8 Device-Free Activities to Encourage Creativity and Free-Play in Children

The current recommendation is that children have 2 hours or less of screen time a day, children under the age of two should have none.  But after interpreting for Spanish-patients in a health center for well child visits, I hear some families say their child spends 6 hours on a device after school! Summer and winter vacations are even worse when kids are on their devices from sun up to sun down. As Christmas vacation is just getting started, here are eight easy ideas to get kids away from the screen and moving around during their time off.

1 – A Box of Card Games

Box of card games within easy reach

We have a small table in the living room under which sat some wooden puzzles for the longest time when the kids were little. As I am rearranging and cleaning out, those puzzles have been replaced by our decks of card games. Decks of cards can be used in creative ways and my kids often sort them, make up and take away rules, play memory, and are currently working on dexterity by learning how to shuffle and make a bridge. Great for hand-writing skills right there!

Some fun games kids enjoy are Go Fish, The Old Maid, War, and Skippo Jr. Technically, the first three games could be played with a regular deck, so keep one of those on hand too. Cards border on art these days, so you needn’t have a traditional deck with the Jack and King, etc. We have a Disney Frozen(TM) deck, and one with different kinds of vegetables.

2 – Leave Out Ready-To-Use Art Supplies

Making sun catchers

Paints are kept out of reach at my house so the kids do have to ask to use them. Sometimes if they tell me they are bored, I will ask them if they want to paint and they might decline. But if I just get the materials out and set them at their places at the table, the kids seem to not be able to pass by the colorful lay-out and will go for it.

If given reign without criticism, kids will produce lots of amazingly creative works. Be prepared to have ten projects produced and only one be a masterpiece though, but it is through experimentation that technique is learned. I am pretty generous with the amounts of materials my kids are allowed to use, though I keep an eye out for wastefulness. The kids are also required to help pick up before they move onto another past-time, a great lesson in self-discipline.

3 – A Butterfly Net and a Bug Jar

IMG_1370

A toad in the bug net.

Kids are super excited about the world around them and how better to nurture this excitement than through face to face contact with nature and observation. Butterflies are rarely caught with our butterfly net, but it has seen the likes of fireflies, solitary wasps, moths, toads, beetles, and caterpillars. Once they have caught something they wish to observe for a while, it goes into our bug jar, which is a low-key mason jar with a piece of cheesecloth held on by the lid ring. Throw in some grass and leaves, and most bugs will be comfortable for the night.

Support your child’s creative side by encouraging them to sing a song to the bug, draw a picture, or just plain old describe it to you. You might be surprised at your child’s observational skills!

4 – Build An Obstacle Course

Home-made obstacle course which involves having to drive the dump truck up the side-walk, run through the tubes, climb over the chair with the pumpkin and under the folding chair…

Build an obstacle course once and your kid will make their own over and over again, changing it up every time! Use items from your garage or home that your kids have to climb over, go under, crawl through, make big hops over, shimmy between, drive to, run around,  wiggle into, and any other action word that you can think of! Turn it into an educational experience by discussing verbs, then let them get creative about how they move in their course. Kids love to help out with setting up courses and mine will do it of their own accord for the next few day whether I participate or not.

5 – Make a Secret Fort

Every child loves an intrigue and a fort is super fun, having a secret fort adds another dimension of delight. What makes a fort secret as opposed to regular? Well, that’s up to you. It might be in a hidden spot, it might be tiny, it might be outside in an unusual spot, or it just might be the name you give it. Secret forts spark the imagination of children in ways that produce the most marvelous pretend play. Encourage your child to read in their secret fort, play with special toys there, set up their FBI headquarters there, or make it their UFO control room. The possibilities are endless.

Secret forts don’t need to be made out of unusual materials either, a few blankets thrown over some chairs in your living room is sufficient, or you can get as elaborate as you want. Let the kids help design their fort and spark their architectural skills.

6 – Set up a Family Post

In our world of text messages and email, getting real snail mail is still awesome to me! I love a hand-written letter on some pretty stationary awaiting me in my mailbox. It’s enough to make my day…or week…or month. Kids find snail mail even more exciting since they don’t regularly receive anything thing by post, so setting up a family mailbox adds some excitement to their lives.

An intra-family mailbox can support reading a writing skills in children of all ages in an easy and fun way.  A family mailbox can also be a fun way to exchange items other than letters. It can be used as a fun way to do little things for each other and to show that others are being thought about in a positive way. In her book Little Women, Louisa May Alcott describes the friendly post between the girls and their neighbor, Laurie, as being a method of transfer for letters, pies, big floppy hats, lost gloves, and even kittens.

7 – Offer Varied Reading Materials

Some of our book collection

Maybe I over do it, but we probably have around 1000 children’s books sitting around here. That is my best guestimate anyhow. We’ve got board books still, very simple readers, Step 2 readers, easy chapter books, and some books for pre-teen level readers. Sandra will occasionally pick up an adult book and say she is going to read it. She’s currently got a bookmark in Out of Eden by Alan Burdick, which is about invasive species around the world. If she wants to, why should she be deterred? Actually, it is funny to me that she is interested in that particular book because I used to read it aloud to her when she was less and a year old as it was the only way to be able to get a solid 15-20 minutes of reading in and keep her content.

I’ve read that just having books around the house will help support the development of life-long learners, and that seems to make sense to me. Both of my kids love to read, Sandra left 2nd grade at a mid-3rd grade reading level and spent the summer reading a Magic Tree House chapter book a day. Having books everywhere encourages kids to read and also sends the message that reading is a valid and fun past-time. Books can also be paired with many other activities on this list, such as secret forts, obstacle courses (read a page before moving on), and exchanging in the family post.

8 – Throw Together A Salad

Frog salad

Turn off the game and go have a…healthy salad? Actually, for young children, making a salad is probably the best start for learning how to prepare food in the kitchen and should definitely be encouraged. Sandra always makes a contribution of salad for any family get-together – which she has been doing now since she was 5 or 6. Tearing lettuce, cutting cucumbers, and scooping avocados are all things little hands can do safely with plastic-ware. School-age kids with some dexterity can be supervised on how to use a steak knife to cut peppers and tomatoes safely. These skills teach independence and confidence, as well as healthy eating habits because studies show that kids who help prepare healthy foods are then likely to partake in them.

If your child is accustomed to playing on devices for most of the day, you will receive push-back during the first days, weeks, or even months of enforcing limits. This is a given, so expect it. But after some time, you will find that if you keep your boundaries, they will eventually ask less often and become accustomed to a routine set around device-time. You will also find that your children are miraculously able to do many things not previously thought possible: siblings will get along when they are made to work things out for themselves, amazingly creative games will be invented, talents will be discovered, and children’s abilities to work through mental and emotional problems will increase. Kids need free time to figure out how to resolve conflicts and occupy themselves.  Amazing things happen and amazing little personalities develop when we become dedicated to living life, not just watching it on a show or game.

Use the above recommendations to get started with shifting down to two hours of screen time or less a day for kids under 18.

Share your thoughts: What are other screen-free ideas you have or that have worked well for you and your family?

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