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Unfortunately, the image above of a kid immersed in technology as a type of pacifier, is all too familiar in today's world. When your kid is
crying screaming bloody murder in the car, sighing and slamming his (at one point) cute little head on the tables in restaurants, or making a huge ruckus on the flight to go see grandma, it can be HUGELY tempting to simply hand your smartphone over to said kid to chill him out. But here's the downside - glazed over little zombie children who have no ability to calm down or be quiet unless you give them an iPhone or iPad. Additionally, there are major negative consequences of supporting screen addiction in kids. Further, smartphones don't belong at the table or in cars. When you let your kid have your phone at a meal or while driving, you're just allowing bad habits to form. You can keep your kid calm and entertained without the smartphone -- we know you can. To help you turn over a new leaf, here are over a dozen screen-free, creative ideas that kids will enjoy and you'll appreciate the peace and quiet these activities provide as well.
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Reusable Boards & Fun Games
Reusable drawing boards are a great on-the-go activity that’s not just screen-free but encourages many fun games and activities. My son’s favorite reusable board is a very basic little whiteboard I bought. We take it everywhere we go along with reusable pens and a reusable cloth. When my son was younger we used it for tic-tac-toe. Now we play older kid games like hangman and sometimes he’ll just use the board to draw on.
Good old Fashioned Books (Gasp)
I feel like parents have forgotten books exist. It’s just as simple to carry a book along when you go out as it is a smartphone. Except a book entertains without the screen and if you go the library or used bookstore route, books are very reusable and inexpensive. You can easily take a book into a restaurant, in the car or to a play date and there are tons of excellent books out there for all ages and all personalities.
Reusable stickers are an excellent screen-free fun time activity. If you look around, you can even find eco-options available, such as the Monster Sticker book shown above. The company who makes this, and many other creative sticker books, uses eco-friendly materials like FSC and recycled papers, vegetable-based inks, and corn-based plastics whenever they can, to create their fun activity books. With each sticker book your child can create fancy sticker scenes, make collector cards, and try their hand at other sticker activities. Other good reusable sticker activity book choices are the reusable habitat stickers from Melissa & Doug and the Barefoot Books’ collection.
The Humble Etch-a-Sketch
The downside of the basic Etch-a-Sketch is plastic. Yup, the whole darn thing is plastic, so the eco-parent in you, may be saying, why hand this toy over? However, consider that smartphones, with few exceptions are also made with virgin plastic. Only the Etch-a-Sketch, unlike your phone, does not encourage staring at a brightly lit screen — and it prompts your child to make up his own designs. Plus, this fun toy is very portable and really creative. You can help inspire your child with these Etch-a-Sketch innovations. If you’re really down on the plastic issue, and if you have enough time and resources, why not make your own, more eco-minded LED Etch-a-Sketch or a simple yarn-based version?
Tiny Travel Games
There are all sorts of tiny games your kids can carry along with them in the car or at restaurants. From eco-minded wooden tic-tac-toe games to magnetic poetry to handmade Velcro hangman to match stacks and so many more, the choices for on-the-go games are simply endless. You can even find travel sized versions of your favorite conventional games like travel Battleship and travel Yahtzee. If you take along a game with many pieces, such as a homemade memory game, just be sure to also take a small tin or small reusable bag along so the pieces stay together.
Deck of Cards
If you don’t want to carry travel games with lots of small, easy-to-lose pieces, than a simple deck of cards may be more your style. From a basic game of Go Fish played with recycled playing cards to more in-depth card games like Spot It, you’ve got lots of choices. If you’re looking to go green with your cards, check out Peaceable Kingdom as they make their playing cards with recycled content when they can and kid-safe ink. See some card game ideas for kids.
When my son Cedar was little he was obsessed with Pokemon trading cards. Luckily, trading cards can be a mostly inexpensive, fun and travel-friendly game for kids. On road trips when Cedar was younger, I always made sure to take along a bunch of booster packs and dole one out every few hours, which would keep him occupied with some new cards for a good long while. Sadly, there aren’t many eco-trading card games out there. You may want to check into Xeco Mission, which focuses on conservation, but this company’s cards availability is dwindling, so it’s better to choose a more popular card game. If you’re overwhelmed with all the trading card choices and if terms like “Magic” or “Yu-Gi-Oh!” are confusing, check out Amazon’s trading card page, which features Pokemon, The Lord of the Rings, Naruto, World of Warcraft and more. There you can hopefully find a trading card game your child will like and that won’t annoy you too much.
