provided ideas and tools to fill the boredom with.
After three days, something strange and unexpected happened. One morning it was quiet. I woke up because it was odd. I snuck downstairs expecting to find them watching a movie. Nope. All four of them were playing “Sorry” together!
The afternoons filled with games and cooperation. They started to enjoy each other more.
It was awesome.
And it didn’t take all month like I had feared.
The End of One Screen-Free Month
After the initial 3-days, our screen-free month was great. The boys learned to play; they knew how to play before, but this really stretched them and helped them come up with new things to do for fun. They discovered boardgames and card games. Again, they knew how to play games before, but never sought them out. By the end of the first week they were enjoying these during many of the times normally filled with screens. By the end of the month, games were officially part of their culture.
The Rest of the Year
Screens went back on in August. The boys had daily time limits and enjoyed the screens, but also continued to enjoy all the things they discovered during our screen-free month. One thing that remained consistent was their newfound love of playing games.
As time passed, though, the dependence upon screens increased. There was more sneaking of screens (and subsequent consequences) and I worried they were starting to become addicted to them. So early in the spring, I announced that screen-free July was going to be an annual thing. We also implemented a weekly 48-hour screen-free rule.
Our 2nd Annual Screen-Free Month
The calendar flipped from June to July.
The screens disappeared.
And. Nothing. Happened.
There was no whining. There was no increased bickering and irritating others out of boredom. I only had one child beg and that only happened one time. Instead of the miserable few days we had last year, it was as though the kids transitioned right into the middle of last July’s experience.
They played. They read. They listened to stories. They invented new games. They laughed. And like all siblings, they fought—but not more than normal. In fact, they are getting along much better!
Screen-free July is an annual tradition now in our house. Unlike the first year, the month starts out smoothly. My kids remember how to play. They know they can make it through a month without screens. While they don’t look forward to the month, they don’t dread it either. Our screen-free month allows them to reset their brains, to play, and to engage with life around them.
Tips to Go Screen-Free
So how can you implement this in your own house? Here are some tips and things I learned along the way.
I am not going to entertain my kids. That is not one of my goals in life. I want my kids to grow up to be independent. They need to learn to entertain themselves. Whilst I am not going to entertain them, I will provide tools so they can entertain themselves.
My chief tool is a pile of books. Books can speak to every category below. My pile of library books for the month was, um, large. There are too many books to name, but there are a couple pictures of some of our favorites.
Let Them Fill their Time
Legos are amazing. They allow for guided building while following the directions or creative building while exploring your imagination. After creating, there is the imaginary play as the mini-figures act out your story.
Running and playing outdoors is healthy for everyone, not just the kids. With a household of four boys, we have balls of many sizes, from golf-balls to soccer-balls. There are games of catch, soccer, ball-tag (a mix between dodgeball and tag) and many other activities.
Digging, piling, filling, scraping, and sand-castling. A sandbox provides a landscape for active and creative play.
Nature! There is so much to explore. The clouds are ever changing; how many animals and funny things can you spot up in the sky? Or turn the focus downward and spot some ants working hard. Use nature in indoor art by creating a leaf rubbing.
Paper and All the Trimmings
The creative possibilities are endless when supplied with paper, scissors, glue, tape, crayons, and markers. Add some cardboard boxes and a book or two and you have hours of independent play.
Books, Audiobooks, and How-to Books
Books and stories are vital for a developing brain. While books are always a part of our home environment and culture, they are even more important during a screen-free month. We have picture books, chapter books, books on “tape,” and audiobooks.
Each kid is supposed to read for a minimum of 20 minutes each day. Two of my kids are independent readers. The other two are not. For the younger two, I provide many picture books that they can tell themselves the story. We also have many books on “tape” that we have borrowed from the library or created ourselves.
It’s easy to make your own book on “tape.” Use the voice memo app on your phone and record yourself reading the story to your child. Every time he (or she) turns the page, he can make a noise with some sort of instrument or bell. (We had a slide whistle for a while. That made for fun turn-the-page signals.) Once recorded, turn that file into a track in your music list. You can take a picture of the book to use as the cover photo so non-readers can identify what book they want to read. I load these “songs” onto an old iPod so the kids can have someone read them the story as they look at the book. (The kids know that the iPod is only for stories.)
Audiobooks provide a perfect backdrop for creative play like Lego building or making paper crafts. I estimate the kids play twice as long when they are listening to a story.
You don’t have to wait until a trip to the library or until you can make your own. Visit Librivox right now and browse a ton of free audiobooks. Our favorites are the Thornton W. Burgess animal books read by John Lieder.
Of course, there are outings that can fill the time as well. Your family might enjoy a trip to the park, the zoo, a museum, or a pool. My goal is to raise independent, creative kids, not to entertain my kids. So while I make sure our screen-free month has some activities already scheduled, I don’t add anything to my days. I want them to learn to fill the boredom.
What would your family be like if you gave up screens for a month?
Can you do it?
Do you have questions?
Have you tried it?
Comment below or tag me on Instagram @EstherY.RN
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