As a 40-year-old mother of three, I remember quite well and a little too fondly what life was like before the term “screen time” was invented. I clearly recall getting my first email account my SENIOR year of college, and a year after giving birth to my first child, I still remember signing up for a Facebook account. I can also vividly recount hours spent on road trips before the days of headrest TVs, Kindles, iPhones, and other personal devices.
Life was great and definitely simpler, but as a parent I’d be lying to completely wish away the technology that has made our lives and jobs as parents a tad easier. Screen time has allowed me to complete a work deadline in a pinch, has afforded my husband and me a private 10-minute conversation in the middle of a loud kid-friendly restaurant, and has salvaged a few necessary shopping trips that could have ended badly. Not to mention the often overlooked educational benefits that screens can provide, from our school’s nightly JiJi computer math game to additional speech apps that helped my 9-year-old master his “Rs,” screens can be quite a good thing.
But of course there’s a time and a place for everything, as well as a clear limit in the amount of time our kids can and should use those glowing screens. While the American Academy of Pediatrics has their own guidelines, in the end, it’s up to each family to decide just how much is best for their kids.
If you’ve set your limits and enacted some boundaries, I fist pump you in solidarity. Setting the limits around screen time use can be challenging and yet rewarding, so if the line in the sand has been drawn, but you’re now stumped for ideas on how to fill the void, here are a few of our favorite screen-free family activities. Most involve never leaving the house or neighborhood, and a couple encourage adventure and engagement with your town. Either way, they’re sure to be relatively simple, inexpensive, and easy to execute.
1. Get outside and play Ultimate Frisbee.
We began throwing the Frisbee with the kids about two years ago, after my husband and I joined a local Ultimate Frisbee co-ed team. We loved it so much that in our spare time after work or on the weekend, we would practice our throws and catches out in the front yard. It took no time at all before the kids wanted to play with us, doing not much more than simply throwing the Frisbee back and forth, often for more than an hour at a time.
Now, it’s our go-to activity when we’re all feeling a little cooped up or have some energy to burn. We especially like the Aerobie brand Superdisc because it’s lightweight and has a soft silicone edge, making it really easy for even young kids to catch and throw, and almost impossible to get hurt with in case someone accidentally throws it astray.
2. Take advantage of free local attractions in your town.
We’re lucky to live in Southern California where we have our pick of great beaches, amusement parks, restaurants, and shopping destinations. But all this great “stuff” can also be a huge drain of resources, including time, money, and effort. So we often get creative when looking for something fun and adventurous to try.
A couple of weeks ago we visited an amazing art installation in Downtown LA, called Liquid Shard. In the past we’ve visited the local museums on their monthly free admission days, or taken a quick tour of local street art. The wonderful thing about these kinds of activities is that they’re free, or very reasonably priced, and they can be relatively short, as there’s no expectation to spend the entire day touring a museum. So parents come home with wallets intact and aren’t exhausted out of their minds!
3. Build a cozy fort.
Get their imagination going (and sneak in some quality sibling bonding time!) by suggesting they build a fort, or if they’re still too young to build one themselves, get in on the fun and help them with the process. This is an excellent way to not only get their creative juices flowing, but to get down on the floor and play with your kids yourself.
Just about every household has a linen closet filled with extra towels, sheets, pillows, and blankets. Add in some heavy books and a few chip clips to connect them all over a few strategically placed chairs and/or sofas, and you’ve got an activity to keep their minds actively engaged for a good 30 minutes to an hour during the building process, and then countless hours afterwards.
Add in a few sleeping bags, grab some of their favorite books, maybe even take in a few snacks, and it can be somewhere warm and cozy for you and your kids to cuddle and read stories (or even make up some of your own!).
4. Create some epic domino runs.
On slow weekends or quiet summer mornings we love to spend some time building what have become quite elaborate domino tracks. For my 3-year-old son, he marvels at his ability to engineer a straight row of dominoes, while my older two develop complicated and often tedious tracks and trails, complete with staircases and tunnels. Building domino runs is a lesson in engineering, patience, and creativity, and something the entire family can contribute to.
5. Get outside and build cool obstacle courses.
Grab some household items like pool noodles, cones, hula hoops, balls, and those play tunnels many parents acquire once they have a toddler, and create a quick and easy obstacle run for the kids. Better yet, have them create it. Keep it fun and carefree, or add in a timed trial with 30-second head starts for the kids and penalties for the parents, and you’ve got a morning of fun without ever leaving your backyard.
