Life had been getting busier for some time. There were the usual school events and birthday parties, overseas guests and work commitments. Then there was the June/July onslaught of family birthdays that had me in a perpetual state of either buying a gift, or wrapping one. Weekends saw us crumpled on the living room sofa, exhausted, and most often with an iPad in hand. We were increasingly using screen time as a way to check out of our busy lives but what we were really doing was checking out from each other.
On wintery days when everyone was especially tired we would tell ourselves that a home day was what we needed to relax. But a home day inevitably turned into a day of monitoring screen time, and when we asked the children to turn the devices off they would head to the TV. We wanted our kids to relax but how relaxing was it really? The more games the children played, the more they argued and the more annoyed I became. Our daughter is easily over stimulated and gaming made her anxious and irritable. My son never wanted to turn his game off. My fairly strict screen time policy wasn't working. I felt constantly harassed by my children for more time in front of a screen and was thoroughly tired of hearing fights over who laid claim to the computer or the iPad first.
One morning recently I crept in to say good morning to my children, slowing opening the curtains and taking a moment to look at them warm and sleepy in their beds.
"Good morning darlings," I said as I walked towards their bunk bed to give them a kiss.
"Can we use the IPad?"
How had we got here? I'd always parented consciously hadn't I? I was aware of the importance of spending time together, just the four of us, I thought I had systems in place. I thought of our game-free Sunday rule but when I really looked at it I realised the kids had just transferred their game time to watching reruns of Dragons: Riders of Berk on the TV. I knew something had to change.
It feels like the older my kids get, the harder carving out simple family time together becomes. I decided to be intentional about it, blocking out time on our busy schedule to hang out together without any distractions. Without warning our kids woke up one sunny Saturday morning to find a note taped to the TV screen announcing that the weekend would be screen free. I won't lie to you, there were a few tears. But they were quickly forgotten and within minutes the kids had found a toy they'd not played with in months. It was dragged out and set up and they happily played with it all morning.
In the afternoon I wanted to get the family outdoors. Not only was it important to spend time as a family, I wanted to spend time in nature too. We live in a beautiful part of the world, on the edge of a National Park. There's no good reason why we shouldn't be out there enjoying it every chance we get. I suggested a bush walk to find the creek we'd heard was sitting in the valley near our house. No one wanted to go. It was getting colder, they were in the middle of a game, my husband felt tired, can we just do it another day? I kicked them out the door anyway, choosing to stay back and make dinner. I put on some music and tidied and cooked in silence. An hour and a half later the door swung open and the children raced down the hall. They burst in out of breath, their eyes bright and cheeks rosy from the cold. They couldn't find the creek! Ben bounced up and down on a burnt out log! Jemima led the way back home! Over and over again that night I heard the words "That was so much fun."
The simplest things, the things that don't cost a cent - they're the best bits. One moment my son was a rascal of a two year old bolting whenever he saw the opportunity. The next moment he's a sensitive and inquisitive seven year old, learning what kind of person he is quite separate from his mum and dad. This parenting thing, it goes so fast. Let's not waste it.
Why not block off a weekend in your calendar to be completely screen free? Make the commitment to spend some time in nature with your kids. I promise you'll end the weekend feeling energised and well, happy. Here are some of my favourite reconnecting activities:
Nature treasure trail
Find a bush walk that your troop can cope with and prepare well by making sure that everyone is wearing good footwear (trust me, nothing ends a bush walk quicker than a blister on a child's heel). Pack some food and plan your departure time so that you can have a stop for morning or afternoon tea. In private, write out a list of items for each child to find on the walk. Pack a bag for each of them to put their treasures in. Keep the list and the bags as a surprise for when you arrive. Here are some items from our treasure trail list:
Something you've never seen before
Something the size of your thumb
You don't even need to leave your backyard for this one. Find a little nook in your garden to create you own fairy or elf house. Use stones and pieces of wood for furniture, petals for blankets, leaves for carpet - let your imagination run wild. Join in with your children or make your own. As you're creating talk to your kids about who they think might live there, what do they look like, do they have any pets?
We have lots of feathered visitors to our backyard including a rowdy gang of cockatoos and a trio of kookaburra who laugh themselves silly at 6am every morning. I'm of the opinion that you can never have too many birds and these feeders are just the thing to entice them to come calling.
Collect some pine ones or if they're scarce, a bottle brush cone or a banksia pod will all work. Tie a long piece of string to one end of the cone. Lightly coat in peanut butter (the no salt and sugar kind) then roll in a tray of bird seed. We use parrot seed here in Australia but choose what's right for your habitat. Hang the cones from branches of trees or along your fence if you're treeless, and wait for the birds to arrive. Dusk and early morning is a good time for feathery callers.
For this project you need some walnuts in the shell, some Blu-tack, some toothpicks and some paper. Give each child a collection of walnuts and see if they work out how to crack them open without smashing the shells. Let them experiment. A small hammer or a rock is a good tool to get started. Once you have some half shells (save the nuts for later!) you can make your boats. Pop a small ball of Blu-tack into the inside of each boat. Then using scissors, cut a small triangle of paper and thread the toothpick through it to make a sail. Poke the end of the toothpick sail into your blue tack. Fill a sink or large bowl with water and let your walnut boats set sail.
Head out to your backyard or a local park and spend a few minutes gathering up fallen tree branches, sticks, feathers, leaves – anything goes! Make a stick sculpture in anyway you choose – make it big, small, something you can climb inside or something completely crazy.
The beach is undoubtedly one of most precious gifts nature has given us. We often save the beach for summer days but I love a wintery day at the beach. I love the wind in my face and a scarf drawn tightly around my neck, the wild sea, the roar in my ears and the grandness of it all. Kids love activities with a purpose so beach combing is perfect for them - and it's made even more fun with these small beach bags.
These beach bags are great because the netting allows the sand to fall through. I made mine from cheap netting from the dance fabric section of a big craft store. It was about $2 per metre. I measured out a rectangle, cut two pieces, then sewed them together making sure to go over the seam twice so that’s double-stitched. Then I added handles made from cotton tape. My kids take these every time we go to the beach.