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Getting Kids Off the Screen: Forming the Roots to Positive Habits

Part of parenting and teaching revolves around setting good habits with their children and in this article, I will share with you a simple activity that your children can do to manage and balance the type of activities they do to help limit screen time and form healthy habits.

But first, I want to tell you my story of how this all evolved. See if you can relate...

With the nicer weather, I've been spending time in my yard weeding. Some of the clovers were so deep that they were difficult to uproot, but I made sure to pull down to the root knowing that if I didn't, they'll grow right back even stronger.

While pulling the weeds, the English teacher in me saw how roots can serve as an analogy to forming habits. When we form habits, we root ourselves to create a system of actions that is intricate, resilient, and hard to destroy. This is great when we form good habits, but becomes a double-edged sword when these habits are bad ones. While I was deciding whether I felt amazed or repulsed by what I pulled out (see photo below), one of my kids arrives home from school.

uprooted woods from a garden

"Hey, mom", she greets me.

"Hi. How was your day? Wanna help me pull weeds?" I asked (and fully knowing her response).

"Okay, I'm gonna go inside first and unpack my bag," was the reply I got which means, "I'm gonna go inside and stay inside and not come out to pull weeds."

I know that it's not because she doesn't want to come outside and enjoy the sunshine. I know that it's because when she gets home from school, the first thing she and my other kids have gotten used to is to go to their screens. One goes to their phone and another goes to their ipad. And the little guy goes straight to the TV.

While it is good to take a mental break from school and that it is okay to have some screen time, the repetitive nature of screen after school was starting to become habit and I had to pull the "weed" out before it became one big deep-rooted problem.

a boy on screen time using the phone

Taking off my gardening gloves and putting my teacher hat on, I decided to create something that would help my kids form better after school habits. I wanted them to create a kids daily schedule without the need to follow it to the T. I came up with an activity tracker and the kids tried this for a week to see if there would be any change in their habits. And I am proud to say that it worked!

So, I want to share it with other parents who also experience this screen overwhelm and can relate to wanting their kids to focus on things OTHER than screen. For parents where screen time isn't an issue, this activity tracker also works well to teach students the value of planning and time management which sets up the path to effective learning and studying.

Manage screen time, not eliminate it

With online learning, online communication, and the shift towards a more technologically savvy society, we can not simply ban our kids from the screen. What we can do is ensure that our kids understand the importance of having a balance and that screen time is just ONE part of our lives. One way to start achieving a balance to not let screen time overwhelm them and to set good habits is to have your children be accountable for their actions. To do this, we have them take responsibility and be active in decision making.

Structure a simple strategy

Follow these simple steps and give this activity a try.

Step 1: Download and print out the Activity Tracker sheets.

Step 2: Using the "What I Can Do" sheet, your child list activities and tasks that they can do within the 5 categories.

Examples include:

  • for their brain: doing homework, reading, practicing piano, playing chess, doing a puzzle

  • for their body: shooting hoops, playing tag, going for a run, riding their bike

  • for their home: cleaning their room, putting toys away, vacuuming, doing the laundry, watering the garden, sorting recycling, taking out the trash, weeding!

  • for/with their family: setting up the table for dinner, prepping and cooking a meal, folding laundry, reading to their younger sibling, going for a walk,

  • for fun: playing video games, playing a board game, watching YouTube videos, playing with toys

List of activities for kids to do at home

Work with your younger kids to draw out or write a list. With your tweens and teens, have them do it on their own and then discuss what they come up with. This builds on their decision making skills and sense of ownership and independence.

You may find that many of the activities will overlap. For example, cleaning their room can fit into"my family" and "my home", and reading can be for "their brain" and “for fun" when you have an avid reader. Your tweens and teens can argue that doing something "for the family" is playing a video game with their younger brother, or that playing a family video game is different from watching Youtube or TikTok videos on their own.

The list is not exhaustive, and I intentionally did not want it to be too rigid to help create opportunities to start some great conversations with the family and to have the kids learn about negotiating and decision making skills.

Step 3: Using the Goal Setting Card (younger kids) or the Weekly Tracker Wheel (tweens and teens), your child will keep track of their activities for the next 7 days.

They will choose and do one activity from each category from the "What I Can Do" worksheet. Once they complete each activity, they mark off the categories. Kids using the Goal Setting Card can simply put a checkmark or colour in the circles that correspond to each day. Older kids using the Weekly Tracker Wheel can either colour in each part of the wedge or write down what activity they did. Note that the 7 parts to each wedge represent the 7 days. At the end of the 7 days, they can see their accomplishments and reflect on how they did.

weekly goal tracker template

The great part about this activity is that they don't need to constantly ask you what to do. They look at their list and choose the activities on their own. The flexible structure gives you the option to decide whether to set a designated amount of time for the categories or to tag a reward at the end. For example, you can allocate 20 minutes on each category and if all the circles or rings are filled out by the end of day 7, they can go out for ice cream.

This activity is designed to set the tone for organizing and managing their time in a way that isn't too rigid and specific-task based. They are free to repeat the activities on their list or add new tasks to their list. This gives children a sense of responsibility and accountability to have the option to choose what they want to do and in the order they want to do it. At the same time, there are guidelines to follow and the goal is to aim for completing a ring or checking off all 5 circles before the end of each evening.

Aim for progression, not perfection

I used this with my kids (aged 6, 10, and 13) for the pure intention of avoiding the habitual screen time they divert to every day after school. So on the weekdays, this came into effect right after school until bedtime, and on the weekends, it was the full day. At first, they still went straight to their screens for their first category, but the screen time was shortened because they had to fulfill the tasks from the other categories. The “a-ha” moment was the fact that they didn't complain about the shortened time. On day 3, two of my kids opted to do something "for their body" first, and on day 4, they all went up to tidy their rooms! Not all the rings were filled, but that is perfectly fine. They still all managed to put in "for fun" time by using some form of screen time, but I am happy to say that by the end of the 7 days, they also managed to contribute to home duties and helpful tasks. I didn't tack on any rewards, but we went out for bubble tea to celebrate their progress. They say that habits take at least 21 days to form. I can't wait to print out sheets for the next 7 days to see how it goes.

completed habit trackers

Empower your child, not nag

The activity takes little time to set up while offering many lessons (besides trying to reduce screen time). This activity gives kids the opportunity to make their own decisions (but still within parameters). Rather than being told or be taught, children and especially tweens and teens often respond better when they are driving their own learning and actions. When we involve them rather than tell them what to do, we give them a sense of empowerment that makes them want to achieve and be more motivated to follow through.

Encourage positive habits and independence with routine

This simple act of following through with a routine teaches your kids to:

  • balance out their day

  • develop healthy habits

  • organize their time

  • commit to a goal

  • gain independence

Doing this also helps the brain to re-wire and create neural pathways that are necessary for these good habits to be built and sustained. This activity brings out the positive habits and form the good roots. With patience and repetition, your kids will begin to develop routines of their own. When it comes to setting the foundations to successful learning, the ability to set routines to set goals and organize are the keys to success. Being able to choose, balance and manage their actions and habits help strengthen skills that are imperative to academic success.

Start the mindset shift

Click here for the Activity Tracker templates and try this activity for a week. Modify and have fun with it. The goal is to keep at it for 7 days. Reflect, review, and revise. Then rinse and repeat for the next week and the next.

With time, your kids will start to involuntarily perform these actions because their subconscious mind will automatically trigger them to do it. With time, the templates may not be necessary (though they are fun to do) as the habits will hold strong and be routine, and unlike the weeds in my garden, these roots are the ones we don't want to uproot.


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