Unplugging Kids

Children playing around a television

Whether you’ve noticed your kids have too much screen time or you are just trying to avoid that in the future, how do you go about unplugging your children?

Why Worry about Screen Time?

We’re surrounded by symptoms that cause us to worry about kids who are plugged in all of the time to electronics. Childhood obesity is alarming. I don’t know that we can blame screens for obesity, but surely there is some impact when 2- to 5-year old children spend an average of 32 hours a week with the television on. Think about that. If my kids and your kids aren’t watching at all at that age, does that mean there are kids watching 64 hours a week?

I personally find passive consumption of ideas alarming. I want critical thinkers. I’m the mother who pauses documentaries to give long explanations. Even when we do watch television now that my children are older, it’s an active pursuit of ideas. We all have to have our say, and sometimes the conversation overtakes the television, and we ride the waves of ideas. TV can be a starting point rather than the end.

But, my children didn’t watch television much as young children because I wanted to shape their understanding of the world. Frankly, I wanted to avoid the chop-chop-chop editing that interrupts one’s thoughts. It turns out, there is a positive correlation between concentration, which leads to better learning, and taking walks, for example. You don’t get that from passive consumption of television—even the kind on public television that is supposedly good for you. (Sesame Street still has fewer cuts per minute than commercial television, though.)

As parents, we want our kids physically and mentally active. So, we look for a better way to keep them engaged than plugging them in.

What Can You Do About Electronics?

First, a DON’T. Don’t use the television or computer as a babysitter. Turning on cartoons or a video is easy with babies and toddlers, but it creates habits for you and expectations for your children.

So, what is the DO instead?

  • Plan ahead quiet, engaging activities, like play dough or drawing, and save those for a routine quiet time.
  • Watch the world out the window or from the porch. My son had a once-a-week routine of sitting and waiting for the garbage truck. It was the highlight of his week when he was about 3-years old. Put up a bird feeder, and you have something interesting to watch without it being passive.
  • Read or tell stories. Save a long story for the time of day when you most need everything to be a bit more calm. We started reading The Hobbit to my children when they were 2- and 5-years old. They don’t need to understand it all. They just want to be engaged.
  • Play board games or card games, if you have enough people around to make it fun.
  • Play with puzzles, if you just have the two of you. We carry a big variety of board games that start at around age 4 and puzzles that are appropriate for toddlers.
  • Listen to music, either the kind you can sing along to or the kind you can dance along to—or maybe the kind you can drift off to.

There is plenty to do. If you know you need helping thinking up activities, buy a book that gives you a list. We have a lot of books that might help, including Playful Parenting, Imagine Childhood (25 projects), and many more on our parenting bookshelf.

Set the Pattern Right

Start when they are very young with interesting outdoor activities. Don’t make those outdoor activities optional. You are creating your family, and you get to decide “this is just something our family does.” If your family creates patterns of outdoor activities and hands-on activities, it will remain just what you do as your children get older and are more exposed to screen time at friends’ houses.

Does It Have to Be Negative?

I am reluctant to use the negative. Why call them UNplugged kids or screen-free kids, as if everything has to be in reference to a plug or a screen? Do that, and the plug is there in mind even when you do manage to get the children into nature or exploring with their hands. Why not hands-on kids, on-their-feet kids, or outdoor kids? At bynature.ca we raise Nature Kids!

That’s just a caution that too much focus on the negative holds on to the negative rather than the activities you want to replace the negative.

How to Encourage Your Kids to Sneak a Peak at the Screen

I do know that forbidding my kids to do something that their friends do freely is a way to encourage them to keep secrets. We don’t do that. So, I found that exposure with my voice in their head was a better approach than exposure with their peers’ voices.

In the end, it just takes making life beyond the screen more interesting, more compelling than the screen. I’m not trying to make that sound easy, either.

I have a fairly new teenager who has gradually put more and more of his alone time into Minecraft, which I don’t mind in moderation, but I worry that he has fewer hand-on activities (“Hey, how about doing a project out of Make Magazine.”) and outdoor activities (“Have you reserved a golf time for this week?”). So, he and I talk about this. He points out to me that he spends hours a day playing piano, saxophone, and drums. He is reading several novels. He uses his computer for online classes and writing. I still think it’s too much time, but I make it a conversation we have, an awareness we share. He told me that he would be happy to do other things if he could find something that interests him.

