IRL Lessons: Declaring Recess From Screen Time

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“Mom! I can spell your name!” Look at him: Only four years old and fearlessly riding the wave of the future. Given my druthers, he’d be running around outside with other neighborhood kids, getting dizzy spinning on a swing, or climbing up a curly slide. Sunshine and fresh air, right?

The problem is that we can no longer trust the ‘village’ to help raise our children. As a result, unsupervised outdoor playtime is generally off-limits to young children and risky for teens. It’s sad, but not a complete disaster because kids today have options that were unavailable to previous generations. And that’s exactly as it should be.

What’s unchanged is the way some grown-ups still have a hard time keeping up with kids. “Oh my! Average teens text 3339 times per month!” I’m not sure I send fewer messages per month along such old fashioned lines as email, yet I’m supposed to be shocked that tech savvy youth are massive communicators? No, they’re just doing what they like, as kids are wont to do.

Yes, there’s plenty of uproar on the web about how screen time damages children. Some research links it with psychological problems, poor social skills, obesity, sleep disorders, repetitive stress injuries, and even death. Those are all real risks and I won’t argue otherwise. However, I don’t think the screen is the problem. As usual, I blame the brains in charge (that’s us, mom and dad).

Human bodies and minds haven’t changed dramatically in the past 200,000 years, which means that we’re still unsuited to the sedentary, indoor lives we’ve adopted as part of urbanization, over-population and other technological feats. Nobody should sit for hours upon hours on a daily basis, and that’s especially true for kids, whose brains and bodies need a lot of exercise to develop properly.

That said, it’s not like this trend is going to reverse; we’re going to have better and more ubiquitous screen time from now on. And aren’t we geeks? We love our screens! We just need to relate to the crisis of screen time in terms of the opportunities it presents us with. Not the potential education and employment benefits of being media marathoners (everyone talks about that). No, I mean the alternative possibilities: In Real Life Lessons.

IRL Lessons are the sort of thing we should be doing so automatically that we can take for granted that our kids are learning them by our example. With so much screen time going on, that’s not happening organically, so we have the unprecedented opportunity to live well on purpose. We geeks invented screen time, and we can reinvent screenless time, too.

The essentials:

But enough of that grown-up stuff! My favorite reinvention of screenless time is actually an old standby: Recess. Whenever we’ve seen enough of our favorite devices for a while, I declare recess breaks. Anything goes as long as the screens are off and we’re moving around for at least fifteen minutes. Pillow fighting, going out on an odd rocks hunt, competing in a super slow-motion indoor obstacle course race, or just plain walking and talking together for a few blocks – it’s all good. I even take fifteen minute yoga breaks while I’m at work because getting away from my computer as often as possible actually makes me work faster, better, smarter the rest of the day. And the same IRL Lesson goes double for kids.

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28 thoughts on “IRL Lessons: Declaring Recess From Screen Time

  1. Great post, as usual, Kay, but I would argue one point:

    “The problem is that we can no longer trust the ‘village’ to help raise our children.”

    I disagree completely. I think the idea that “things have changed” is only true in that we’ve allowed our perceptions of things to change. It’s not really a more dangerous world. We just think it is, so we keep our kids inside and prohibit unsupervised play.

    It’s a hard habit to break, because internet and evening news have both convinced us that pedophiles and stalkers are waiting for our kids to get out of earshot… but it simply isn’t true.

    Not sure if you’ve ever read Lenore Skenazy’s blog at http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/, but I heartily recommend it for anyone who is wondering why “things have changed” so much.

    1. I’m glad you brought that up!

      I am actually very much in favor of setting kids up to go off on their own safely. I grew up playing alone outside, after all, and time away from adult influence was hands down the best part of childhood for me. Granted, I had 1000 acres of wilderness in my backyard to explore.

      I was also repeatedly molested by neighbors, and raped when I was seven. In that case, it wouldn’t have happened if my dad hadn’t let me walk alone in the woods.

      I’m raising my son in a densely populated city, and one with 77% paved surface area. The closest shop to us is a liquor store. There are two registered child molesters living down the street from his preschool, and four within easy walking distance of our apartment. A known heroin addict broke into our car last year.

