Someone recently sent a message asking, “how do you decrease screen time for your kids while out in public?” First, what a great question. It’s a highly debated issue but I love when parents think and “live with intent.”
If you’re comfortable with the amount of screen time your kids currently absorb, this article isn’t for you. If you need practical tips to decrease screen time then keep reading.
Before I explain these suggestions (and what we personally do) let me provide a disclaimer. Most of the time, parents hand over devices to keep kids QUIET. It’s certainly easier and is almost 100% effective. They become zombie-like and entirely zoned out. That seems to be the main appeal for offering screens.
If we (as a society) want to decrease screen time, then we NEED to be ok with hearing children. Children will squawk, cry, laugh and be obnoxious at the worst time. If we always provide screens to quiet them – they don’t learn valuable social interaction skills. They won’t learn how to behave in public without the assistance of technology. And cranky adults need to relax when a toddler is screaming in a store. Ask the frazzled parent if they need help. Don’t pressure parents to maintain perfection (silence) with your condescending eyes.
Ways to Decrease / Avoid Screen Time
And for background purposes. We have super old iPads that don’t really work. They only have Netflix and Amazon apps installed (no Youtube). They are sometimes used in the morning for the boys to watch quiet cartoons in my bed. (We like to keep the house quiet in the morning as not to disturb our Airbnb guests.) The iPads never leave the house and are kept hidden in my closet. My oldest son can watch a show on the iPad once he’s finished his homeschool seat-work during his brother’s nap time.
The boys are not allowed to play with my phone and we don’t ever bring iPads with us in public. It’s easier to start this habit EARLY. It’s rarely a conversation because they don’t know any different.
Occasionally, they ask because they constantly see other kids with screens. With all that said, this is what we do specifically to stay entirely device free in public and minimize devices at home.
The last few weeks, it’s been uncharacteristically rainy and cold where I live. California is experiencing a “Pineapple Express” which is basically an atmospheric river. We aren’t used to actual weather so my kids have been stuck inside. Additionally, our house is under major construction so our backyard has been off-limits. It’s made keeping my boys entertained significantly harder. While I don’t believe it’s my “job” to keep them constantly entertained, I like setting them up for independent play. It’s also important to note I work from home. So I regularly need time to think, send emails and make phone calls.
Here are some of my regular tricks to keep the TV off.
- Giant Sheets of Paper: My sister Becky gave me this huge rolls of paper and they’ve been amazing. It takes about 30 seconds to set up. Roll out the paper, dump stamps, stickers, markers out and and they are immediately focused at creating a new masterpiece. Note: The paper I have is specialized blueprint paper that’s expensive. But I’ve ordered these smaller rolls from Amazon and they work just as well (and are significantly cheaper.)
- Build Forts: Very often I hand my boys a pile of flash lights, blankets, sheets and challenge them to make a fort. Seriously you guys. This entertains and captivates my kid’s mind for a LONG time. Give them tools, ideas and equipment and let them make a fort. It’s a giant mess and will destroy the room…but their imagination will explode. This is so good for their creative development.
- Play Inside Boxes: Put those Amazon boxes to use, folks! Give your kids markers and challenge them to make a space ship, play house, cave etc. It’s always a major hit!
- Find an Imaginative Play Local Business: There are probably “creative play” businesses in your local community. FIND THEM! I recently found a local business called, Big Box Play. They have workshops, hands-on activities and amazing creative play opportunities for kids. We need to encourage kids to use their creative minds again! Big Box Play has endless opportunities for kids to be creative, use their hands, minds and learn valuable social interaction skills. I encourage you to find (and support) a local business that presents these opportunities. See below video for my personal experience with Big Box Play in Valencia. We have the giant “Castle Box” ???? ???? in our dining room and it’s been invaluable during this rainy season. It’s taking the Amazon boxes to the next level. They literally spend all day inside dreaming up ideas, scenarios and imaginary worlds. They are incredibly fun and well-made.
In the Car
- Audio books and podcasts. You would be surprised at how intently kids listen if stories are done well. My friend Jaime suggested two great podcasts, The Purple Rocket and Circle Round. Our favorite is Circle Round. My boys (6,3,2) absolutely love the adventures and vivid storytelling. Purple Rocket was better for older kids and sometimes it can be overly cheesy. These podcasts are now my favorite because they are short, well-done and I can ask them follow-up questions afterwards.