6. Make a meal together.
With home-ec classes being slashed into nonexistence, many kids are growing up not knowing the necessary life skill of cooking. So when feasible, involve the family at meal time and allow them to chop, measure, pour, and scoop.
First and foremost, cooking teaches them a necessary survival skill so they won’t starve or subsist off of fast food once out of the house. It also teaches them loads about shared responsibility, team work, and cooperation, and gives them a higher value for the meals you normally prepare yourself.
Even cooler? Cooking teaches them a bit about math, weights and measurements, science, and improves fine motor skills. Consider stocking the drawers and shelves with a couple of toddler/young child-friendly choppers and measuring tools, as well as a copy of a kid-friendly cookbook to help inspire their own unique menu ideas.
7. Play Sneak Up the Block and other old-school neighborhood games.
From the time they could count, my husband taught our kids how to play Sneak Up the Block and has even gotten the neighborhood kids involved as well, since the game is more fun when a big group is involved.
The basic premise is to sneak all the way up the block by dashing in between trees and bushes, to make it to the designated safety zone before the person who’s “It” catches you. This is a fun game to get everyone outside and moving, requires zero equipment, and is overall pretty fair, causing few if any squabbles and grumbling.
Oh, and did I mention this is an awesome excuse to get other parents together and relive your own favorite childhood games? Whether at your next family barbecue or neighborhood block party, suggest having a kids vs. parents game. (I guarantee the parents will be having more fun than the kids.)
Some other great old-school games include Simon Says, Hide and Seek, Red Rover, Freeze Tag, Capture the Flag, and Four Square.
8. Break out the puzzles.
We’re no strangers to puzzles around here, but it wasn’t until we spent nine months living with my in-laws last year that our family’s love for puzzles really grew. Living in close quarters with my elderly in-laws, in a space not our own, meant we had to get creative with keeping the kids occupied, as well as ourselves.
We no longer had a TV remote we were in control of or a pool to swim in on hot summer days, and we had to oftentimes keep the kids quiet during my father-in-law’s naps. So puzzles ended up becoming an unexpected gift for us.
We’d work on a family puzzle throughout the day, sometimes for just 10 or 15 minutes at a time, but often for longer after dinner. These became really special moments to get some quality family bonding time in. My husband and I would get the chance to really slow down and connect with our kids on a one-on-one level. I suggest prompting them with questions about their favorite teacher, or the special bond they have with their best friend, or what they liked learning about the most at school that day, and get ready for some really beautiful conversations to unfold. In fact, this time became such a great way to both relax and connect with one another, that my husband and I would often keep working on them long after the kids went to bed.
And not to mention the fact that building puzzles provides numerous mental benefits, while also teaching your kids patience and stillness. We just completed an amazing 1000+ piece puzzle we picked up while visiting Zion National Park!
9. Take a nod from Bill Nye with at-home science experiments.
Fun activities that are also educational are a win-win for everyone, although to be honest I’m not a huge fan of the mess that can be involved. Good news is that there are so many amazingly simple and relatively mess-free experiment ideas out there that they even have their own Pinterest search!
From eggs in space, to color-changing milk, to the most fun of all — colorful Oobleck, there’s a ton of cool options out there that will require little time, energy, and cleanup on your part. Bonus is that they all incorporate common household items and ingredients you most likely already have on-hand.
And if you’ve flown through all of these ideas, here are some obvious but often forgotten options. These ideas are pretty common around here and are sometimes met with little enthusiasm, but they’re ideas nonetheless. And when the kids know that screen time is not an option, they opt in on one of these.
From reading to drawing and crafting, to taking a bike ride around the block or playing a board game, any of these options are easy and simple, require little time or creative juices (on your part), but can inspire thought, stillness, imagination, and movement in your kids.
Crafting could be little more than putting some large wooden beads out along with some string. Provide a couple of drawing prompts to get the whole family drawing a singular but completely different theme. And have a couple of standard go-to games that each kid learns how to play growing up (for us it’s Parcheesi), so that children can grow into the games and be an active participant from an early age.
It makes me sad to see how screen time has become another battle hymn for the judgment police to come out in full force. We are by no means perfect and allow our fair share use of screen time, but overall we as parents can see the dramatic change in our kids when we set limits and encourage non-screen time activities, either on their own or together as a family.
Our kids tend to emerge as overall happier, prouder, less tense little people when screen time is limited and physical and/or thoughtful play is promoted. Hopefully some of these ideas will help inspire some active play in your house.More On