Don't let the 'idiot box' babysit your kids all summer long. Here are some practical steps for setting limits.
School is out for summer here in Ontario, Canada. While my kids are full of anticipation, I suspect I'm not the only parent who wonders how I'll make it through the next two months. Summer vacation can seem like an endless chunk of time for many parents, working or not, who have to figure out alternative childcare arrangements, pay for expensive camps, or be OK with just letting their kids spend time alone.
The one thing I urge you to keep in mind as you approach these lazy summer months is reducing your kids' screen time. It is tempting to turn to TV, iPads, and smartphones as a main source of entertainment and babysitting, but please don't do that. It's harmful to kids for so many reasons, from the physical inactivity to the exposure to violence and advertising to making them prone to depression and aggressive behavior. If you don't feel like going cold turkey and packing away the TV set or banishing tablets for the whole summer, give yourself some practical tools to minimize screen time:
1. Have a frank conversation with your kids. Talk to them about your concerns, why excessive screen time is unhealthy, and what you're planning to do this summer. Ask for their suggestions for other activities they'd like to do and help them achieve those.
2. Set limits on screen time. Determine exactly when kids are allowed to use screens, e.g. each day at 4 pm for a half hour or longer on rainy days. Set a time limit whenever they're watching and use a timer. This makes a big difference; kids need clear reminders like an alarm going off.
3. Choose specific shows that kids can watch. It's perfectly acceptable to forbid indiscriminate viewing. If there is a specific show your child enjoys, allow him or her to watch that during predetermined viewing time.
4. Screens must be used in common spaces. Remove TVs and tablets from bedrooms, basements, play rooms, and anywhere that the rest of the family is not. By allowing them only in common spaces, you're able to keep a closer eye on the content kids are consuming, and how much time they're spending.
5. Make it harder to access. Put a password on mobile devices that your child does not know; this way s/he has to ask you every time to use it. Get rid of your cable TV subscription.
6. Offer alternatives. Most of the time kids should be left to entertain themselves (free play is very important to their development), but they still need some tools with which to do so. Supply board games, musical instruments, bicycles, books, and craft supplies. Many of these can be purchased second-hand. Go a step further and give them materials to build a treehouse in the yard; set up a zipline, give them a pogo stick, designate a corner of yard to dig up and turn into a mud zone.
7. Impose daily recesses. I have a teacher friend who structures his kids' day as if they were at school -- one recess in the morning, one in the afternoon. Occupational therapist Angela Hanscom recommends that kids spend 3 hours a day outside at minimum. Make that your daily target each summer, perhaps with a sticker chart to track it and a reward at the end of each week (ice cream, anyone?).
8. Create a new weekly routine for summer. Make a list of all the things you want to do with your kids this summer, such as library visits, baking together, going to the beach, doing hikes, making crafts. Set a list of chores that kids must complete daily, and stick to it.
9. Invite friends over to play. Having a friend over is a great distraction, and it usually makes a parent's life easier. Set a no-screens-allowed rule when friends are visiting. Other parents will appreciate this rule, too.
10. Be a good example. Place the same expectations on yourself as you do on your kid. Stash the screens and open a book instead. Model the kind of behavior you expect from them.
11. Realize that boredom is OK. A child does not need to be entertained constantly. They can roam around the house aimlessly without having anything to do, and they'll eventually figure something out. Watch their behavior change as the weeks go on; you'll start to notice the benefits of less screen time in their attentiveness to the natural world, calmer and less emotional behavior, and their ability to focus on other tasks for longer.