- Books! It seems simple but my boys always have a selection of books to rotate around. We also listen to audio books regularly and rent the digital file or borrow the discs from the library. We are currently fully immersed in the Magic Tree House series on book #14. While it’s probably more suited for my oldest (6) each of my boys enjoy listening to these stories. The 3 and 2yo are very engaged and love following along.
- Pick a Color: Sometimes we play “pick a color” game where each boy picks a color and then squeals with excitement when they find a car or semi-truck that matches. They try and “count” but that’s rarely successful because they lose count. But they are completely engaged and looking outside.
- Eye-Spy: A classic and fun for all ages. My 2yo doesn’t know what’s happening but he still babbles “I sppppppyyyyy wif my yittle eye sumfing BOO!!” It’s pretty funny.
In the Store
Grocery Store: I know taking kids to the store is terrible. I plan my entire week around Walmart grocery pickup so I don’t take mine shopping. But if you have to take them – give them a JOB not your phone. Create an imaginary world and they will follow your lead! This is what I do at the store:
- If they’re younger, pretend the shopping cart is a pirate ship or space ship. Sound effects go a long way.
- Play scavenger hunt and tell them to find all the “yellow things”. You tell them to LOOK for certain items in the store and they will actively look!
- My oldest is learning sight words and sometimes I will ask him to write whatever words he finds for points. Example: If he can find 10 sight words in the store by the time we leave, he gets a prize.
- Sometimes I need their “help” to find things on my list. I always start with bananas. (Because these are always on my list.) I’ll wonder around pretending to be confused (walking passed them acting like I can’t find) and they will “direct the ship”. They love this game and they enjoy helping me find the sneaky fruit.
- They take turns on “who gets to count”. I hold the bag and you count 6 apples! ONE-TWOOOOO-THREEEEEE. They pick the worst fruit possible and I will swap out their gross ones. But they get super excited when it’s their turn.
- (My favorite) Before we enter a store, I will sometimes tell my boys (6,3,2) they will get “5 million points if you look at an adult in the eyes and ask about their day.” Sometimes they will and it makes everyone so happy.
Summary: Just make it fun and engaging. Interact with them like you want them to eventually interact with the world. Shopping with kids is generally terrible. I won’t lie and tell you these tips and tricks work every time. But focus your shopping game and give the kids specific tasks. They will surprise you!
Honestly. This is when I’m most tempted to hand over my phone. Children and restaurants don’t mix. We got out to dinner so rarely with the kids. But when we do brave the restaurant scene this is what we do:
- I bring our own coloring supplies. The provided crayons and paper are typically terrible and don’t keep them focused. Additionally, the restaurant coloring sheets typically have toys and advertisements geared toward kids. I’m not going to buy toys I’d rather not even have the discussion.
- Some larger chain restaurants (Olive Garden, Outback, Chilis, Applebees etc.) now have the “entertainment tablets” on the table. (Frustrating.) You can order food, play games and pay your bill using the tablet provided. We always remove the device entirely from the table. This forces us (and the kids) to interact with each other and the server.
- We practice ordering food. We have 2 of our boys (6 and 3) order their own food. So we take turns having them practice. This is a time-killer but also strategic and important skill. We want our boys to be confident speaking to adults and making eye-contact.
- We play “eye spy”, color, trace our hands on napkins, find sight words but basically … try and get out quickly.
Again, I know kids and restaurants are hard. I understand why parents opt for the easier and quieter dining experience. But if you’re up for the challenge – there are plenty of ways to encourage screen-free dining. Multiples studies demonstrate that digital distractions have a negative impact to children’s eating habits.
Just start somewhere…
As parents we are constantly struggling to find the balance. There will be times you use screens to minimize noise and give yourself some breathing room. And that’s ok. But you know in your deepest of hearts whether you’re taking the easy way out. Be honest with yourself. You know if you’ve accidentally slipped into the “excessive” camp. If you need to decrease screen time (for yourself) or for your kids…just start somewhere.
You can do this. Just start slow and be a great example.
So what about you? What do you to minimize screen time for your young kids?