THE BLOG

Are Screens the Enemy of a Natural Childhood?

08/10/2015 10:45 BST | Updated 07/10/2016 10:12 BST

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Last week, I read about the London Acorn School. On the surface, it described kidutopia. Nature walks, woodwork and no screens. Even the cutesy, nature-inspired name appealed to me. How I wished I could pay its extortionate fees and move to a trendy part of London, I thought for all of 1.3 seconds (approximate timing).

Then I learnt that not only are screens banned in the school, but they are also out of bounds at home. The children must live a life unpolluted by televisions, iPads, smart phones and gaming. This is because of reports such as this one, stating that investment in technology in schools does not improve educational performance.

Like most parents out there, I'm constantly striving to do the best job for my children. I want to look after their mental and physical health whilst helping them to achieve their dreams in our big, competitive world. I don't believe in following the crowd for the sake of it, but neither do I believe in placing my children on a pedestal of difference; 'well that's OK for everyone else, my darling, but you are SPECIAL.'

We've all seen that kid at the party, the one who is only fed rabbit food at home and then when presented with sugary treats and salty snacks goes mad, stuffing it into themselves with a manic look in their eyes. There is no off switch because they don't know when they will get this opportunity again and they are damn well going to make the most of it. Until they puke and their mum comes and picks them up saying, 'I knew those things were bad for you'.

Technology is the same. We can't hide from it, just as we can't trot down the M25 in a horse and cart anymore, so we have to find a way of managing it and making it part of a balanced life. It is part of our children's lives and brings many wonderful benefits - any five year old who has played on Google Earth knows the mind bending sense of awe of zooming out and out from their home to see the planet as a green and blue sphere.

We can enjoy the wonder and take steps to manage the negatives. Here are my top seven tips to having a healthy family relationship with screens and technology.

1. Have a screen free day a week

Aside from work or school, everyone in the family has a day a week with no screens. If that is genuinely impossible for the adults (due to work commitments), then at least don't use screens until the children are in bed.

2. Establish your family rules and stick to them

That may mean no screens before school or no phones at the table. And if you place a 30 minute limit on an activity, set a timer and stick to it. No slippage because you haven't finished your cuppa.

3. Balance screen time with outside time

Fresh air and nature are the perfect antidotes to screens. Being outdoors offers exercise, mental space and interaction with the real world that isn't governed by algorithms and powered by batteries.

4. Talk about safety from an early age

Discuss issues such as how nothing ever goes away on the internet, that just as there are bad people in life then there is bad stuff online, that they should never give details about themselves online, that if they see anything upsetting they should tell you, you won't be cross. If they are old enough to use Youtube and the web unsupervised, then they are old enough for this chat.

5. Save battery power

Make sure you turn off technology when not in use and at night.

6. Don't let them do anything you can't

Make sure you've played on Minecraft, posted on Instagram and learnt how to send a message on Snapchat. Keep up with the fast-paced changes or you'll lose control and credibility as your children grow older.

7. Take it to the next level

Many of us are happy with Word and Excel but mention coding and we get a little nervous. Invest in a kano computer kit or Raspberry pi for the Christmas presents of ages 6 and up instead of the latest games console. Then, learn to build a computer and how to code alongside them.

Once you've got your technology basics sorted, you can really start to benefit. The right apps and online info can help you explore, embrace and unlock the natural world, for free or just couple of pounds.

Try these brilliant nature apps:

Project Noah

Use your mobile phone to help children become citizen scientists. Just submit photos of plants and animals for resarchers, and earn badges. You'll also create a record of what you've seen on your own map. Free.

Wild Time

This app developed by Project Wild Thing will inspire you with brilliant, natural things to do on your doorstep. Choose how much time you have to spare and find a wild thing to do. Free.

Birdsong ID

Simply point the app towards birdsong and it will identify the type of bird. Available both on IoS and Android, the app is great for real world situations because it doesn't need internet connectivity. £2.99.

Geocaching

A treasure hunt always makes a walk more exciting. There are lots of apps available to help you, but this official one is good. Free.

Stargazing

An app will help you navigate the stars and work out the constellations. Try Skyview. Free.

Computers aren't going away, even if you bury your head in the sand like the London Acorn School. The earlier our children learn to manage and control computers, then the more they will thrive in our modern techy world and the healthier they will be.

Kate Blincoe is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Parenting (Green Books) and is a freelance writer and mother of two greenish children.