There is the rub. I can’t force his interest. At his age, parental force is more likely to result in anti-interest. So, I continue to scatter beautiful baubles along his path, hoping he picks them up here and there. I trust that his low-screen diet of the first twelve or so years will have created stronger patterns than the pull of a not-as-bad-as-it-could-have-been video game.

You do what works for your family. Just remember to set the patterns early as an active, engaged family, and trust that your children will find their way toward their own interests in an overwhelmingly plugged-in world.


Image © Samrat35 | Dreamstime.com - Child’s Play Photo

What Is Nature Deficit Disorder?

Child outside

“Technology is not, in itself, the enemy; but our lack of balance is lethal. The pandemic of inactivity is one result. Sitting is the new smoking.” Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Richard Louv, in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, used the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to decribe what has happened as children spend more time in front of screens and less time outside. The idea refers to the costs of the alienation of humans, primarily children, from nature.

Is it a real disorder?

That the majority of children spend little time outside is real. The change from how children spent time only decades ago is real. There is research, Louv points out, that finds a correlation between concentration and taking walks, between greener neighborhoods and lower body mass. The change in body and mind is real.

The word “disorder” might imply a diagnosis, though, and there is none. The author chose that word to make his point simply understandable.

Do I need to worry about nature deficit disorder?

Maybe. If your child is young, your awareness that our culture pushes children indoors can help you make decisions that will give your children more access to nature. If your child is young, you can probably avoid the problem.

Encouraging your child to go outside will get more and more difficult as they get older. Create the expectation of open, outdoor play now, and the habit will be easier to continue. Model outdoor activities yourself, so it doesn’t appear to your child that outdoors is just for young children.

The truth is, you probably do need to worry about it because the pressure will increase to stay inside—peer pressure, homework pressure, and plain laziness. Remain conscious of outdoor time and prioritize nature in your family life, and you will reduce the negative effects of spending too little time in nature.

Image © Christophe.rolland1 | Dreamstime.com

5 Way to Use Natural Decorations This Winter

Mother holds a child wearing an autumn leaf crown

Finding the best natural seasonal decorations is easy because they are in your own backyard. You don’t need to buy the icons of someone else’s place and culture when you are surrounded by your own.

As it gets colder outdoors, we often bring reminders of the season indoors with us. This could be the end of the Autumn leaves—the bitter end if you just can’t face raking them up—or evergreens if the world around you has turned mostly grey.

The tradition of bringing evergreens into the house during midwinter is a reminder that the green spring will return. The persistence of green through the stark winter warms our living spaces. Bringing evergreen boughs into the house is, of course, the origin of having a tree during midwinter then, later, Christmas holiday season.

What surrounds your house? Conifers, perhaps. If you are really lucky, holly or mistletoe. Bay. Palm trees. Whatever you have can work as a holiday decoration. This might also be the time of year that you realize you want to plant evergreens next year so you will have more green around you all winter.

My clever child, who is consulting with me on ideas for winter decorations, points out that not everyone has a yard. He doesn’t think that a Festivus pole is enough to brighten up the urban home, so he suggests that you go to the park. Another way to find abundant evergreen is to go to sellers of trees. When they trim trees to fit tree stands, they often giveaway or sell inexpensively the bottom branches.

5 Way to Use Natural Decorations This Winter

Trim the Tree
If you are surrounded by pine cones, tie ribbons to them and hang them on your tree. Pinecones and acorns can be used as ornaments all over the house. Put them up high if you have very young children.

String a Garland
Sew through individual leaves to create a hanging garland. I like to use thick, red thread sewn through the dark green, teardrop-shaped leaves of the bush outside my front door. It adds a nice touch of color.

Make a Wreath
Gather evergreen boughs into a circle and you have a wreath. You may need to use string or wire to hold them, but it is very easy to do. Many people put wreaths on their front door. In my neighborhood, people put them over the lamps in front of our houses.

Surround the Candle
Midwinter is the time for lights, for festivals of lights in many cultures. If you make candles part of your winter decorations, surround them with evergreens. Be careful of using dried leaves near candles, though.

