How to cut screen time and get your kids outside

I recently wrote, 50 things I did outside as a kid that didn’t kill me, a post that got me thinking about how come I did all this cool stuff outside, but kids today don’t. I think it’s due to two major issues – screens and parent comfort with the outside world.

Photo © Flickr user N8tr0n

Kids are glued, almost literally, to screens nowadays from television to computers to Kindle to cell phones and other screens. Research backs this up and also shows that screen addiction results in some health and social consequences.

Anyhow, I’ve been pondering the situation and I’ve tried to come up with some ideas that will get your kids outside and active vs. constantly sedentary. Later I’ll be posting a challenge about this, since screen time and activity is something we need to work on in my own house. But first, some tips…

Photo © Flickr user KellBailey

Admit that the world is safe to explore

As I noted in that 50 things I did outside as a kid that didn’t kill me post, many parents are scared about letting their kids roam outside on their own.  As a kid, I wandered around all the time on my own, as did my peers, and statistically, there was more crime in the 70s and early 80s than now. We survived.

I think about what life would have been like had my mom (or some other adult) shadowed my every movement as a kid and the first thing that pops into my mind is yikes! What a downer. Life would have been considerably less fun had I never gotten any free kid time. I imagine that kids today maybe don’t mind as much, because they’re not used to exploring on their own. Still, I bet many would give their teeth to be allowed some awesome wandering time outside or at a mall or in a big city.

Admit to yourself and your kids that there are bad people and bad times, but for the most part, people are okay. Bad things don’t always happen. Life should be an adventure. If you’re brave enough to accept that being outside is safe and fun, maybe your kids will too.

For help coming to terms with the fact that the world is mostly safe, read the following:


Image via sxc.

Consider that bans seem exciting

Some parents ban screen time. In serious cases, where kids have been raised with a mindset that 24/7 screen time is okay, I guess a ban might help change some habits. I suppose it could even be necessary to jump start your kid’s ability to do something besides stare at a screen.

Overall though, I’m not one to be on board with bans. I think they make just about anything seem more intriguing to a kid. Also, bans aren’t realistic. Even if you ban stuff all the time, kids know that stuff still exists. They will run into it in college and as adults. I think making the outdoors more attractive, is a better idea than simply banning screen time. I also think teaching proper screen time habits is a better tactic than bans.

For example, it’s okay to say to a kid, “It’s not healthy to be staring at a screen all day, you also need to fit other activities into your day.” I also think that if you, as an adult, limit your own screen time, it’s fine to limit the entire household’s but banning them outright may just create kids who are even more anxious to get online or watch TV.

My son's school - Village Free School - kids actually moving! Not sitting at desks all day. Image ©Flickr user artfulblogger

Skip public school – or at least don’t support public school policy in total

Personally, one of the main reasons I hate public school is because it doesn’t line up with my idea of a healthy life. Sitting all day, 5 days a week, plus sitting all day after school and on weekends to do homework is just about the most unhealthy lifestyle choice a parent can make for their kid in my opinion. Most schools have cut PE and recess down to nothing, so kids really are sitting all the time. It’s not normal or healthy.

My son attends a free school where kids aren’t sitting still all day. They actually move, and aren’t punished for doing so.

If you’re not interested in alternative education, that emphasizes normal childhood activity, then at least advocate that your school provide physical activity time, and lots of it. Advocate for less homework and if you see that all your child has time for is school, it may be time to figure out a new plan.

Image via sxc.

Give kids the tools to play outside

Kids like to know where to play. Make sure you map out routes to the nearest school or public playground with your child. Tell him where it’s good to play and where it’s not. Help your child figure out bus routes. Make the world a place your child can navigate easily.

Also make sure you offer plenty of fun equipment to make the outdoors seem more inviting. For example:

Other fun outdoor toys and tools for kidsJump rope, water gun,  magnifying glass, football, Slip N Slide, casual clothing, water bottle, sidewalk chalk, playhouse, toy wagon, treehouse, bouncy balls, sandbox, trampoline, yo-yo, flying airplane, flying disc and a baseball and bat are just some ideas.


Image © Brebca

Make a screen-free list

When I was a kid I played outside, played with toys, cooked, created amazing art projects and much more, all without the help of an adult. You probably did too.

What I’ve noticed about kids today is that they seem to be the Entertain me” generation. They have no idea that it’s okay to be creative or bored instead they just sit in front of a screen or whine at a parent to entertain them. Case in point. My son used to play alone all the time. He’d run outside, play with toys and do art. On his own. Then he was exposed to some kids who largely spend all their time staring at screens. When they’re not, they’re asking their parents to entertain them. My son got into these same habits (it sadly, doesn’t take long).

One day, not long ago, I pulled out an art kit and all of them stared at me like they had no idea what to do. Seriously? Kids who have to ask how to use basic art supplies are frustrating. If you suggest they draw, they say, “What?” If you suggest they think of something to do beyond screens they sit and sigh and say, “We don’t know what to do…” It’s completely insane.

I’d had enough. I can’t do anything about other kids, but seriously, I’m not letting my own son become someone who can’t entertain himself or figure out a basic activity beyond computer games.

