Screen-Time Substitutes for Kids Stuck at Home

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- “When parents ask me what they can do to occupy kids, they usually mean without the parent,” says Julie Bogart, who spent almost two decades home schooling five children and now runs, a home school writing program. But, she adds, “The parent is often essential. Sometimes kids don’t even know how to sustain their own attention.”

Parents, of course, are strained right now balancing work and caregiving. Often they go to the same bag of tricks to try to stave off endless hours of screen time. “We try to pacify children with a smorgasbord of options, and all those options stop being interesting—like the wallpaper,” Bogart says. Novelty is key. It takes planning, but that can reap benefits. Here are four ways to change things up:

  1. Introduce a surprise. Think “new” and “unexpected”—toys, projects, or treats that seem to simply pop up. Try, “Look, there’s Legos in the bathtub!” Practice independence, too, depending on age: “I bet you can’t cook an omelet by yourself!”
  2. Make a little mystery. Write a letter in code (Google “secret code for kids”), and have the children work on a translation. What about one of the Waldo books or clues to a treasure hunt? Start them on a game of lost-and-found: “I can’t seem to find the little, red ball. I need a detective.” Young kids often find grownup tools—timers, alarm clocks, etc.—endlessly interesting. The same goes for a magnifying glass, kaleidoscope, or microscope.
  3. Break the rules. If you’re working on something where a little distraction can be tolerated, say: “Who wants to write on the underside of the table while Daddy emails?” Let kids dismantle an old radio or gadget or draw on a wall you’ll soon be repainting. For older kids, try previously off-limits activities, such as whittling (search YouTube for tutorials), hammering, walking the dog alone, or buzz-cutting a sibling’s hair with a one-inch guard (and the sibling’s permission!).
  4. Go on an adventure. Transport the kids out of the here-and-now through dress-up, acting, karaoke, or meals from far-flung places that don’t require chef-level mise en place.

Most important, be realistic about how long they’ll stay engaged, Bogart cautions. Fifteen minutes is good; be thrilled with 30 and ecstatic with 45.

Plan their schedule around your needs
You work in Kidville now, which means you have four opportunities for focused work:

  • when the kids are sleeping
  • when someone else is occupying them
  • during screen time
  • during novelty interludes

Figure out when you need to concentrate for longer periods, and tell the kids: “I need to do a deep dive into my work; what’s something you’d enjoy as a deep dive?” Then give them what they want—an art project, say—“so they are not going to pester you,” says Bogart.

Be clear about guidelines
Go through the day’s schedule every morning so the kids know when you can give them your full attention. Otherwise, they’ll focus on your lack of responsiveness. This way, says Bogart, “when you’re absent from them, they understand what you need.”

Turn on stealth mode
Leave something new on the kitchen table, says Bogart, and don’t say anything: a game, Silly String canisters, art project pieces, a frozen can of juice and a popsicle-making set. Or place water guns or foam gliders or sidewalk chalk next to an open door.

TV is OK. Really
Choose quality options such as the PBS Kids app, How It’s Made on YouTube, or shows in a language that they’re learning. “Give as much attention to your kids as you can, and then feel free to use the tools that don’t require you,” Bogart says. “At this stage of the game, two to four hours a day—I would be for it.” TV can get kids to talk about feelings; ask them to describe the plot, how the characters felt, and what they’d do in a similar situation.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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