Summer always makes me feel like a kid again, and now that I have daughters of my own, it offers a welcome break from the hyper-scheduled routine of the school year. So for the past few weeks, when I thought about our impending summer vacation, I imagined an idyllic mix of outside free play and quiet R&R reading on the couch, two girls' heads bent together sweetly over a book.
Instead, they spent the whole first week screaming for screen time. "Mama, can I watch the Kindle?" my six-year-old pleaded. "Mini, Mini!" my four-year-old chanted, referring to the junior iPad. They'd wake before sunrise and sneak electronics into the playroom. Their demands became a chorus playing on endless unbearable loop, like fingernails scratching the chalkboard of my brain.
During the school year, we have clear rules: No screens during the week, and one to two hours of age-appropriate content each weekend day. But overnight, it seemed that our boundaries had evaporated. I knew if I had to listen to the frantic begging everyday for next three months, the Kindle would be destined for the garbage disposal. We needed new guidelines.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and teens spend no more than two hours per day on entertainment media, and that toddlers under two don't watch anything, period. But according to a shocking 2010 study from the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, the average child between ages eight and 18 spends more than seven non-school hours per day in front of a tablet, computer, TV, or smart phone. A 2013 study from Common Sense Media found that, in families with children eight and under, kids' access to tablets has jumped from eight percent in 2011 to 40 percent in 2013. Excessive media use among children has been linked to attention problems, poor grades in school, obesity, and social problems, and it eats into precious time that kids would otherwise be engaging in unstructured outdoor free play, which is essential to their development.
But even two hours a day seems like too much time to be glued to a device, especially in summer, when the days are lovely and long—the best possible time to be outside, to be a kid. So I checked in with Dr. Scott Sampson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, host of the PBS kids' series "Dinosaur Train," and author of the new book, How to Raise a Wild Child, for tips on swapping data for nature this season. Here’s what I took away:
1. Be a Hummingbird Parent
Part of what makes screens so appealing to parents is that our kids consume them in a controlled environment—on the couch, in the next room, for example. "We're all afraid of our kids being at risk outdoors, falling, being abducted, getting hurt,” Sampson says. “But the indoors is far more dangerous for them, in terms of their health and well being and development."
Outdoors, Sampson explains, is where children engage their imagination, learn how to socialize with other kids, and take risks with their bodies. It's also where they're most likely to experience "ecstatic moments," memories of beautiful places that stick with them their whole lives. To combat the "indoor migration" that's happened over the last generation and to foster their comfort and yours outside, take a step back and be on the periphery, "zooming in," like a hummingbird, only when necessary. Slowly increase this distance and their autonomy as the summer goes on. "Kids crave and need autonomy,” Sampson says. "It's part of their growing up."
2. Treat Screen Time as a Reward, Not a Right
This can be as simple as making media an incentive for doing family chores—an idea that Babble blogger Kristen Howerton has distilled into the phrase "clean before screen"—or you can use it to encourage outside time. One of Sampson's favorite activities for kids ages six and up is the "sit spot:” choose a place outside, in the backyard or very close to home, where you sit for a few minutes every day or a few times a week, open your senses, and observe nature teeming around you.
"Nature goes from being a blur of greenery to a phenomenal place full of wonder and creatures that are living right there with you," he explains. "You start to notice patterns and get to the know the mood of your neighborhood." In the beginning, to make this a habit, trade “sit spot” time for screen time. Or send your kids into the backyard on a mini-expedition to collect different plants or rocks and then try to identify them. "Parents do not need to know the answers," Sampson says. "A great nature mentor is a person who asks questions to incite wonder. Questions help turn what was otherwise a meaningless experience into something memorable."
3. Go Wild
Too often, "no" is the most common word in our arsenal. Don't pick up that stick, don't pick up that rock, don't even think about climbing that tree. But, says Sampson, "nature connection is a contact sport. Both kids and nature can take it." Instead of obsessing over rules in the wild—like stay on the trail, take only photos—it's essential to let kids loose sometimes so they can truly engage with nature.
A generation ago, when we parents today were kids, if given the choice, we'd always rather be outside with our friends than inside. That's where the fun was. Now, however, many kids reach adolescence without having those experiences. "They think being outside is boring, compared to screens that are flashing new images all the time," says Sampson. "If we show them that nature is an exciting place to be by letting them go off trail, then they're going to become really addicted to it. That's forming the habit."
4. Be Aimless Outside
"Don't ever take a kid on a hike," warns Sampson. "The notion of a hike results in comments from my daughter like 'my legs hurt' after first five minutes. And this is a girl who can run all day long." Instead of being goal-oriented outside—like rallying the crew for a hike to hike to a lake or a waterfall—spin your family outings as adventures. Sampson calls these agenda-less missions "wanders" and they can be as simple and convenient as walking out the backdoor or exploring a local park. "If we want to foster a love of nature in our kids, if we want them them to be the kids who love to hike," says Sampson, "then we have to start slowly. Make it fun. Don't worry about the destination. Think of the path."
5. Take the Tech with You
Used sparingly, this strategy can be a handy bridge between screen addiction and lasting nature connection. "In an ideal world, I would say completely unplug in nature," says Sampson. "But as a gateway drug, I think screens aren't a bad way to get kids outside." There are numerous terrific educational apps, like iNaturalist, that encourage kids to be amateur scientists by recording their observations and learning to identify them.
Sampson is also a fan of sending kids outside armed with digital cameras. "Ask them to take pictures of ten things—trees, rocks, flowers, critters—they find interesting. Then, when they come back, send them out to look at those ten things super closely, and then take ten more photographs. Which photos do they like more? Why?" Another way to bring the device into nature? Geocaching. Download the software onto your smart phone or tablet and it's like "treasure hunting in nature," Sampson says, who adds that there are millions of geocaching sites around the world. "It becomes way less about the destination and much more the process of being out there."
6. Go on a Tech Fast
An October 2014 study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that pre-teens who left their screens behind while they spent five days at sleep-away nature camp were better able to connect with others and read non-verbal facial cues than when they were using electronic devices daily. You don't need to offload the kids to try a DIY screen cleanse at home. Put the tablets on a high shelf for a few days or a week and notice how habits change. Initially, this will require more involvement on your part—without screens, it may take a day or so for children to remember how to entertain themselves, with board games, arts and crafts, and yes, books. To fill the void, go analog with old-school pastimes.
7. Own Your Own Use
Part of the reason my daughters' short-lived media mania drove me so insane was because—under stiff deadline pressure—I was slavishly tethered to my own devices. How I longed to be able to lounge on the porch swing with a good book! But if I couldn't, they should, and I projected my resentment of my screens onto my daughters.
Whenever possible, model healthy media habits by checking email and texting only at designated times, ideally when your kids aren't around. If they stop seeing you with screen constantly in hand, they'll stop obsessing over it, too. Nor will they need to: The time you're not spending on tech, you can spend with them, outside together, even if it's just stepping outside in the morning to notice the birds singing and the breeze blowing. "Take notice, and kids will see that you value nature," Sampson says. "The best way for your kids to have a wonderful outdoor summer is for you to have one, too."