Photograph by Jupiterimages / Getty Images
Photograph by Jupiterimages / Getty Images

Screen time alternatives

Don’t stress right now over kids having too much tech. But you can still try these ideas to get them back IRL.

Parents have always fretted over their kids’ screen time. But the pandemic has increased that worry to Level 98, especially as families are now planning summer "staycations." “Screen time was hard enough to manage when there were plenty of other things to do,” says father of two Brad Taylor of Fort Thomas, Kentucky. “But it’s tough when it might be kids’ only connection to the outside world.”

And though experts advise parents not to sweat the endless tech time during the pandemic, getting offline can provide opportunities for creativity, independence, and family bonding. (Plus some much-needed rest for those strained eyes.)

“Regardless of the pandemic, one of the most powerful things that parents can give their kids is attention,” says professor Nicholas Salsman of Xavier University’s School of Psychology. “Time away from screens can give parents a way to model social behaviors for their kids as well as engage with, teach, and listen to them in new ways.”

Whatever type of tech your kid is obsessed with, we’ve got a few solutions. Here are some ways to create valuable activities off the Wi-Fi grid.

VIDEO GAMES

If this sounds like your house … Kids are spending hours in a digital fantasy world collecting coins and conquering villains.

Then try this: Instead of collecting digital coins or gems, have kids seek out your family’s real treasures. Challenge your gamer to find long-forgotten items packed away in boxes, whether it’s that dusty croquet set in the garage or Dad’s baseball cards in the attic. Then have them create their own games with them, like coming up with new rules for an old yard game, or forming an all-star dream team with sports cards. (Bonus: You’ve just gotten your child to help clean out the storage space!)

Or this: Switch out Super Mario Odyssey for an improvised mental odyssey with some kid-friendly yoga and stretching. Have children use their imagination to create a new world to mentally explore as you stretch. Ask questions: What color is the sky here? How tall do the flowers grow? You can even create poses based on the animals you encounter. This helps spark creativity, but it’s also a great stress reliever. “Exploring mindfulness and ‘playing yoga’ creates a sense of calm and reduces anxious feelings,” yoga instructor Tiffany West says.

VIDEO BINGEING

If this sounds like your house … Your kid’s eyes are glued to endless videos and binge TV.

Then try this: If the need for a change of scenery is drawing kids to their screens, help them create new scenes in a place where they spend most of their time: their bedrooms. Encourage them to envision a new design for their personal space by asking how they’d rearrange the furniture, what organization ideas would make their room better, and even how they’d decorate. Then do what you can to make their great ideas a reality, either with found or repurposed items at home or a promised future trip to the big-box store. A weekend spent sprucing up a kid’s room together fosters cooperation and problem-solving while livening up an increasingly confining living space.

Or this: It’s definitely fun to binge chefs competing on Chopped, but why not try turning The Great British Bake Off into The Great [INSERT YOUR FAMILY HERE] Bake Off? Slice and dice the competition however you like: Maybe everyone creates their own dish using a specific list of ingredients, or have a throw down between Dad and older sister’s cupcakes versus Mom and little brother’s peanut butter brownies. We can all agree that no one loses with a house full of desserts.

TEXTING

If this sounds like your house … Relaxed texting restrictions after weeks of quarantine have gotten way out of hand with your kid.

Then try this: No emojis or LOLs allowed (except real ones) in this offline chat. Ask everyone in your family to come up with a list of 20 questions for each person. What’s your most embarrassing moment? What “do-over” do you wish you had? An evening learning about the people who matter most to your kids will be more meaningful than the “u arounds” and GIFs currently passing as conversation for many texters.

Or this: Instead of texting their friends all the way through a binge of Friends, challenge kids to recast their favorite shows and movies with their own pals. Which friend would be the best Krabby Patty flipper from SpongeBob SquarePants? Who’s the Troy or Gabriella from the original High School Musical in their friend circle? Don’t make your children show you their casts (that’s personal!), but it might make for some fun conversation between real friends once social lockdowns are lifted.

SOCIAL MEDIA

If this sounds like your house … Teens and older tweens are mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds.

Then try this: If kids are spending too much time sharing and posting the latest meme, have them create their own based on your family’s foibles. (Actual physical photographs existed before Instagram, and you probably have a ton of them.) Showing them pictures of Dad’s high school haircut, Mom posing in a poofy prom dress, or their own toddler pics can lead to a hilarious evening of coming up with the best meme for each pic. Then think about turning those into actual memes—maybe your family will go viral!

Or this: Encourage kids to stop “liking” other people’s motivational images and start creating their own. Have them flip through old magazines (if you need to cheat with some online searches, that’s OK too!) to design their own bedroom wall collages of their life after household borders reopen: things they can’t wait to do, friends they have to see, or places they’d like to visit.