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  • Tom Gilchrist

Screen Time to Playtime in 3 Steps


You won't be surprised to hear that my 3 year old daughter gets "stuck" in front of the TV sometimes when Netflix streams her current favorites, ad infinitum, with the weekend sunshine burning away outside. It's hard for us to make the jump from our couch into active play, especially when we both need a break from a long work/school week. Watching movies and TV may be the hobby of choice for an old dad like me, but it's not so great for a developing young body.

But...do I really want to fire the first shots in a series of tantrums just to get out the front door and get some exercise? It's so peaceful in here with the TV on...

If this sounds familiar, it may be time to test your Psy-Ops chops, dad.

Abby was caught in a video stream of Llama Llama one recent Sunday, with little chance of escape. Even the cartoon family on the screen was stuck indoors while a thunderstorm raged outside. If hanging around the house was good enough for the Llama Family, what chance did we have?

Then the Llama Family did something unexpected. They started flying kites inside their house! I noticed my little girl's interest ticking up a notch at this, so I decided to make a play for the last of her weekend energy reserves. With the February sun getting low outside, I remarked how the Llamas reminded me of Things One & Two from Dr. Seuss, who'd also flown their kites indoors one fateful, rainy day...would the Llama family wreck their home in the same way? Now my daughter was sitting straight up, concerned about this possibility. But it never happened. The storm passed by, and the Llamas finally took their kites outside and flew them in the last of their afternoon light. Victory from defeat, accompanied by a "never too late"themed lesson for yours truly.

I really needed to run this kid before the weekend ran out. I mentioned ( very innocently) how the Llama's kites were such pretty colors. What color kite would Abby fly, if she could? "Pink," she blurted out. Thirty minutes later, we were in the local toy store picking out a kite, a big pink and purple butterfly. A few short miles later and we were starting our very first Daddy-Daughter kite flying adventure at our local park. It was completely unplanned prior to the Llama Family's influence on our weekend. And the best part? To my daughter, it was all her idea. It sprang from her head while watching her show, with just a little coincidental side commentary from me.

What I learned (seemingly for the umpteenth time) was the importance of active engagement with my child. That doesn't mean making her face me and interact or respond directly. It can be as subtle as just watching her favorite show with her, enjoying it for its own merits, and letting myself be entertained by it alongside her. As grownups, we're not going to get the dramatic nourishment we need from Lama Llama. We just have to let that go sometimes. We can stay up late and watch our own stuff after our little one's bedtime. But by getting down into Llama-land with my daughter, I turned a weekend television-sloth-party into a much-needed aerobic adventure (for both of us ) with three simple steps:

1. Engage. Watch her program with her, like you're three years old, slumped on the floor, eating cheese and crackers off the same plate, laughing, snorting, and commenting as the onscreen characters do their thing. React. (But appropriately. Don't be a nudge.) This has the added benefit of modeling active viewing for her, and reminds her that screen time isn't necessarily veg-out time. (That's doubly important for you movie-buffs or writers out there with hopes of raising a film-savvy kid.) If she's responding in kind, agreeing or disagreeing with your casual observations ("Those are pretty kites") then she's actively watching. Once she's become glassy-eyed and able to ignore you, she's vegged-out and in TV hypno-land. That's when we've let screen time go too long. Strike while she's interested.

2. Look for healthy messaging within the show and use it. Today's kid's shows are full of messages about getting outside into nature. Dr. Scott says as much at the end of every episode of Dinosaur Train. I used the kite-flying scene in Llama Llama as a bridge to the idea that flying a kite was completely within my daughter's capabilities, and an adventure she could orchestrate step by step without fear of failure. ("What color kite would you fly?" "Where could we get one?" "Flying it in the house wouldn't work so well. Where else could we go?")

3. The good old "call to action"connected to something she already loves. In this case, it was the toy store. That's what got her into the car without her firing a shot. Yes, I had to corral her toward the kites section and remind her why we were there a couple of times, but once we're out of the house, these smaller maneuvers are more manageable. And she's out in the fresh air, even if it's down on Main Street and not quite breaking a sweat just yet.

Now picture being in the car on your way to the park with your kid, only an hour of sunlight left in the weekend, with her holding a pink and purple butterfly kite on her lap, excited about how high it will go. Parenting Pro-Level.

At the park, the sky was already red-gold, the shadows getting longer, and the air completely still. So still, in fact, I started to worry that I might put her off kite-flying forever. And our grand failure did happen, at first, to me, as I ran around to show her how to get it aloft. Then came the moment of truth.

I straightened out the string for her, coiled it taut to sufficient length, and presented it to her. She beamed up at me. We were equals in nervous anticipation. This was already worth it.

Next, she ran like no Gilchrist has run in thirty years.

First, the butterfly dragged along the ground. Then, suddenly, it popped up ten, then twenty feet into the air, as she looked back astounded. It glided around her in a wide arc, with her little legs pumping across the field like I'd never seen them do. Suddenly, I realized she might run smack into a tree, and I took off after her. You can get too engaged, act too much like a peer sometimes when you're filled with the glee of being someone's daddy.

But all went well. She seemed to have a natural sense of her limits and her heading, and repeated her kite run at least a dozen times. I've never been prouder or happier in my life, just watching and filming her on her new adventure.

An adventure which she thought up, and made happen.

Plus, she slept like a rock that night.

Good work, dad.

(Video Attached)

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