If you’re expecting me to propose this list of sanity-saving activities as a remedy to the excessive and toxic screen time you are irresponsibly allowing your children to consume … you don’t know me very well.
Normally, the two months of summer break are the longest stretch of time when I have all four of my kids home with me 24/7. But, as is the case for most of you, my kids have been out of in-person school since March. So we are all more than halfway through the longest summer break of our parenting lives (depending on what the back-to-school plans look like in your neck of the woods).
Rest assured; my kids get lots of screens. When we had a regular, in-person school schedule, I did have a semi-regulated allotment of screen time for each of my kids. My oldest, in Grade 2, was allowed an hour of screen time on school days. This worked great because he was at school for most of the day, and being pooped out from school, his bedtime was pretty early. (For transparency’s sake, let’s say his weekday average was probably one and a half to two hours of screens.) My daughter, on days she had preschool, was supposed to get two hours a day, but let’s not pretend that that didn’t extend to three or four on days when we didn’t have activities out of the house. Pre-COVID (is this going to become a common marker of time? Like BCE, except … BCV19?), the twins were uninterested in television, so it would be on for the benefit of their older siblings, and they’d be doing their own thing.
Nowadays, it’s a couple of hours of screens* in the morning for everyone, then ideally we leave the house (for a walk to the playground now that they’re opened, to the backyard, or maybe we have to drive one of our foster cats to the vet), then it’s lunch and the twins go down for a nap, then I try to do something with the big kids that we can’t normally do with the twins around (play a board game, colour, have a tea party), then it’s screen time again so I can have some time to myself while the twins nap, then the big kids get a screen break, but likely the twins get to watch some TV … then it’s dinner, then there’s … you guessed it: more screens! (Lately we’ve been managing to keep the time between dinner and bedtime screen-free, except movie night, of course.)
*screens include television (Netflix, DVDs, YouTube channels), iPad, Wii and Nintendo Switch and PC gaming.
Let me be honest. If I didn’t impose “screen breaks” for my kids, they’d watch and play all day long. (With barely a break for the bathroom and food, I’m sure.) It’s so much different than when I was a kid, when by about 11 a.m., there was nothing left on TV worth watching, and I’d already beat Super Mario World a few times over. There is literally an infinite choice of things to watch and games to play at my children’s fingertips. (And yet the twins still choose Little Baby Bum, my son chooses to watch other people point out the glitches in various video games and my daughter insists on watching DVDs from the library ofshows we can get on Netflix.)
I often announce a screen break without offering to immediately engage them in an alternate activity. There is often whining and cries of desperate boredom. But eventually my son will go off to read, play LEGO or Bey Blades, and my daughter and the twins will eventually start to play with something in the playroom. When I want to get them going, and especially when I want to get them doing something outside, I’ve come up with a few sure-fire, inexpensive and easy activities they all enjoy and that don’t drive me nuts. (I don’t have the patience to bust out the paints or the baking ingredients on the best of days.)
1. Giant Bubbles
Regular bubbles are fun, and we’ve definitely had our fair share of regular bubble fun over the years. But GIANT BUBBLES are even huger fun! My mom bought my kids the Wowmazing bubble kit, which comes with a giant bubble wand (basically two rods with two pieces of thick string between them) as well as two packages of giant bubble concentrate. Naturally, we burned through the two included packages of solution super fast (especially when one of the twins dumped out three-quarters of the second batch).
Recently I made a double batch of the solution and have stored it in a repurposed jug with a lid. Having learned the hard way (twice) that the twins will just indiscriminately dump out the bubble solution, I now mete it out carefully into a small basin (from the hospital when they were in the NICU!).
You don’t need very much solution in the basin to get quite a few bubbles. Twin B has mastered giant bubble making and understands exactly how to do it. Twin A will sometimes stick the handles into the solution rather than the string, but he’s always pleasantly surprised when he does get it right.
Ever since we moved in together in 2007, my husband and I have dreamed of having our own garden in our own backyard. This is the year that dream came true, and now we have four kids to help maintain and destroy said garden!