Wear a Crown
Decorate the people! My family like wearing crowns: birthday crowns, holiday crown, or just because crowns. Gather up the last of the Autumn leaves or a bunch of evergreen leaves into a wreath that you wear. You probably won’t want to use conifers, since they can poke as well as leaving sap in your hair. Getting sap out of a child’s hair is no fun. At my own midwinter wedding, I wore a crown of bay leaves because there was a big bay bush in my in-laws’ yard where we held our reception.

Don’t run out and buy those holiday decorations. Look around you and see what you can do with what you already have. Stay warm and green this winter.

Image © Evgeniya Uvarova | Dreamstime.com

Seasonal Table for Young Children

Young child at nature table

A seasonal table or nature table serves as an indoor reminder of the changes of the seasons.

Many families and Waldorf schools add to the table as they find natural treasures like rocks, shells, twigs, small squashes at harvest time, new leaves in spring, and anything else that strikes the fancy of adults or children as they explore nature. The table often includes a setting created with play cloths, wool roving, figures from the toy box or the birthday ring, or even crafts. Whatever reminds us of the turning of the seasons is appropriate on a seasonal table.

Though we do have some figures and special items we add to my family’s nature table, we don’t create scenes so much as we display our found treasures of the season. The right way to create a seasonal table is whatever way you decide. Grow and adapt the tradition with your own family’s preferences.

If you would like to create a seasonal nature table with your family, start by choosing an area you can dedicate to the table. Make it high enough that dogs, cats, and curious toddlers can’t tear it apart, but make it visible even to the youngest members of the family.

Start with a walk in nature. Pick up what interests you and talk about it. For a very young child, try to follow their lead. My son filled his pockets on walks with golf balls and rubber bands, while my daughter was always finding stones. Try stick with natural objects, but don’t reject their personal choices. For older children, ask them specifically to look for natural objects that represent the season. Before you bring your objects indoors, brush off any dirt.

Prepare the table with a silk play cloth, piece of fabric, or other natural ground, then arrange your treasurers and talk about the seasons. Talk about how this season feels, but remind the child that the seasons will keep changing. It is cold now, and the pine cones have fallen off the trees, but in the spring new pine cones will grow on the trees. Those might be put on your spring table.

Avoid that nature deficit that seems so common in industrial childhood, and encourage your child to build an awareness of how nature works and how we as humans relate to nature and the seasons. A season table is a gentle way to help young children become aware of the way nature works.

Image © Nastasja | Dreamstime.com

Decorating with Nature – Colorful Acorns

Colorful cotton acorn decorations

Whether you are bringing indoors evergreen boughs, a whole tree, or just a smaller reminder of the turning of the seasons, decorating with nature helps your child to connect with nature and the cycle of life, death, and new life.

This year, I adapted a velvet acorns project I found in a surprise issue of Better Homes and Gardens in my mail (which also brings up the question, why am I receiving a magazine I didn’t subscribe to?).

Collect Acorn Caps. I sent my son out to find acorn caps, and they only kind he could find were a bit rough, but we use what we find.

Wash the Caps. Before you use them for crafts, rinse the caps thoroughly then leave them to dry for a day.

Freeze the Caps. Before you use natural materials for crafts that you plan to keep indoors, you might want to make sure that you aren’t bringing in any small creatures with them. I freeze sticks, corn, acorn caps, or anything else that is going into crafts. Be sure they are completely dry before you freeze them, so they won’t crack, then leave them to warm up to room temperature before you start your project.

Fabric Circles. I have a lot of colorful, organic cotton fabric scraps, so I gathered a nice rainbow and cut 2 ½” circles. You can prepare the circles by making a loose basting stitch around the edge. If you have fast-drying glue, consider this optional.

Stuffing. If you have scraps left over from cutting your circles, bunch them up into a ball about the size of a cotton ball and hold inside one of the cut circles.

Glue. Put plenty of glue inside an acorn cap to hold the gathered fabric.

Gather. Pull the edges of your circle in around your ball of scraps, and hold the gathered edge firmly inside the glue in the cap until the fabric doesn’t try to pop back out.

Repeat. I spent about 20 minutes total cleaning acorn caps and creating a dozen fabric acorns.

Our colorful acorns are going with us to Granny’s house, where we will be celebrating the holidays this year.