By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — The theme song to the Disney Channel’s old “Phineas and Ferb” cartoon series proclaims, “There’s 104 days to summer vacation.” Parents are forgiven for thinking, “Only 104?” They haven’t see much difference between the end of classroom learning and vacation — at least this year.
As students, children have been staring at screens since sometime in March as they, their classmates and their teachers all figured out how to do distance learning on the fly. And once the school day is over, the same device is likely used for entertainment, be it TV, movies or video games — and maybe a little bit for homework.
School is coming to an end but with a slow reopening to civic life — still on the to-do list for the nation’s biggest metropolitan areas — kids could be looking at screens for a good while longer.
But screens can be like the Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs ingested with delight by Calvin of “Calvin & Hobbes” comic-strip fame. It’s only one part of a complete and nutritious breakfast.
The organization Children and Screens — www.childrenandscreens.com — talked to a dozen top professionals on how to better manage children’s screen usage — particularly in the more impressionable years between kindergarten and eighth grade — and came back with just as many tips. Here they are:
— Create screen-free zones. As a family, agree on times and places during the day when you will just be together, without the disruption of checking your screen. Those can include meals, bedtime, game time and walks.
— Find the silver lining. A key part of resilience, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, is trading the efficiency of school and work for connection with your child. You are in this together as a family.
— Pick and choose. While structure is important, worried children may benefit from daily “choices” to help them feel like they can still maintain some sense of control, especially when everything around them seems chaotic. One example: Tell them it’s time to play a game, but they can choose which one. If that doesn’t work, offer them one of two options.
— Prioritize and organize. If you’re working from home, set realistic goals for yourself and create a schedule to match your workday. Recognize what meetings you need to “attend,” and what may be less important. Prioritize the most important tasks, and help your children to do the same. If you’re worried about summertime slippage in your children’s education, use resources such as Khan Academy to help out.
— “Helping” ideas.” Ask your children to come up with ways that they can help each other — and you. If they can’t think of anything, suggest ideas like “help each other not be bored” or “help each other with chores.” Post their ideas on the fridge and come up with new ideas every few days, or even every day.
— Walk it out. Schedule some breaks that involve physical activity and fresh air. Go for a walk, bounce a ball, skip rope, use sidewalk chalk, play hopscotch; the possibilities are endless when it comes to having fun and connecting with your child. Just make sure to follow social distancing guidelines whenever you leave the house.
— Mix it up. Treat your child’s mind with respect and kindness by mixing up the day with activities that’ll challenge different parts of their brain, such as reading vs. math. Monitor your kids for signs of fatigue, increased irritability, distractibility and fidgeting, and take breaks for physical activity when necessary. Often, screen use only stimulates the visual and auditory part of the brain, ignoring smell, touch, taste and temperature. What the brain doesn’t use winds up growing less developed, so varied activities and challenges will help your child develop all of their senses.
— Listen with your eyes. Nonverbal behavioral cues such as a shrug of the shoulders or a furrowing of the brow can provide helpful information about a child’s understanding of the content being shared with them, be it a school lesson online or a life lesson at home. Ask your child what’s not being understood, and renew your effort to help the child understand.
— Make distance social. Can’t visit family and friends? Make phone calls, or set up videoconferences so you can all see one another and connect — or reconnect, as the case may be. Creative adults can also turn these into social studies or history opportunities, like the difference between the Washington on the Pacific coast and the Washington on the Potomac River.
— Do your best. Off-screen activities are great, but you won’t always have the mental capacity to support non-screen tasks, and that’s totally fine. Sometimes you may need to let your kids have a little extra television time. Just be sure to find media you trust and keep an eye on what your kids are watching.
— Get physical. Make digital technology work for you. If you have a streaming music service, have a dance party with your kids, There are also free and subscription-based apps that have family fitness content to provide fun and engaging ways to interact and exercise as a family.
— It’s OK to be bored. The next time your child complains to you about being bored, don’t just thrust a screen at them. Instead, let them sit with their boredom, and maybe even join them. When not actively engaged in a specific task, our brains are doing important work. Neuroscientists call this the default mode of brain functioning, and it’s linked to important skills like self-awareness and empathy. So let them get bored. Their developing brains will thank you.
Summer’s staring us all in the face, so there’s no time like the present!
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Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.