We planted seeds in the spring, which was sort of fun but sort of anticlimactic for my older two, since all you do is put little tiny things in dirt. But it wasn’t long before things got fun as they would check every day to see if anything had started sprouting.
One of my favourite seedling-starting hacks is using paper egg cartons, which we discovered we could just rip out and plant directly into the garden, as the roots had already passed through the paper. This made it easy for my older two to plant the seedlings themselves.
As for the twins, their two great joys when it comes to gardening are moving dirt from one place to another and watering. We have a few spots in the garden where, even though things are now growing, they can dig to their hearts’ content. Now that we have a rain barrel set up, they can also use the hose (attached to the barrel in a downhill direction, the water freely flows!) without wasting fresh water.
Weeding, watering and harvesting are all kid-friendly jobs in our garden, and hey, they’re educational too!
3. Bug Catching
Our bug catching adventures actually began BCV19 when I spied a lonely ladybug in my bedroom in February. This ladybug became our pet, aptly named Bugsy. She (or he …) lived in a mason jar for many months, and I often forgot about her and feared the worst. I fed her tiny chunks of banana as well as little drops of honey and provided a moist piece of paper towel for some humidity. Bugsy made it all the way to a warm spring day when we released her into the garden.
The twins get extremely excited when they see ANY kind of crawling or flying creature. Walks are often very slow-going because they will crouch down on the sidewalk and start screaming because they’ve seen an ant. No creature is too insignificant to escape their shrieks of glee. Wriggly earthworms, wispy spiders, shiny beetles … you name it.
I picked up some butterfly nets at the thrift store, and while they have yet to catch anything other than each other, the twins love to strut around with them. My big kids need to work on their reflexes, as do I, since I most recently caught and then lost a dragonfly.
Observing bugs is also fun with a magnifying glass, but my oldest really likes to start fires using the rays of the sun with them, so I haven’t brought them out lately.
No, I do not mean camping. I mean buying a cheap tent (ours was $10 second-hand) and pitching it wherever your heart desires so the kids can play in it.
When we set it up in the backyard, it’s a refuge where my oldest can read. Sometimes they’ll all pile in to have snacks. When I set it up indoors, it becomes a sort of playhouse for acting out end-of-days type scenarios (they had to rescue every single stuffie in the house and get them all into the tent until their timer ran out and the world exploded … and everyone died except those safely in the tent) or hosting more traditional tea parties.
I have also discovered that by shoving tons of toys into the tent and zipping it up, I get a semblance of tidiness in the playroom!
5. Reusable Water Balloons
At almost 8 years old, my son experienced his first water balloon fight only a few months ago. He loved it. The thrill of soaking another person, the explosion of water, the shock of getting hit in the head from behind! But the agonizing wait for the grown ups to fill up more balloons and the painstaking clean up afterward to make sure no bits of balloon are left as litter on the grass!
With a mom like me, I think Cub knew that “real” water balloons weren’t going to happen at our house. I’d seen people crocheting reusable water balloons for a while, but wasn’t convinced they’d be fun. I also do not crochet. But I do knit! I found a pattern for KNIT reusable water balloons and bought some blanket yarn from Michaels. It takes me about ten minutes to knit one up, so our first foray into reusable water balloon fighting was held with only two balloons.
It was unexpectedly fun.
Firstly, the yarn balloons hold a lot of water. Secondly, no waiting at the hose to fill and tie off balloons. Thirdly, once you’ve been hit by one, you then have ammo to send it flying back. I was concerned they might hurt, but no, it does not hurt to be hit by one of these yarn balloons. My son and I have been fighting with our now doubled arsenal of balloons anytime it’s hot out, and laughter ensues! He also recently had his first friend over since BCV19, and they had fun playing with them together!
I love my kids. I do not love 24/7 with my kids. I think they actually don’t mind 24/7 with me, which is not always going to be the case so I am trying to appreciate it as much as I can. These five activities get us outside to play, and I hope they inspire your family to do the same.
What other activities are keeping you sane?