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Balancing Act: Stimulating Screen-Time Activities That Complement Summer Play

One dad’s top tips for balancing constructive screen time with lo-fi outdoor play

Richard Porter

Published on: August 06, 2019

father daughter phone outside

It’s summertime and the streaming’s easy. A little too easy. For kids, nothing fills up unstructured hours like scrolling endless algorithms of digital entertainment. And many parents are only too happy to accommodate — hey, we need a break, too. This is the time of year when it’s easy to set the kids up indoors with electronic devices while we pour ourselves an iced coffee and head to the back yard.

I’m conscious that my version of summertime childhood was different. Sure, kids in my generation had VCRs and dial-up internet, and these were diverting for a couple of hours. But I also spent long afternoons outside during summer vacation, shooting endless layups in the sun. Kids in the ‘90s didn’t have their own smartphones or tablets.

But here’s the thing: My youthful summer hours navigating AOL on my boxy beige computer were not spent in vain. My job is almost 100 percent online. And all those MS Paint projects from my youth were instrumental in building important modern tech skills that I use every day in my career.

Too many cranky cultural critics I read remind me of my dad hollering, “Switch off that boob tube and get outside!” I understand now that Dad had a point, yet it’s a Luddite’s perspective to think that all screen time is bad. Kids need to keep pace with ever-evolving technology, both now and in their future workplaces.

Here are one parent’s thoughts (mine) on how to balance constructive screen time with outdoor and lo-fi play this summer.

Respect the classics

The longer my parental career gets, the more I’m convinced that certain kids’ activities will never lose their luster. These tried-and-true activities inherently appeal to youngsters.

I’m talking about lo-fi delights like parks, sidewalk chalk and jump ropes. If you have the space for it, host a backyard pool party. Go on a walk with a reward along the way — chocolate milk or a piece of apple pie.

Hula hoops and hopscotch have come down to us through the ages because there’s something there that has endured. Call it survival of the funnest.

Be selective with shows and video games

Not all media is created equal. For every eye-rolling Netflix series, there are also redeeming, quality-forward programs out there. The modern parent’s role is to keep a close eye on what’s being served up and to help curate what comes across the screen.

My daughter’s current favorite show is “Brainchild.” It’s kind of like “Bill Nye the Science Guy” for today’s kids, and sets an entertaining foundation for STEM education by teaching them about things such as germs and social media.

Can video games be redeemed from their time-suck stigma? In the recently published book “The New Childhood,” author, doctor and parent Jordan Shapiro posits that collaborative games like Minecraft unite kids across the world, helping them to develop communication and spatial skills as they develop their game creations. And cranial imaging has shown that playing Tetris leads to a thicker cortex and may also increase brain efficiency.

Significantly, games provide rules and structure, which are what malleable young minds seem to crave.

Here’s another strategy from my toolkit: the digital game to analog game redirect. I’ve successfully transitioned my daughters from the screen to a game of cards by carefully explaining the rules and inviting them into inclusive game play.

Tech meets nature

My 5-year-old daughter likes to ride in the jogging stroller when I go on runs. We stream music and talk about it. Together we’ve listened to hours of music. She’s pretty well-versed in classic rock and hip hop. She can pick out a saxophone or a synthesizer from a given tune and knows when the beat “drops” in an EDM banger. All of this as we pass seagulls on the waterfront under a peachy sunset.

Has Spotify helped us to bond? Sure.

I’m interested in other ways that tech can inform the outdoors experience. Some families enjoy geocaching, an activity which is like an outdoor treasure hunt using GPS coordinates. And while Pokemon Go has its critics, it does spur outdoor activity. Perhaps it should be esteemed as a gateway to the outdoors — once kids are in the park searching for Charizard it’s easier to direct them into a pickup game of frisbee.

The takeaway: It’s about balance.

My childhood-to-adulthood trajectory took me from a boxy beige PC and clunky mouse to an Apple Airbook and blogging. Where will our kids be in 30 years? Technologically speaking, there’s no way to fully anticipate the rapid changes ahead.

What our children will certainly need are soft skills — cooperation, collaboration, a sense of healthy exploration, interpersonal skills, curiosity and empathy. These traits can be fostered through curated screen time, but they are best learned on the playground or in a park IRL.

So, let them play Tetris. Then, as my dad said, switch off that boob tube and shoo them out to shoot some hoops.

That fresh air will do ‘em good.

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