Giving kids new outlets, unplugged and even outdoors


Kim Painter

USA Today

July 30, 2007

When it comes to children and screen time, less is better. For babies and toddlers, none is ideal — at least according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and many experts on child development.  And yet, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found 61% of babies spend part of a typical day in front of a TV, computer or other screen. By ages 4 to 6, children on average spend nearly two hours a day plugged in; some spend much more.

In short, a lot of families don't practice what the experts preach. One possibility is that they can't hear the experts over the din of marketing for kids' TV shows, DVDs, video games and computer "learning systems."

But another, suggests author Bobbi Conner, is that many of today's parents literally don't know what to do with an unplugged kid. "Parents know they want to pull the plug," says Conner, a South Carolina mother of three grown children and host of The Parent's Journal, a weekly program on National Public Radio. "But they just aren't sure what to do instead."

So Conner is coming out from behind her microphone to promote Unplugged Play: No Batteries, No Plugs, Pure Fun. In the summer of The Dangerous Book for Boys— a nostalgic, humorous guide to stickball, go-carts, knot-tying and such — this is a more straight-forward play recipe book aimed at parents of younger children, ages 1 to 10.

But it has similar roots: a longing for "a happy, wholesome, playful kind of childhood," Conner says. "Even the most high-tech, plugged-in parents … sense a loss of something for their children."

And so she offers a refresher course on games such as Shadow Tag and Red Light, Green Light and an introduction to Macaroni Mix-up (a sorting game), Fly-Swatter Volleyball (mix two fly swatters, a balloon and two kids) and Bucket-Head (you'll need margarine tubs, headbands, Velcro tape and a few rolled-up socks). If you and your child don't know what to do with a cardboard box or a laundry basket, Conner does. In most cases, she advises parents to jump-start the action and then back away. But she also advocates a regular family game night.

The book also — charmingly or depressingly, depending on your point of view — offers tips on playing with dolls and blocks, skipping through mud puddles, rattling the kitchen pots and scribbling with crayons.

Has it really come to this? Are there homes where tots have the latest electronic gadgets — but no blocks? "I do have some fear that there are blocks missing from some homes," Conner says. But, she says, she also wanted to remind parents that the blocks, laundry baskets and cardboard boxes they do have stashed around the house are loaded with potential.

"By and large, what kids need, particularly kids under 7 and 8 years old, is hands-on play," she says. A child who is manipulating blocks and clay, building blanket forts and making up dialogue for a room full of dolls is having more fun and learning more about logic, math and social skills than a child watching even the most educational TV show, she says.

And the idea that kids need to learn computer skills to keep up with a wired world? That world can wait, she says, at least until kindergarten.