Give Up Yer Aul Screens is a summer series where Irish Times writers share their experiences of the challenge of reducing screentime. You can get involvedhere
The high-pitched squeals from the sitting room where I had momentarily left my sons alone could only mean trouble. There stood my preschooler (4), open-mouthed at what his baby brother (1) had achieved with random button-pressing. The wobbler proudly held the remote in his hand and stood fixated before the “live TV” images of a reality show.
With streaming services, menus and thousands of choices, merely turning on television is so much more complicated than in the 1980s, when there was on, off, one and two. And that’s the first reason why this preschool stage may well be the
optimal for minimising screen time, because (for now) Mammy has control.
There’s a crucial point in this effort in any day with my children. It often comes after breakfast while I’m scrubbing Weetabix off the floor and the oldest begins to make a trampoline with the couch and the toddler runs for the stairs. Sometimes it’s a tug-of-war over one Lego brick out of hundreds. It’s the moment where we get busy or I go batty.
Getting busy can mean screens, or make and do . . . but getting out of the house brings most harmony. And this is the second reason little kids are perfect for reducing screen-time: they greet anything new with immense gusto (if it has been through the finest of Mammy spin-doctoring).
“I know a new playground where we there’s a really tall climbing frame . . . who wants to go find it?” (Meeeeeeeeee, shouts the oldest, echoed by his little shadow.)
Leaving the house is about as quick and easy as Brexit, requiring that elusive element of cooperation, but harvesting little kids’ enthusiasm is magic. “We’ll have to get the train!”(Jump, Jump, Jump followed by 20 questions down to what colour the train seats will be.)
And when responsiveness wanes : “Maybe we can have a picnic” (more glee).
This almost gets me over the line, but an episode of the world’s most famous pig is often needed (Peppa’s relative rareness making her a valuable currency). I’ve perfected the art of getting jumpers on and packing in four minutes 50 seconds.
And voila, within a record-breaking 50 minutes we’re out the door.
And so it is that the pursuit of new playgrounds and outdoor spaces by train, bus, scooter, car and foot has become in my 30s what funky pop-up restaurants and European city breaks were in my 20s.
To those who don’t use them, playgrounds are all the same – swings, climbing frames, slides. But to my children each one is like a new-found city of which every crevice needs to be explored and tested and layers of imagination added.
Whether it’s trying to reach the top of the tower in the Giant’s Garden in Dublin’s Merrion Square, perfecting the bounce at the end of the zipwire in Cabinteely Park, watching the seagulls swirl above the swings in Bray, Co Wicklow, or pretending you’re a spider on the climbing frame at Airfield Estate.
And as for the picnic . . . the fresh-air hunger means the crackers and cream cheese shoved under the buggy are celebrated like gourmet crustless sandwiches from a wicker basket.
Prolonging our adventures often necessitates a “nature walk” (known as a walk to the rest of us). “Who wants to collect some pine cones?” I’m glad of my screen to tell an oak leaf from a horse chestnut and to answer questions so apparently obvious it’s hard to believe I don’t know like, “Why is seagull’s poo white?”
But getting out also forces me to give up my own aul screen, to cut the autopilot scrolling, to enjoy the excitement in the seemingly ordinary through my children’s vantage. It may all sound devilishly simple, but as any parent of smallies will tell you – nothing ever is.