I share some of the concerns Jenny has about her kids and the easy/constant access to electronics, although I tend to take a somewhat less black and white stance. My house is pretty wired (or unwired these days, although not in the electronics-free sense). It always has been. I’m a bit of a gadget guy and that appreciation for electronic gear was readily adopted by my children. I don’t think there’s a room in the house that is completely electronics-free — there’s even a WiFi repeater taking up an unused electrical outlet in one of the bathrooms. We have a full suite of video game consoles, they each have iPads, iPods and there is a computer set up in their playroom. We’ve had a lot of fun together playing games, watching videos and listening to music; I don’t have any issue with our kids having access to electronics or in their using them. But I also believe in balance, so we’ve always ensured there are bins of Lego, Star Wars action figures, board games and plenty of other physical toys available. Sports are encouraged and they play organized soccer and volley ball.
Naturally, we have tons of books and comic books too, but the collection is largely virtual as I made the switch from dead tree versions several years ago. On a side note, that was one of the smartest decisions ever, with multiple kids in the same age range and the natural desire to use whatever a sibling is using. E-Books and e-comics mean everyone can have a copy at the same time, no fighting and no accidental tearing of covers. They’re still competitive, but now the fight is over who can read a book faster. I can live with that one.
With summer approaching, we wanted to make sure that the kids didn’t spend the bulk of their time lazing on the couch, glued to the TV. While I’ve been fortunate enough to be a stay-at-home dad for going on four years, I work the equivalent of full-time hours. So, while I see the kids during the day in the summer and have the flexibility to be able to take them to the beach, park or pool on most days (with the trade-off of writing later than night), I also need to spend at least a few hours every day holed up in my office. Which means that they’re left to their own devices to a certain extent.
Ideally, I want them to make the choice to include physical play and reading with their electronics activities. My wife and I encourage physical activity, but I’d like to know that I don’t have to mandate it. I’m avoiding the impulse to set specific time allocations on specific devices (unless things get out of hand, of course). But we’re trying to make things available to encourage that healthy mix to happen. So here’s what we’ve done to set up the summer, which officially begins for our kids this Thursday:
- Booked two weeks of camping trips. We’re not forcing them to leave their iPad, DS or whatever behind, but we find that on our annual camping trips, the gear just naturally gets put aside. We tend to camp with other families and when you get five or six kids (a dozen at a time on one of our trips) running loose in a park, games, exploring the woods, hiking and other outdoor activities completely take over from the gadgets. One additional measure I’ve taken this year — perhaps a counterproductive one, depending on your viewpoint — is to invest in a number of Audubon Guides for iPads, so they have have portable reference material covering the trees, birds and mammals they encounter.
- Put a large bin on the front porch full of footballs, soccer balls, and other assorted balls. The boys will spend an hour at a time out on the front lawn throwing and kicking the balls around. The grass doesn’t look so great, but there will be plenty of time for a Hank Hill lawn after they’ve grown up.
- Bought a family membership at our community pool and booked the kids in for swimming lessons through the summer. We’re fortunate enough to have an outdoor community pool in our neighborhood and in the summer, it’s a real social center for many of the kids. It’s also a ten minute walk from our house, across parkland. I took the kids there almost every day last summer (I was the idiot under the umbrella squinting at the MacBook and trying to work in the blazing sun), but this year with my daughter at 12 and the boys coming up on 10, we’re going to try letting them go themselves. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll go with them and revert to my awkward workstation out on the pool deck.
- Installed a tetherball and basketball net in the back yard. When I tore down their play fort — a fixture in the back yard for the past decade, but one that they’d outgrown — we decided to put in a basketball net. I put in a permanent tetherball set too, a heavy duty one, cemented into the ground. My wife thought that one was a bit risky, but the tetherball has proven extremely popular, although their fondness for Napoleon Dynamite may have had something to do with that. The kids got up early in the morning for the first few weeks in order to get a game in early before school and they still play a quick game most days at lunch, as well as in the evening. It’s proven to be a magnet for their friends too.
- We got rid of cable many years ago. So long ago that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have “live” TV. There is plenty of content with AppleTVs hooked up throughout the house, but the shows and movies are all ones that my wife and I are okay with and there are no commercials. So if they choose to watch TV, at least I only need worry about the amount they’re watching, not what they’re watching.
So, will it work? I’ll have a pretty good idea of how things are trending in a few weeks. However, my gut feeling is that given the opportunity to participate in a balanced lifestyle, the kids will choose that path. Sure, there may be days when the sports are all on the Xbox, but I suspect that will be evened out with days at the pool, the beach or curled up reading The Hunger Games on an e-reader or iPad while it rains outside.