Give them time to be kids

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The daylight slowly fades in the small backyard of our suburban home and the house is filled with the sounds of birds and children. The birds are retiring for their nightly rest but the kids show no signs of getting tired – or hungry! It’s 8:30pm and if I don’t insist they won’t come in for dinner.

Through the kitchen window I see my backyard transformed into a magical classroom where the children are exploring and learning and destroying my herbs garden. During daylight saving the kids end up going to bed at 10pm, but I don’t mind. At the end of the day I know they’ve been exposed to more sunlight than blue light from electronic devices and they’ve exercised their bodies and minds, not just their little fingers.

There is no denying that technology is an important part of children’s education but it saddens me that most children are spending more time staring at a screen than playing outdoors, reading, playing with friends or even interacting with a parent. The Department of Health recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day for children aged five and up but research suggests that over 58% of Australian children spend more than two hours per day consuming screen based media. The older they get the more they consume.

Those two recommended hours include screen time spent both on educational and recreational purposes but judging by my own kids, most of the time spent staring at a screen is unlikely to be on educational grounds. And what’s worse is that it’s more likely to be at the expense of time they were supposed to spend on good and old ‘free play’.

Free play for many children today means time on electronic gadgets. We all know they want and need to play with their devices – using their tablets, phones and computers wisely can be beneficial. But I think there is so much over parenting and over scheduling these days that children don’t have the time, and sometimes the freedom, required to strike a good balance between electronics and traditional play. And with limited time it looks like electronics always win!

As parents we have to think critically about how much we schedule or allow our children to cram in. My son this week announced he no longer wants to play soccer and I immediately went looking for other sports options. Thomas has turned down all alternatives, he said he just wants to be home. And that’s how it’s going to be. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my children won’t be traumatised or disadvantaged if they miss a sport’s season.

I don’t know if it’s just in my home but I find that when kids are not deprived of free time it’s easier to negotiate with them a better balance between screen and non-screen play, and once they engage on play that involves all their senses they end up forgetting about their devices.

When I look back at my childhood my happiest moments weren’t those in front of the TV watching The Flintstones or playing pac-man. One of my favourite memories is of my friends and I bringing home a litter of six kittens that we found in the neighbourhood. Childhood was about playing with other kids, exploring, getting into trouble, was about having time and being allowed to be kids.

Surely, we live in a different world today but while technology is an integral part of our lives and it is not our lives. I fear that without enough screen-free play our future adults will look back in their childhood and say that the best moments of their lives were spent on Minecraft. This will be a dull, conforming world, full of people disconnected to themselves and to others. But I still hope it won’t be so. I hope when the daylight slowly fades in the backyard of my grandchildren’s suburban home the house will be filled with the sounds of birds and children.

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