Fifteen years ago marked a sea-change in families’ everyday use of technology. In 2007, Apple introduced the first iPhone, Google initiated pre-roll ads on their newly acquired YouTube video-sharing website, and Netflix started in-home streaming of feature films and TV series.
Today, digital screens increasingly crop up in our daily lives, from work to shopping to family downtime. Even if valuing the convenience factor, a growing body of research about the harms of prolonged screen time summarized by Mayo Clinic and BabyCenter is worth examining.
As a parent of two children ages one and three, these issues go beyond a casual interest. A few clear takeaways are that too much screen time can contribute to hyperactive behaviors and stunt toddlers’ development of social skills. Live interactions are most effective at teaching children, while screens often subtract from reading to a child (which has many proven benefits.)
In light of these findings, Screen-Free Week, which just concluded this year, urges all people to rediscover life apart from screens. It has provided new impetus for my family to get outside for some experiences we’ve put off until now, and to recall adventures from past years we plan to repeat. Here are six screen-free ways to have fun with loved ones, especially focused on kid-friendly ideas.
1. Feed Animals and Pick Fresh Produce at A Local Farm
Considering that every other children’s storybook takes place on a farm, naturally, kids’ excitement goes sky-high when they get the chance to see goats, cows, and the like in person. In a trend known as agritourism, with urban dwellers eager to breathe deeply and enjoy a simpler life, large working farms are increasingly opening their operations to the public.
On a recent Saturday, we made the hour-long drive out to Great Country Farms, a 400-acre property that has for decades resisted this area’s ever-encroaching housing boom. For a few bucks, our kids got to pet and feed the animals, pick strawberries (currently in season), pan for gems in a streaming sluice, see a full tour on a tractor-powered wagon ride, and much more.
While interactive farms can approach capacity during fall weekends, when pumpkin patches and apple picking are all the rage, families will find a lot to enjoy almost year-round. Another nearby farm, Charming Hill, touts its wide variety of baby animals – bunnies, geese, chicks, and more – as a sort of therapeutic experience. We thought the same about our time on the farm.
2. Watch the Air Show
Growing up with eight brothers, nearly every summer Dad loaded us into the family van and took us to watch an air show. From the incredible speed of modern aircraft to intricate biplane aerobatics, the sights and sounds of jet-powered engines and roaring crowds made for a memorable afternoon. (If there’s a baby in your party, definitely bring a pair of earmuffs.)
My wife is an “Air Force brat,” as she says, and enjoys these events even more than I do. When you attend shows on Air Force bases, getting a tour of static aircraft including past warbirds is often part of the show. Both the US Air Force Thunderbirds and the US Navy Blue Angels have dozens of public shows scheduled for the months ahead.
3. Attend a Local Arts and Crafts Festival
The rise of Etsy and similar hubs of handmade goods has given more visibility to local arts and crafts festivals. Artisans’ booths usually include locally themed pop art, hand-carved frames, clever T-shirts, high-end fine art, and wares you’d never expect.
Today, we have about a half-dozen pieces of canvas photography, oil paintings, and the like that we acquired at great prices from these shows. Often family members have joined us as we push the littlest one in a stroller for a few hours, conversing about culture and life. Usually several festivals are convened every season in any large metro area.
4. Visit a Neighborhood Splash Pad
For parents of toddlers, this may already be an obvious and frequent visit. Upon seeking options for our two little ones last year, we were surprised to find some of these splash pad parks are quite impressive. It’s easier to juggle kids around fountains than pools, especially with lots of hands-on options for them to play and beat the heat.
5. Go See a Live Theatrical Production
Theaters are back! If that conjures up an image of popcorn-stained multiplexes rather than a performing arts center, that would be a mistake. Stage performers, set builders, orchestra members, and thousands of dedicated artisans spent about two years cooped up without audiences who can gain from their soul-baring acts of storytelling.
When we saw “Fiddler On the Roof” at Richmond’s Altria Theater, experiencing this timeless story and its moving songs live ended up being a highlight of this past spring. Acclaimed shows currently on tour include “Come from Away,” “My Fair Lady,” “Hamilton,” and “Oklahoma!” A live theater show isn’t usually an option with young children in tow, so parents will want to take into account the cost of tickets and babysitting.
6. Enjoy the Rides at a Carnival or Inexpensive Theme Park
While many associate theme parks only with overpriced Disney experiences, hundreds of parks from coast to coast are beloved by families in their regions. Some like Dollywood in eastern Tennessee and Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, are one-of-a-kind, while a few national brands like Six Flags, Cedar Fair, and SeaWorld-Busch Gardens seek to rival Disney with much more reasonable daily ticket prices.
Before kids, my wife found Groupon deals so we could plan a Saturday of thrill rides. Now with two toddlers, parks with kid-sized attractions, a pool area to splash in, and a parade or live show have the most appeal. As to cheap carnivals that pop up in mall parking lots, it’s fun to see your neighborhood from atop a Ferris wheel, although mileage will vary on how well those are run.
There’s nothing wrong with lounging inside to beat the heat, which no doubt my family will do plenty of this season. But it’s those frequent forest hikes, swimming-pool cannonballs, and unstructured soccer field playtime that make summers memorable. Don’t miss it.
Josh Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy for several media outlets including The Stream. His articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion & Politics, Faithfully Magazine, Religion News Service, and Providence Magazine. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, DC area with their two children.