Children between 6 and 13 are developing complex personalities and doing things independently. They are open to new experiences, quick to pick up skills, eager to make friends. Some like to take risks and push the limits of what their growing bodies can do, while others develop more introspective and artistic skills. It’s a time of tremendous mental and physical expansion, which also makes it a terrible time to get snagged on screens.
Excessive time spent on social media, YouTube and video games represents time not spent doing all the other seemingly pointless yet marvelously productive activities that kids at this age should be doing. Too much screen time introduces self-consciousness and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction in a child’s life at a time when they should be unconcerned with what others think or do and focused on pursuing friendships, imaginary play and physical development, as well as coping with boredom.
Children at this age are busy. They like to be occupied with a range of activities, some initiated by the parent if the child is younger, others done with greater independence as the child grows. This requires time and effort from the parent. It is difficult, without a doubt, to squeeze in a bike ride or visit to the park before bedtime, but it’s a healthier and more fulfilling choice than letting a child retreat to a bedroom to play online for an hour or two while you send emails, fold laundry and maybe scroll through social media yourself.
Parents must also be willing to accept, at least partially, the free-range philosophy; if screen-based entertainment is being taken away, it has to be replaced by something, and that must be the freedom to play.
There are so many ways to spend a day offline that you’ll soon wonder how your child ever found time to sit on screens. Here’s a list of 30 ideas gathered both from my own experiences and from Emily Greene’s great list of “boredom busters” for kids. You could create a similar list with your kids’ input and direct them to it when they’re not sure what to do.
• Go for a long bike ride. Decide on a destination, take a snack and enjoy the scenery.
• Pack a picnic lunch and walk to a nearby park to enjoy it.
• Make your own book—fiction or non-fiction, a book of jokes, a colouring book, a graphic novel featuring a superhero of your creation.
• Host a tea party. Create invitations, do some baking and tell guests to dress up. Spend a fun afternoon in Victorian England.
• Draw a map of your town. See how accurately you can depict it from memory. Then go out on your bike to clear up any confusion.
• Take the One Hundreds Challenge. Green writes, “Do one hundred squats, one hundred push-ups and one-hundred sit-ups every day for 30 days.” Time yourself and track your progress to see how you improve.
• See how many times you can jump on a pogo stick without falling off, dribble your basketball without losing control or juggle balls without dropping them. Try to beat your record.
• Come up with a business idea, create a plan and put it into action. Lemonade stands are a rite of passage. See if a neighbour wants their dog walked, leaves raked or walkway shoveled. Host a bake sale with friends. Split the profits or donate them to a cause.
• Set up a treasure hunt for friends or siblings. Write clever clues and hide them around the house or yard.
• Put on a play with friends, siblings or relatives. Write it, rehearse roles, find costumes and invite adults to watch.
• Have a campout. This could be in the backyard, on a balcony or flat urban rooftop or even in the living room. Set up a tent, get out the sleeping bags and tell ghost stories.
• Become an expert at one recipe. Choose something you love to eat, like chocolate chip cookies, and perfect it. Your family won’t complain about the repeated batches.
• Find a special “sit spot” in nature where you spend time in silence and observe it at different times of day, throughout the seasons. Get to know it well.
• Make homemade boats out of a plastic soda bottle, tin cans, popsicle sticks, cloth and more. Attach a long string and take them to a nearby pond or river to float.
• Plan a Nerf war with friends. Tell everyone to bring their own Nerf guns and set up barriers and hideouts around the yard. Clean up thoroughly.
• Create a comic strip. You could use funny episodes from your family life, experienced by imaginary characters.
• Do your homework in a special outdoor spot. (I used to paddle my canoe across the lake to a sunny rock to do assigned reading.)
• Plant a garden. Claim an area of yard or a few soil-filled pots and plant seeds. Take care of them and watch them grow.
• Go visiting. Another seemingly old-fashioned idea, but elderly neighbours often love a visit from friendly children. Turn it into a weekly meeting if you both enjoy it.
• Take apart an old electronic item, such as a hair dryer or an alarm clock, and see if you can figure out how it works. Then put it back together again. Does it still work?
• Come up with an invention that would make your life easier or more fun. See if you can figure out a way to build it. (I know a man who made a clothesline with a motor that delivered his clothes so he didn’t have to get out of bed to get dressed.)
• Build a potato launcher. (Sorry, parents.) Yes, this is a real thing, and it’s hugely fun if you live out in the country. Handle with care.
• Feed the birds. If you stand still in the winter, birds might land on your outstretched hands to nab tasty sunflower seeds. It’s a fun way to observe these quick little creatures up close.
• Write a letter to your future self, sealed and dated for when you can open it. Someday it’ll be a delightful glimpse into your former self. (I wrote a letter when I was 12 to be opened on my 21st birthday. It was cute and embarrassing and totally worth it.)
• Practice a magic trick. There are lots of great books on magic for kids. You can never go wrong with a sneaky card trick to wow an audience.
• Make a photo album. Have a parent print off photos from the past year or a particular trip and arrange them into a scrapbook.
• Fold paper airplanes. Learn different designs and see which ones fly the furthest. While you’re at it, explore the wondrous world of origami.
• Go fishing. Take your rod and lures to a local fishing hole. Make sure you know the seasonal regulations and how to take fish off a hook before you go without an adult.
• Practice tricks on your bike, skateboard or scooter. Learn how to do a wheelie, endo or bunny hop, an ollie or kickflip, a no-footer or bar spin.