Younger children love to listen to music in the car and even sing along, but more surprisingly, older kids can also be kept entertained by music. We have a screen-free in the car rule, but I do let my son go through iTunes and pick out songs for a CD. He’ll make a new CD every few months and while we’re in the car we listen. Of course, as a parent I get sick of tween music so we eventually came up with a new rule called – you get a song, I get a song, which really just means we switch back and forth from music I like to music my son likes. Luckily, you’ll sometimes find that you and your kids agree on some music which will save you from kid-minded tunes all the time (thank you Reel Big Fish). Check out Barefoot Books for a nice collection of books + music CDs for younger kids.
Travel Art Fun
There are plenty of excellent travel-minded art sets out there that are perfect for screen-free time on-the-go. There are tiny options like the bamboo spirograph or more involved sets like the semi-eco-minded P’kolino Traveling Art Sets. One of our favorite, most eco-friendly sets is the BeginAgain Artist Travel Kit shown above. This fun set includes everything kids need for a fun, creative art projects, including 12 colored pencils, a ruler, stencils, and drawing pad with over 50 pages of space. The Artist Travel Kit comes in a convenient carrying case made of natural cotton, with two large sections that secure with Velcro, pockets for stencils, and individual holders for twelve pencils and two pencils and has built-in handles.
Little toys can be a perfect option for screen-free fun. My son really likes Thinking Putty, which is made in the USA and is inert, non-toxic, and safe. Thinking Putty also contains no latex, gluten, wheat compounds, or phthalates. It is safe for use by people with sensitivity to wheat or latex and will not promote the development of latex allergies. Thinking Putty comes in many cool colors too! Putty is not the only nice small toy around though. Plenty of cool toys travel well and will keep your kiddo entertained without the screen. For example:
- Little cars
- Wool felt geography set
- A fun doll that a younger child can chat with or pretend to care for
- Nature pals
- Finger puppets
- Small puzzles
- Art balls
- Lacing toys
- Tegu travel-sized blocks
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Actually Speak to Your Child
Conversation seems more and more like a lost art these days. It’s sad really, because your child likely has a lot to say. There’s no reason you can’t turn off the screens and have a good old conversation wherever you go. If your kid is the type to answer every question with, “OK” or “FINE” then a good conversation alternative is playing spoken games, of which there are many. My son and I play “the homonyms word game” for about 9 million hours – you say a word then everyone else in the car tries to think of all the different meanings; like “banned” means to ban, a rock band, a band of gold, and so on so long as the word sounds the same. We get into so many debates about what words mean that we’ve had to start carrying a dictionary in the car. Oddly he never gets sick of this game. To learn about more conversation minded games, check out Spoonful.
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Helpful Tips for Screen-free Travel
If you’re new to screen-free on-the-go time, it can be very difficult on both you and your kids. Here are some pointers for tech-free travel that won’t make everyone crazy.
- First of all, set a good example! If you’re texting as you drive or chatting on your phone in restaurants, well, guess who is watching you? Yup, the kids. If you ban screens on-the-go, then include yourself.
- Start young. I’ve never allowed screens in my car or at restaurants, so my son (though he does complain at times) is really used to this. I’ve met other kids who have no screen limits and if you ask them to turn their screen off at dinner they freak. Start a no screen on the go rule when your kids are young. Explain that cells are for emergencies on-the-go, not entertainment.
- Be sure to keep on-the-go activities in a specific car tote. Don’t take it inside your house – this activity tote should always stay in your car so it’s ready in the car and at restaurants.
- If on a long road trip or even just a half-day trip, be sure to get out of the car and stretch every hour, which will cut down on kid-whining a lot. Take a ball to bounce around, a jump rope or a small kite, so when you get out of the car your child has something active to do.
- When on semi-long or very long trips, something as simple as wrapping up little on-the-go gifts and doling them out every few hours can be a great way to keep your kid calm, because they’re really gonna want that next gift. Wrap up trading cards, little toy cars and books – it just adds an extra layer of fun to surprises.
- See more tips about traveling green with your kids.