      Bastian is only four now and he’ll start kindergarten next fall. We live across the street from the school, but even if we didn’t, I would want him to walk to class with his friends. It’s a time of day when there are a lot of parents and teachers around being watchful, and kids moving together in groups. But that’s the only time of day that kids younger than teens are out and about in our neighborhood together.

      If I let Baz play outside unsupervised, who would he play with? There are no kids within a few years of his age allowed to go ‘free range’ in our neighborhood, and the teens are a bunch of idiots I wouldn’t trust around him (I took a snow shovel and chased one group off my street because they kept firing bottle rockets onto our front porch and threatened me the first time I asked them to stop). And where would he play? There’s hardly even any dirt to dig in – we have to plant our spring garden in pots on the porch – and when school’s not in session, drug dealers take over the playground across the street.

      The gist of that is that I agree with you that kids should get out of the house and away from grown-ups, but I think they need to stick together when they do. And that we and they have to know our environment well enough that we can say to them, “Stay away from that brick house around the corner,” and know they’ll actually do it. That’s not the same as ‘trusting the village’, but rather knowing the village and trusting the kid.

      1. Kay, I can’t believe most people who can afford iPhones for their 4-year-olds live in neighborhoods as dangerous as the one you describe, even in big cities. Lenore Skenazy, the Free Range Kids lady, lives in New York City. (I met her at Maker Faire New York, where we were both letting our kids roam around unsupervised.) She gained notoriety for allowing her 10-year-old to take the subway by himself. He made it home alive.

        That said, you do make good points about balancing screen time, of any type. But in my experience most kids — especially older kids and teens — could be given a lot more freedom than they are without dire consequences.

        1. Yes! My kids have the Wii, NetFlix (we don’t have cable) their own computers, etc. With the exception of the MindStorms package we just bought our 9-year-old, all of that is limited to an hour or two a day. ESPECIALLY on weekends.

          Otherwise, I let my kids go. My 9 year old takes the 4 year old to the bathroom in the local big box store. You should’ve seen the smile on his face when (two years ago) I told him he knew where it was and to yell if he had any problems. Yes – there are times when we still have to supervise, but that independence is huge!

          Kay – we too have convicted child molesters, drug users, etc. in our neighborhood. Look at the statistics. The only thing really that’s changed in the last 50 years (they were there when you were young and long before that) is that now we know about them. This gives us an advantage in that we can say “Don’t go near that house or that guy, but go outside and have fun!”

          You talk about all the risks of screen time. Those risks are real. My children have a greater chance of being hurt in a car wreck than getting abducted by a stranger. I think I’m safer sending them out on their own than giving them every electronic device that crosses their path.

          1. All good points. I don’t really disagree with you about anything here. Baz has his hand-me-down laptop and iPhone, but he doesn’t use them much. We all use the Wii – mainly for Netflix in summer and exercise in winter – but IRL toys and play are better. Nothing beats legos, man.

            And by the time Baz is seven (sooner, probably), he will need to use public toilets on his own because I won’t need to take him with me into the ladies room anymore after he’s tall enough to reach the soap dispensor.

            I do know the statistics. I am one, if you’ll recall. I’d never advocate that parents sequester their kids from the world, but it is each family’s job to make the best decisions for its own situation. Some of my neighbors are violent sex criminals and repeat offenders, so I can’t comfortably let my four year-old wander alone beyond my block. With other kids close to his age? Sure, if they have enough sense to get out of the way of traffic. In a couple of years? Sure. Get out there, kiddo. But be home for dinner. 🙂

        2. It’s true that by the time Bastian is ten years old, I expect him to be able to get around his world in one piece. He’s a smart kid, and his dad and I are laying the groundwork for serious independence, now. In fact, I’m sure he could walk home from preschool by himself tonight if left to his own devices – we’ve walked the route together a hundred times and he knows how to use crosswalks – but he’s only four so that’s just not going to happen.