So, this last week, I had my son make a list. I told him the list could have anything on it, stuff he wanted to do, stuff he dreamed of doing, stuff that could be fun and so on. I even told him to put stuff on the list that he never thought I’d let him do, but nothing on the list could be screen related. No TV, no computer and no 3DS. I explained that he’s become way too reliant on screens and other adults to entertain him. I also told him, yet again, that too much screen time is way unhealthy. At first he looked at me like I was nuts. Then when he realized I wasn’t going to budge, he started listing stuff.

Cedar made the following list, which includes both outside and inside activities:

I told him these were all good ideas. I also added a few of my own, such as reading new, harder books, cooking in general so he won’t starve as an adult, learning to ride the MAX (our above ground PDX public transport system) on his own and sign language classes, all of which he agreed seemed like good ideas. I told him we could print said list out and hang it up, so the next time he’s stuck about what to do, his list could help.

Kids today are so sheltered that many can’t figure out what to do if not explicitly told, so making a list like this may help encourage your child to think outside the screen box. P.S. so far the list has been working too. My son has already done some of the stuff on his list.


Image via sxc.

Be a good role model

Obviously one of the best ways to encourage less screen time and more outside time is to be a better role model. I know parents who…

  • Use their cell phone during family meals.
  • Play video games for ten hours straight.
  • Use TV as their only form of entertainment.
  • Always buy their child the latest screen upgrades – i.e. a new phone, although their old one is fine.
  • Never go outside or exercise.
  • Use screens to quiet an agitated kid – i.e. hand over their cell to a toddler or older kid who is whining in a store.

As for me, I’m not attached to a screen. I use my cell as little as humanly possible. I don’t sit for ten hours watching television. I’m pretty good about setting a decent screen use example. However, I’m not as good about setting a go out and play example. I’m not a fan of organized exercise and while I do like long walks, hiking and in-line skating, I’ve been seriously slacking as of late.

My son and I used to go on nightly walks 100% of the time, hiking every weekend and we’d head down to the basketball court a few times a week. Lately, with looming work deadlines, some personal family issues and a few bouts of the flu, we haven’t been doing any of this. I’ve noticed that my son has followed my lead, becoming more lackadaisical about outside time since I have.

You really do need to be a good role model or your kid won’t think it’s important to head outside on his own.


Photo © Flickr user Tony Crider

Help your child find super fun outdoor ideas

There are all sorts of fun activities your child can do outside, but he may need your help to find said activities. Here are some excellent ideas that are just as fun as screen time – note that some of these outdoor activities require a parent’s help, at least at first…


Image © Flickr user Lucia..

Little ideas that may help

  • Don’t turn on the TV for automatic background noise. Kids can play without it.
  • Only watch TV as a family. If someone can’t or doesn’t want to watch, don’t.
  • Cancel cable. We haven’t had cable for years and it hasn’t killed us yet.
  • Own one family computer, not many individual computers.
  • Eat meals at the dining room table.
  • Don’t even buy your kid a cell phone. They don’t need one to survive.
  • Own just one TV.
  • Turn off all screens after a specific time of night – i.e. after 11pm.
  • Put the TV behind closed doors, like a hutch with cabinets.
  • Plan screen-free weekend activities.
  • Keep screens out of kids’ bedrooms, instead keep the computer in a family space.
  • Recognize the benefits of some screen time.
  • Use book research for homework, not Internet research. Studies show that online “research” is a distraction and kills concentration.
  • No cell phones during meals.
  • Turn off all screens in the car – instead, talk to your kids.
  • Be consistent.

Just do it

I swear, I’m not some huge Nike fan, but their term seems appropriate. Just do it. Kick your kids out of the house.

Today say, “No screens – go outside.” What’s the worst that could happen? I know the best that might happen – your kids might get some exercise, improve their vision, reduce their stress, develop some creativity, make new friends, have fun and build awesome childhood memories.

Remember, kids today are not like we were. They think screen time, all the time is the norm and we as parents have let that happen.

I doubt anyone, ever, had to write an article 10, 15 or 20 years ago telling parents that they, “Should send their kids outside.” My own mom would have laughed and laughed to see this in a parenting magazine. Her problem and your parents problem was much more likely, “How to get your kids inside” or “Where the heck is my kid – he’s been out all day.

The indoor generation is an entirely new phenomenon. But new doesn’t always mean normal, good or better. If you need some encouragement remember…

  • You’re the parent. Not the buddy who is okay with your child sitting on their butt all day. It’s your right and the responsibility to help your child make healthy choices. It is NOT your job to be popular 100% of the time.
  • It’s not your job to entertain your child 24/7. Let them learn to self entertain – it’ll come in handy later.
  • Ask yourself how excessive screen time is meeting your child’s health and mental needs? Is screen time so necessary that you can’t possibly encourage less of it?

Do you think your kids spend too much time in front of screens and not enough time outside? What are you doing about it?

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  1. Jeffrey Willius says

    Hi Jennifer — What a great post! You’ve really captured the problem with what I call this generation of “screen-bound” kids. And, more importantly, some very good and thoughtful solutions. Great job!
    Can’t believe I haven’t come across your wonderful site till now. I’ve subscribed, and hope when you have a minute you’ll be able to check out mine. Would love to be in touch.


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