10 fun ways to celebrate Screen-Free Week

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As a child of the 1970s, I love my television set with its approximately 400 cable channels.

I also love my smartphone, which contains almost everything I think I need, except food and hugs from my family.

And I love the Apple gods for creating the mini iPad that shuts down the whining for at least two hours when we take our four-hour drives into the North Carolina mountains.

I love my screens.

Yet I banish all screens from my daughter’s life on weekdays. I don’t like how she checks out when she’s watching any screen or the abrupt tone I hear when I try to get her back into three-dimensional space.

For her, this year’s Screen-Free Week, May 4-10, won’t be different from any other week. Dating back to 1994 when it was called “TV Turnoff,” it’s now an effort by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood to get people around the world to take a break from digital entertainment.

The campaign wants people to reconnect in person with family and friends, read, play, get outside and create. (Using screens for work or school is fine.)

It helps that my child’s school is screen-free, which allows children to actively concentrate and imagine rather than passively accept what Disney or Nick Jr. think they should look like or play. Although she can complain and whine as much as the next child when she’s bored, her ability to concentrate and engage in creative play for hours at a time dwarfs mine.

Not every family’s decision to go screen-free is backed up at school, however, and some parents might be at a loss for how to spend that time away from devices. Stay tuned for some advice on surviving Screen-Free Week below.

Our children are busy online

Children ages 8-18 spend 4.5 hours daily watching television, 1.5 hours on computers, and over an hour playing video games, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation 2010 study.

The online life of our teenagers is also pretty busy. Some 92% of teens ages 13 to 17 are going online daily, and 24% say they go online “almost constantly,” according to a new Pew Foundation survey. Nearly three-quarters have or have access to a smartphone, and 87% have or have access to a desktop or laptop computer.

While children are spending so much time using screens, there are good reasons to try to limit screen time. A multitude of studies show that decreasing screen time translates into children who tend to do better in school, eat healthier, be more active and are better able to engage in schoolwork.

It may be harder for parents

I bet that could be true for me, too. I already know that cutting myself off from Facebook check-ins, “Gilmore Girls” re-runs and other screen fun means discomfort. And that reminds me how tethered I am to my devices, which is the point of the exercise.

To make this week fun, I’ve asked family and friends to come up with ideas for ways to play without technology. (And I will not judge the parents whose toddler will not stop screaming long enough for his parents to make dinner. For many of us, screens have allowed us to put food on the table.)

1. Eat dinner together. If there’s no time to cook a weeknight meal, consider frozen cheese pizzas, which everyone can top with their own chosen ingredients, and a bag of salad. If you’ve got an hour on the weekend to let dough rise, make your own pizza dough. It’s really fun to punch down dough. If this all sounds like too much, go out to eat!

2. Not sure what to say? We like to play the “rose and thorn” game, where everyone gets to say one thing they liked about their day (the rose) and one thing that wasn’t good (the thorn). Don’t try to fix the thorn unless asked; otherwise a shy kid might not share any more thorns the next day.

3. Pull out the board games. We’re currently enjoying Uno, Jenga, Nada! and Connect Four. Want something more complex? We just got Catan Junior to try next. And we love eating burgers at our neighborhood pub because they have a bookcase filled with many of our favorite games.

4. Make like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Read tales or tell ghost stories by candlelight to the family, even the teenagers. Yes, they may say they hate it, so you could let them help pick another story they like. (You might learn more about what they do like.) At a loss? Try “Pioneer Girl,” Wilder’s annotated autobiography, which was published last year. Unlike the fictionalized books, it’s a true account of her life.

5. Make art. Not sure how? We play a game where each of us fills up paper lunch bags with cardboard leftovers, fabric scraps, buttons, pipe cleaners and other art supplies to make art “grab bags.” Pens, paint and glue are on the table, and each person can make whatever art he or she likes from the bag.

6. Worried about making mistakes? Grab Barney Saltzberg’s book, “Beautiful Oops!,” and turn a crumpled piece of paper into a sheep and a torn piece of paper into an alligator’s mouth.

7. Still down about your artistic abilities? Grab a kid’s coloring book for the young ones and an adult coloring book for you. (Yes, it’s a real thing.) Start coloring inside or outside the lines.

8. Take a hike. Don’t live anywhere near a trail or prefer not to head away from civilization? Take a walk around the block or head to your local playground and enjoy the swings and monkey bars. Or create a scavenger hunt in your home,

9. Join like-minded friends. Your community’s schools, libraries and other groups may be hosting events to help you find the fun in a screen-free week. Check for events at the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood’s website or organize a dance party or hike or art session with your own friends.

10. A whole week is too much? Fair enough, it sounds like a lot to me, too. So why not try it for the weekend? That’s when you can schedule some fun events ahead of time, shop ahead for art supplies, plan meals you can make together and visit the library to check out some favorite books.

By Katia Hetter