          I think I need to clarify a couple of things, too. We actually live in a ‘good’ neighborhood. Beautiful old wood townhouses, quiet, tree-lined streets, crime rate low for the area and dropping of late, several parks and sports playing fields within walking distance, etc. We feel safe at night. The negatives and the positives about a place aren’t mutually exclusive; they have to be taken into account together. And of course, before you turn kids loose anywahere, it’s wise to get a good feel for it so you can at least point out to them the places they aren’t safe going without you.

          That said, I would still feel weird letting him wander even our good neighborhood alone without at least another kid to hang with. Knowing Baz, I suspect he’d just play on our front steps and hope somebody young would walk by. But we usually only see a few teenagers and pets outside unsupervised.

          Also, Baz’s iPhone is a hand-me-down. I used it hard for two years before I gave it to him – it’s scratched, dinged and the buttons are a little iffy. His dad and I could only afford iPhones in the first place as business expenses. We’re not as well off as you might think. We were lucky our current landlord was desperate when we were searching for a place, or we couldn’t afford to live in a good neighborhood.

          Don’t get me wrong, I agree that kids need to be freer. I agree that the ‘big scary world out there’ gets a lot more press than the even bigger un-scary world. But just as we do with screen time, parents need to know their kids and their situation well enough to set appropriate boundaries. If that means that some kids have no screen time and all the outdoor freeplay they could ever want while some kids have to stick together in groups outside and get to chat online for hours in the evening, then that’s what it means. There is no single correct way to do this parenting thing, after all. 🙂

  2. Great post, as usual, Kay, but I would argue one point:

    “The problem is that we can no longer trust the ‘village’ to help raise our children.”

    I disagree completely. I think the idea that “things have changed” is only true in that we’ve allowed our perceptions of things to change. It’s not really a more dangerous world. We just think it is, so we keep our kids inside and prohibit unsupervised play.

    It’s a hard habit to break, because internet and evening news have both convinced us that pedophiles and stalkers are waiting for our kids to get out of earshot… but it simply isn’t true.

    Not sure if you’ve ever read Lenore Skenazy’s blog at http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/, but I heartily recommend it for anyone who is wondering why “things have changed” so much.

    1. I’m glad you brought that up!

      I am actually very much in favor of setting kids up to go off on their own safely. I grew up playing alone outside, after all, and time away from adult influence was hands down the best part of childhood for me. Granted, I had 1000 acres of wilderness in my backyard to explore.

      I was also repeatedly molested by neighbors, and raped when I was seven. In that case, it wouldn’t have happened if my dad hadn’t let me walk alone in the woods.

      I’m raising my son in a densely populated city, and one with 77% paved surface area. The closest shop to us is a liquor store. There are two registered child molesters living down the street from his preschool, and four within easy walking distance of our apartment. A known heroin addict broke into our car last year.

      Bastian is only four now and he’ll start kindergarten next fall. We live across the street from the school, but even if we didn’t, I would want him to walk to class with his friends. It’s a time of day when there are a lot of parents and teachers around being watchful, and kids moving together in groups. But that’s the only time of day that kids younger than teens are out and about in our neighborhood together.

      If I let Baz play outside unsupervised, who would he play with? There are no kids within a few years of his age allowed to go ‘free range’ in our neighborhood, and the teens are a bunch of idiots I wouldn’t trust around him (I took a snow shovel and chased one group off my street because they kept firing bottle rockets onto our front porch and threatened me the first time I asked them to stop). And where would he play? There’s hardly even any dirt to dig in – we have to plant our spring garden in pots on the porch – and when school’s not in session, drug dealers take over the playground across the street.

      The gist of that is that I agree with you that kids should get out of the house and away from grown-ups, but I think they need to stick together when they do. And that we and they have to know our environment well enough that we can say to them, “Stay away from that brick house around the corner,” and know they’ll actually do it. That’s not the same as ‘trusting the village’, but rather knowing the village and trusting the kid.

      1. Kay, I can’t believe most people who can afford iPhones for their 4-year-olds live in neighborhoods as dangerous as the one you describe, even in big cities. Lenore Skenazy, the Free Range Kids lady, lives in New York City. (I met her at Maker Faire New York, where we were both letting our kids roam around unsupervised.) She gained notoriety for allowing her 10-year-old to take the subway by himself. He made it home alive.

