As parents, we’re never short of things to feel guilty about, and for many of us, our children’s screen time tops the list. We know they should be spending more time reading, playing and enjoying the great outdoors, but prising them away from Minecraft and YouTube is easier said than done.
With new research showing that 75 per cent of children have a tablet of their own by the time they’re 10, the issue of screen time isn’t going to go away. ‘It’s important that children have a balance, but screen time in itself isn’t all bad,’ says Lorraine Allman, author of The Can-Do Child: Enriching the Everyday the Easy Way. ‘The question is how we can encourage our kids to use screens in a way that’s interesting and meaningful.’
We’ve rounded up nine of the best screen time activities that don’t simply involve your child staring blankly at their tablet, but pack an educational punch.
1. Be a mini film critic
If your child seems to do nothing but binge-watch TV programmes and films on their tablet, get them to put their critical thinking skills into action by reviewing what they’ve been watching.
‘Try to watch programmes or films together when you can; a family movie night always works well,’ says Lorraine. ‘Afterwards, talk about it with your child. Which character did you like best? Were you surprised by the ending? It’s not about asking 20 questions, but encouraging them to develop their critical thinking skills.’
As well as reviewing films or TV programmes orally, you could encourage your child to write written reports, like a movie critic. You could even set up a blog where they could publish their reviews.
Try this: Children can earn a purple Blue Peter badge by reviewing an episode of the show.
2. Go on a digital treasure hunt
Geocaching is the perfect way to drag your child out of their lair and into great outdoors, without removing them from their devices. It involves using your smartphone to track down geocaches: small, waterproof boxes containing some hidden treasures and a logbook, hidden in outside locations. Once you’ve found a geocache, you note your details in the logbook and can take a piece of ‘treasure’ (usually something like a cheap party bag toy), leaving one of your own in its place.
‘As well as counteracting the sedentary nature of screen time, geocaching involves working as a team and communicating with each other,’ Lorraine explains. ‘It gives your child some exercise and fresh air, is something the whole family can get involved with, and the reward at the end is a great motivator.’
Try this: Visit www.geocaching.com/play to get the free geocaching app.
3. Create your own animation
Technology offers some fantastic opportunities to be creative, and making animations using figures such as LEGO people will help your child develop skills that transfer well to the classroom, such as planning storylines and thinking about dialogue.
It’s easy to make stop-motion animations by taking a series of digital photos of their figures in slightly different positions and then playing them all back together so it looks like they’re moving. ‘Kids can use storylines from their own lives or use their imagination; either way, they’re developing creative skills that are really important to nurture,’ Lorraine explains.
Try this: Animation Lab for Kids by Laura Bellmont and Emily Blink introduces a range of animation techniques, including cartooning, clay modelling and stop-motion.
4. Become an expert typist
Being able to type fluently is increasingly important for kids. Learning to touch-type will mean they’re able to work quickly and accurately, and without risking repetitive strain injury, at primary-school level and beyond.
There are lots of great games and apps that teach children to touch-type without it feeling like a chore, and it’s a skill that, once developed, will last for life.
Try this: Dance Mat Typing from the BBC is a free games-based touch-typing program for children aged seven to 11.
5. Develop your astronomy skills
Kids of all ages are captivated by the idea of space; it’s a popular primary-school topic, not to mention the subject of many children’s books. And by downloading a stargazing app, you can use your child’s tablet to help them explore our galaxy from the back garden.
‘With these apps, you can hold your iPad up to the sky and find out what constellations you’re looking at,’ Lorraine explains. It’s the modern-day equivalent of a telescope, and will give your child an exciting introduction to astronomy.
Try this: The Star Walk app lets you explore the night sky, with information about over 200,000 stars and other celestial bodies.
6. Make your own family movie
We all know how much kids love a selfie, so why not encourage them to use a smartphone, tablet or action camera to make their own movie, with themselves as the star?
‘Devices like GoPros are brilliant for recording on the go; you can strap them to the front of your bike when you’re going out for a family bike ride, for example, then come back and watch the footage together, and share it with friends and family,’ Lorraine says. ‘It helps your child use screen technology in a way that’s more interactive.’
Try this: VTech’s KidiZoom Action Cam is an affordable piece of equipment that’ll let your child record their own exploits on the go.
7. Learn to write computer games
If your child is mad about Minecraft or hooked on Roblox, what could be cooler than writing their very own computer game?
Try this: ScratchJr is a free app aimed at giving children as young as five a taste of coding.
8. Find an email penpal
Corresponding with other kids in this country or overseas is a great way for your child to develop their written communication skills and find out about other people’s lives, and email and instant messaging means they can keep in touch far more easily than by relying on snail mail.
‘Children can send photos and videos as well as writing messages, but be very clear about who they can and can’t communicate with, and stick to the age restrictions on social media like Facebook,’ Lorraine warns.
Try this: There are organisations that your child can use to find an email penpal, such as Post Pals (a charity that coordinates letter-writing to sick kids), or you can simply put them in contact with one of your own friends’ children.
9. Bring your computer creations to life
Computing doesn’t have to be the antithesis of creativity; there’s an enormous range of art-based games and apps that allow children to tap into their creative side.
‘New technology means children can draw things on screen and then see them brought to life,’ says Lorraine. They can also use sites like YouTube to find brilliant creative projects such as origami projects and step-by-step cartoon tutorials.