As National Screen-Free Week approaches (April 18-24, 2011), one CAWS parent shares his perspective on his family’s journey towards a more media-free environment. Paul Hurst is the father of Gillian (age 18), Quenton (age 14) and Rhiannon (age 8).
The discussions and suggestions I offer below are based purely on empirical evidence garnered over the past 15 years or so while observing our children and their interaction with media placements in our home “spaces.” During our family adventures we have made plenty of mistakes, missteps and tactical adjustments. We also fully admit to some occasional lapses from “holding the line.” However, these efforts over time have yielded many benefits and in summary have achieved the effects we desired as parents.
LEADING FROM THE FRONT
Parents’ actions set the tone and rate of their children’s media absorption. If YOU turn on the TV, computer or iPhone during family gathering times to catch up on news or your favorite show or the Nasdaq, or if YOU are answering e-mails or taking cell phone calls during family times, then you are reinforcing the impression that media trumps all. Period. Sorry, there is no intellectualizing or rationalizing your way out of that with your (pick your child’s age).
THE COMFORT/MEDIA LINKAGE
Children wish to be where they feel safe and warm and where social interaction is vibrant. Generally, this is on the first or primary floor. Children will gravitate to spend their time where meals are being prepared, parents are located or where there are siblings to pester. This is also traditionally the floor where the family room (aka “TV/media” room), dining room, kitchen etc., are located. Linking the social center of the household with availability and access to “tantalizing media” is a prescription for conflict. Children, who are comforted by the proximity of family members but seduced by the allure and “time suck” of media activities, will be robbed of maximum opportunities to utilize their imagination or engage in more healthful activities.
MOVE IT OUT
If you are not able to do away with media altogether, then consider moving these temptations to an accessible but, let’s say, more inconvenient space. What did we do? Well, we have a finished section of our basement where we set up the media center (TV/DVD/Stereo) right next to the wall TV cable connection. First confession: We never plugged in the cable & knew we had poor TV reception in the basement location. Blamed it on the granite hill next to us. Shhh! This area requires descending a small staircase to a cooler, less light filled room that is physically separated from the home’ssocial center–perfect for middle age men seeking a “man cave” retreat, but not so for our growing children. (Second confession: I cheated somewhat by putting only a 13 watt CFL bulb in the staircase light to accentuate the cold, dark decent to the cave effect. Shhh!)
We applied this same principle to another child comfort areas of the home, their bedrooms: No TVs, Computers, Gaming Systems or the like allowed.
Where the media center once reigned supreme, our piano is now the center of attention. Occupants are constantly tempted to play the ivory keys, and they do. Perfect. There is a complement of other instruments, music books and music sheets to support the centerpiece. Not a TV Guide in sight.
Wall space that was originally dedicated to chairs and couches have given way to an assortment of tables and bookcases. These easily accessible surfaces are populated (okay, okay…littered) with an assortment of wooden toys, woolen dolls, games, tree-houses, swords, shields, and the like. The spaces beneath them contain boxes of silks, dress-up clothes, modeling clay, drawing implements and pads. Next to that is a nature table with combinations of moss carpets, seashells, twigs, polished stones, etc. Beware–spontaneous eruptions of music, song, dance, creative dress-up, reading or a simultaneous cacophony of all of them are not uncommon.
HAVE A GATHERING
Gather everyone to the table for dinner or the same household “space” at the same time. Talk about the day, what’s happening tomorrow, whatever. Give everyone a chance and discourage anyone else from co-opting someone else’s time. There are whole treatises on how this strengthens the family connections and inspires learning. As parents of children involved in sports, music, theater and after school activities, I know it can be challenging to get everyone gathered in one place at one time, but it can happen if planned. Even if it doesn’t happen every day, just establishing “the gathering” as the norm rather than the exception yields huge benefits.
TAKE IT OUTSIDE
What better way to tame the media beast attraction than the great outdoors–fresh air, exercise and nature’s imaginative pull! Within our yards we have a spectrum of attractions no matter what the child’s age and interests and no matter what physical space we have to work with. The suggestions below are a compilation of what seemed to work best over the years for us. But first let me declare that I have sacrificed my heretofore untrammeled and perfectly coiffed lawn and pristine flower beds for the greater good of my children and surrogate child, the dog. I also declare that I am settled with this accord and am now a better man for my sacrifice. I will live with worn out areas of the lawn, crushed bushes and prematurely and/or over harvested flowers for the sake of play. They just need to take precedence.
SHEDS FOR RECREATION & SPORT EQUIPMENT
Whereas I suggested that the media options should be displaced from the family social center and made “inconvenient” to access, the home outdoor recreational spaces andequipment should be as easily accessible as possible. Why? We’ve found that recreational and sport equipment has an inertia; if hidden and well rested in your basement or garage they will tend to stay at rest. Get them out. We populated the yard with a separate bike shed and a couple of toy/equipment sheds in close proximity to where their contents could be used. The bike/scooter shed is just outside the front door and beckons to our kids every time they go up and down the stairs. We also keep the soccer and lacrosse nets, basketball hoops and pitcher’s trainer out year-round (“Winter Soccer in Knee-Deep Snow” anyone?). They are used constantly (a pitcher’s trainer makes a handy snowball catcher) and there’s a bonus: they make wonderful perches for birds throughout the year.
SAND PILES, PONDS & SWINGS
For the Toddler-to-Tween child years I cannot say enough about these three areas: the sand pit, a moderately sized pond I made, and a swing/climbing frame. The sand pit offers hours of digging, shoveling, and creating cakes and castles, fairy homes and beaches and warm sand to bury your legs. The pond has been our back door nature study for years. There are “peepers” parties after dark in the early spring. We watch the frog and salamander egg sacks turn to tad-poles. We see lilies bloom and bird and animal watering hole visits. We have even taken water samples and looked at microscopic life under a microscope. As for the Swing Set & Climbing Frame, what more can I say? We all use it!
There are volumes written about the benefits of family gardens. We have two small plots straddling the walkway to the front door. They are not relegated out of sight to the back or side. The children help turn in compost, plant seeds, weed and harvest. They walk past them several times a day and can see the garden bloom and grow before their eyes. They can reach out and touch the plants and flowers easily, and they do. The downside is there is a fair amount of petal and tomato snitching, but that’s not really a downside, is it?
Last summer was spent building a tall, stilt legged playhouse sprouting from an existing climbing frame. I felt particularly motivated to take on this project but misjudged the immensity of the task. Thankfully it’s over, but I must say its attraction is also more immense than anticipated. It is used for pirating, princess castles, mock plays & operas club-housing, picnicking and camp-outs. It has become another spot for us to “Have a Gathering.” It is also used to anchor volleyball and badminton nets. This spring a Zip-Line will be going up to make full use of its commanding presence in our back-yard.
Well, that is the journey so far. The net result (to date) is that media just doesn’t hold sway in our home. That is what we were hoping for but I am sure there will be more to come and adjustments to make as our children transition from grade schoolers to high schoolers and beyond. I firmly believe that having started early during their formative year’s was a key component of success.