End of term is looming and the kids are excited about the summer break. The school is in a crescendo of sports day, end of term concert and fund-raiser fair. But I'm getting anxious.
Whilst I'm looking forward to our family holiday in August what do we do with our two kids for the other five weeks?
Our parents are remote (Sheffield and Melbourne), so there's no calling in the cavalry and work doesn't stop. My wife and I are committed in the weekdays and tend to run tag team during the weekend - one grabbing some free time whilst the other ferries the kids back and forth to activities.
We work from home so we are fortunate enough to be quite flexible - god knows how it works for someone who needs to be in an office 9-5 and for a single parent family it must be double the pain.
Our neighbourhood community centres do a great job setting up outings for kids to museums and parks and run courses like 'film making' over the summer. At minimum they provide a safe place to go. Our kids' school runs a paid sports camp for one week. That's good too, but perhaps the kids want a break from the staff at school? Even then, it requires huge energy to keep them entertained and to get them from one event to another.
Inevitably, the kids will want down time (that's the point of holidays) and you will want to be able to 'turn them off' for a while to get some peace. This often means 'turning on' the screens.
I work in tech and I'm acutely aware of managing kids' screen time. This is not because I think screens will melt their minds - it's because I know a screen can't be treated as a pacifier without thinking about how it is used. The thing I hate most about kids and screens is the nagging. The constant barrage of requests to get on a device from wake up to bed time. The nagging takes so much time, is so repetitive and makes 'screen time' feel like much more of a bogeyman than it really is.
We got so fed up we created some summer screen guidelines. It won't work for all kids - it depends, of course, on their age, gender and your approach as a care-giver - but for what it's worth, here they are:
1. Try to monitor total time - include TV, tablets, phones (and time at friend's house on the X-Box). We try to limit 'screen time' in the holidays to one hour a day (but the quiet when they are gaming is so nice it often extends to more like two). If we are watching TV together I usually exclude this time. I rationalise this on the basis that TV shows with linear stories are 'better' than the short snacking type content on the net but it's probably because TV is my generation's screen of choice and I'm enjoying the show.
2. We try to push back screen times to after 5pm - I think this is a hangover from my mum's rules about TV in the 1970's (BBC kids program start time back then). But this way it is an 'end of day' activity, something to look forward to and a moment of peace when you probably need a break. Having a time slot and sticking to it helps reduce the nagging - they know they will get access and they get used to waiting.
3. Know roughly what they are doing in their screen time. They are so happy to get some I find I can generally nudge them towards something I find more constructive. My kids find YouTube a huge draw. There is zero content curation here - it is really the video view of the internet. I take a look at what they are watching (or hear the sound track) and get a sense if it is mindless or inappropriate and sometimes I step in to 'flip the channel'.
4. Check what your friends do. We've had some great recommendations of kids' content from friends - if you can make a positive recommendation to your kid rather than just saying 'no' this goes down well.
5. Most tablets have parental controls these days. They are often unused because they are too complicated... but it is worth checking and seeing if there is a basic setting that helps with your regime. For example Apple has a 'guided access' setting launched by tapping the home button three times. It enables you to lock a kid on one app using a password. I find that simple and useful although kids often want to switch apps.
6. We have a game console. We aim to be close to a game's recommended age rating, but don't always succeed. There is huge peer pressure on kids (particularly boys) to play the latest 18+ shoot 'em up game and we try hard to resist this. But on the right game I prefer it when my kids play a console games together rather than slope off for a private tablet session because I like their excited interaction and I can see what they are up to on the TV in our living room.
7. Our kids are a few years apart and we tend to focus most on what our younger boy is doing on his device because instinctively he seems most vulnerable. But I'm not sure this is right. Our younger boys loves simple games and funny videos but the older boy frequently slips away and spends huge amount of times on social networks 'chatting with mates'. That content can be bizarre and cruel and we've made a mental note to check up on him more.
What's most important is not to feel guilty about your kids using screens. It's a huge and unavoidable part of their life and if you are taking an interest - that's brilliant. Remain flexible and try not to make this a battle ground between you and your kids. These thoughts are a list of 'good intentions' which in our family, probably like yours, collapses by mid-August!
Tom Grayson is co-founder of Ebookadabra, an app that gives children aged three to seven access to thousands of picture books. He has boys aged 11 and 14.