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Screen-Free Mondays

by Mike_fleming via flickrI like to think I’m a pretty good parent, but I admit I really fall down on limiting screen time.  I think the cause is twofold.  When I’m desperately trying to pay the bills or handle raw chicken or something, I use the TV or computer to occupy the kids and keep them out of my hair.  On the other hand, when I’m finished with pressing tasks and get some leisure time, I sure as hell ain’t the mom who says, “Hey, let’s go for a bike ride, that’ll be fun!!!”  Nope, I’m right there on the couch or in front of the computer myself.

Being me, I decided to do something radical, rather than attempting to moderate our daily habits.  Yesterday was our first weekly screen-free day.  The children awaited it in terror.  I wasn’t exactly sanguine myself, but I wanted us to spend a whole day doing other stuff, interacting with each other (gasp!), and prove to us all that we could live without the idiot boxes.

I prepared by planning to abandon many chores.  I was ready not to get much done, as I helped the kids find fun stuff to do outside their normal routine.  And part of the point was to spend time together after all, so I gave myself permission to leave the Christmas tree half-denuded, the floors unvacuumed, and to put off bill-paying till today.

The other preparation was a list of screen-free activities.  I wanted to have a set of options at hand for the inevitable, “We’re booooored!” moments.  Since we’re all used to plopping down and being entertained by pixels, I realized I might not be able to come up with good ideas on the spur of the moment.

Here’s what I did with the children yesterday:

  • Played Crazy 8s and War
  • Played Monopoly
  • Read The Hobbit aloud to Chloe
  • Read a bunch of different books to each other
  • Baked brownies
  • Went outside and rode bikes and climbed a tree (I watched)

Here’s what the girls did without me, while I cooked, cleaned, and ran the household:

  • Played with toys
  • Found old flip phones and played pretend with them for an hour or more
  • Practiced riding a bike without training wheels (up and down the hallway inside!)
  • Colored with markers

I confess, to get them to be nice and play with each other while I prepped dinner, I did tell them I needed to get dinner all set before we could bake brownies, and so they needed to stop whining and fighting (an activity not at all confined to unplugged days) and let me work uninterrupted for a while.  Normally I avoid using any kind of food reward for the kids, but since this was an activity as well as a treat, and I was doing something unusually challenging, I relaxed that rule a bit.

All in all, it was successful.  We spent time with each other.  We learned that as alluring as TV and Minecraft and Facebook are, we can survive without using them at all!  This in turn has inspired me to be more vigilant about limiting screen time on a daily basis.  Once we all got through a whole day without this stuff, it makes it easier for me to say, “That’s enough for today, you can find something else to do.”

I plan to keep doing this, and I learned a few things I’ll use in the future.  First, we need a couple board games Claire can play.  I plan on picking up Trouble, and maybe another preschool-friendly game, if I can find one that isn’t too annoying.  Second, planning an outing would be a very good idea.  If I had arranged the schedule differently, we could have hit the park for two hours and really gotten more physical activity and used up more time!  Third, this is a great way to encourage reading.  Chloe’s a good (heck, Gifted) reader, but she resists reading at home.  It took until the evening for her to pick up a book on her own and just read to herself for entertainment.  It’s a good indicator that I need to cut off her other entertainment options at a certain point to make room for reading in her life.

I encourage everyone to give this a try.  It’s really good for bodies, brains, and relationships.  And the cold turkey aspect helps set us all up to be less attached to our devices, which is a vital skill in the modern world!

A pox on reading logs!

Not my daughter’s, but worse! This one also requires math, including clock math, everyone’s favorite pastime!

I’m sitting here looking at my daughter’s fourth grade reading log.  Starting on day 1 of school, the teacher decreed that students must read for at least 20 minutes each day, keep track of the reading in their reading log, and turn it in with student and parent signatures affixed.  The log requires Chloe to fill in the title of her reading material, along with a code designating what type of reading material it is.  Then she needs to record how many minutes she read, as well as the pages she read, and both of us need to fill in comments about the reading at least once a week.

Looking at this reading log literally makes me feel like crying.  What better way could a teacher concoct to make children hate reading?  I have loved to read since I learned how.  Right now I’ve got two books on the “front burner” and three on the “back burner,” meaning there are two books lying around which I tend to pick up and read at least a few times a week, and a few others I started but got distracted from for the moment.  I had to start using the library instead of my Kindle because I was spending way too much money on books without realizing it.  I’m a reader!  And my voracious reading has delivered concrete benefits like high test scores and a massive vocabulary, so no one can argue that the way I read or what I’ve chosen to read isn’t academically useful.

And I don’t read log-style.  I read what delights me at the moment.  Sometimes the delight comes from satisfying curiosity or tackling a challenge, and sometimes it’s just getting on board for an easy ride with some fabulous characters.  If I had to fill out that log each day to document my forays into Botswana with Mma Ramotswe or my visits to the eldritch New England of H.P. Lovecraft, I would probably start avoiding books.  I would procrastinate reading, because it would have mutated into a chore.  One with tiresome bookkeeping responsibilities.  Would the stories enchant me and make me lose track of time and place when I had to quantify how long I read? My heart feels heavy when I try to imagine this scenario.

So how much heavier are the hearts of kids who still stumble over new words and are just starting to taste that fluid reading skill which delivers one into a new world, rather than merely presenting words on a page?  My child already gets frustrated sometimes when she misreads and has to go back to figure out a sentence, or when she comes upon a new and idiosyncratic proper noun.  She doesn’t need a taskmaster standing over her shoulder reminding her what a chore reading is on top of it all!

For now, I will be filling out Chloe’s reading log.  I will write down whatever number the teacher has said is the minimum for that day.  I will not refer to the clock when I do so.  I will discuss with Chloe what we read, and jot down one of her comments on the log, along with one of my own.  I want her to interact with this poisonous document as little as possible.  Later, when the teacher has learned to know and love Chloe, I might discuss with her my concerns about the reading log.  I don’t want to be a parent who launches the first week of school by shoving an Alfie Kohn essay into the teacher’s face.  So we’ll be on the down-low for now.

The one good thing about this reading log is it did make me think about how much we read, and realize I would like to expand reading time.  But I won’t be setting a timer – well, maybe I will, for the TV.  Limiting TV, keeping good books around, and sitting down to read with my kids will be my approach, rather than treating books like overcooked Brussels sprouts that must be choked down.

(By the way, if you want to test your vocabulary size, check out this cool site.)