        That said, you do make good points about balancing screen time, of any type. But in my experience most kids — especially older kids and teens — could be given a lot more freedom than they are without dire consequences.

        1. Yes! My kids have the Wii, NetFlix (we don’t have cable) their own computers, etc. With the exception of the MindStorms package we just bought our 9-year-old, all of that is limited to an hour or two a day. ESPECIALLY on weekends.

          Otherwise, I let my kids go. My 9 year old takes the 4 year old to the bathroom in the local big box store. You should’ve seen the smile on his face when (two years ago) I told him he knew where it was and to yell if he had any problems. Yes – there are times when we still have to supervise, but that independence is huge!

          Kay – we too have convicted child molesters, drug users, etc. in our neighborhood. Look at the statistics. The only thing really that’s changed in the last 50 years (they were there when you were young and long before that) is that now we know about them. This gives us an advantage in that we can say “Don’t go near that house or that guy, but go outside and have fun!”

          You talk about all the risks of screen time. Those risks are real. My children have a greater chance of being hurt in a car wreck than getting abducted by a stranger. I think I’m safer sending them out on their own than giving them every electronic device that crosses their path.

          1. All good points. I don’t really disagree with you about anything here. Baz has his hand-me-down laptop and iPhone, but he doesn’t use them much. We all use the Wii – mainly for Netflix in summer and exercise in winter – but IRL toys and play are better. Nothing beats legos, man.

            And by the time Baz is seven (sooner, probably), he will need to use public toilets on his own because I won’t need to take him with me into the ladies room anymore after he’s tall enough to reach the soap dispensor.

            I do know the statistics. I am one, if you’ll recall. I’d never advocate that parents sequester their kids from the world, but it is each family’s job to make the best decisions for its own situation. Some of my neighbors are violent sex criminals and repeat offenders, so I can’t comfortably let my four year-old wander alone beyond my block. With other kids close to his age? Sure, if they have enough sense to get out of the way of traffic. In a couple of years? Sure. Get out there, kiddo. But be home for dinner. 🙂

        2. It’s true that by the time Bastian is ten years old, I expect him to be able to get around his world in one piece. He’s a smart kid, and his dad and I are laying the groundwork for serious independence, now. In fact, I’m sure he could walk home from preschool by himself tonight if left to his own devices – we’ve walked the route together a hundred times and he knows how to use crosswalks – but he’s only four so that’s just not going to happen.

          I think I need to clarify a couple of things, too. We actually live in a ‘good’ neighborhood. Beautiful old wood townhouses, quiet, tree-lined streets, crime rate low for the area and dropping of late, several parks and sports playing fields within walking distance, etc. We feel safe at night. The negatives and the positives about a place aren’t mutually exclusive; they have to be taken into account together. And of course, before you turn kids loose anywahere, it’s wise to get a good feel for it so you can at least point out to them the places they aren’t safe going without you.

          That said, I would still feel weird letting him wander even our good neighborhood alone without at least another kid to hang with. Knowing Baz, I suspect he’d just play on our front steps and hope somebody young would walk by. But we usually only see a few teenagers and pets outside unsupervised.

          Also, Baz’s iPhone is a hand-me-down. I used it hard for two years before I gave it to him – it’s scratched, dinged and the buttons are a little iffy. His dad and I could only afford iPhones in the first place as business expenses. We’re not as well off as you might think. We were lucky our current landlord was desperate when we were searching for a place, or we couldn’t afford to live in a good neighborhood.

          Don’t get me wrong, I agree that kids need to be freer. I agree that the ‘big scary world out there’ gets a lot more press than the even bigger un-scary world. But just as we do with screen time, parents need to know their kids and their situation well enough to set appropriate boundaries. If that means that some kids have no screen time and all the outdoor freeplay they could ever want while some kids have to stick together in groups outside and get to chat online for hours in the evening, then that’s what it means. There is no single correct way to do this parenting thing, after all. 🙂

  3. Good comment, Michael. I am fortunate enough to have a large backyard, and I send my kids outside for unsupervised play all of the time. It’s one of the few ways I keep my sanity. I don’t worry that ‘OMG my backyard isn’t fenced in, what if they wander off?’ My kids know better to stay in the yard, and I love it when I don’t hear from them for an hour because they’re digging up bugs under our witch hazel bush.

    As for too much screen time for kids, I blame that solely on the parents. If you complain that your kid texts too much, take away the *&$! phone. You are the adult!! Why do parents seem to forget this?

    1. Good points. I think that if I had a big backyard, I’d never see Bastian except at meal times. 🙂 And he has his own iPhone, but his dad and I are the ones who get to decide how much use is okay and how much is too much. He mainly uses it to take silly candid photos of us, anyway, but in a few years he may need us to set some limits.

  4. Good comment, Michael. I am fortunate enough to have a large backyard, and I send my kids outside for unsupervised play all of the time. It’s one of the few ways I keep my sanity. I don’t worry that ‘OMG my backyard isn’t fenced in, what if they wander off?’ My kids know better to stay in the yard, and I love it when I don’t hear from them for an hour because they’re digging up bugs under our witch hazel bush.

    As for too much screen time for kids, I blame that solely on the parents. If you complain that your kid texts too much, take away the *&$! phone. You are the adult!! Why do parents seem to forget this?

    1. Good points. I think that if I had a big backyard, I’d never see Bastian except at meal times. 🙂 And he has his own iPhone, but his dad and I are the ones who get to decide how much use is okay and how much is too much. He mainly uses it to take silly candid photos of us, anyway, but in a few years he may need us to set some limits.

  5. I love the wealth of information offered in your links.

    I tend to let my kids range quite a bit more but I live on a farm so that’s not hard. And I’m much more restrictive about screen time. I do that not only to keep “real life” from becoming just another activity but because of how kids are affected by screen time (as you note quite well).

    Children are not, as you noted, any different than children of 200,000 years ago except now they’re bombarded with buzzing, blinking, market-driven entertainment. When our kids are very young they absorb without filters. The pace of nature, of picture books, of make believe, of family time— IMO that’s the pace most conducive to raising kids best equipped to think for themselves, innovate and handle tomorrow’s challenges.

    1. I miss a lot of things about farm life, but the outdoorsy-ness of it most. I try to compensate for city life with Bastian by getting him out of town as much as possible. His grandmother’s cottage is the only place I can leave him alone for ages and know he’ll be fine. He’s old enough now that I can tell him to stay out of the lake and the fire pit and he’ll listen, but not quite old enough that I’ll send him into the woods alone looking for firewood. Darn poison ivy.

      I think my real trouble is not Bastian’s screen time, but mine. I have to be on the computer all day for work and then I run the magazine at home, which means more screen time. Hence recess! Recess is the best.

  6. I love the wealth of information offered in your links.

    I tend to let my kids range quite a bit more but I live on a farm so that’s not hard. And I’m much more restrictive about screen time. I do that not only to keep “real life” from becoming just another activity but because of how kids are affected by screen time (as you note quite well).

    Children are not, as you noted, any different than children of 200,000 years ago except now they’re bombarded with buzzing, blinking, market-driven entertainment. When our kids are very young they absorb without filters. The pace of nature, of picture books, of make believe, of family time— IMO that’s the pace most conducive to raising kids best equipped to think for themselves, innovate and handle tomorrow’s challenges.

    1. I miss a lot of things about farm life, but the outdoorsy-ness of it most. I try to compensate for city life with Bastian by getting him out of town as much as possible. His grandmother’s cottage is the only place I can leave him alone for ages and know he’ll be fine. He’s old enough now that I can tell him to stay out of the lake and the fire pit and he’ll listen, but not quite old enough that I’ll send him into the woods alone looking for firewood. Darn poison ivy.

      I think my real trouble is not Bastian’s screen time, but mine. I have to be on the computer all day for work and then I run the magazine at home, which means more screen time. Hence recess! Recess is the best.

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