Keeping Kids’ Brains Keen: Encouraging Engagement in an Electronic World
He mumbles it without glancing up, eyes glued firmly to the screen. I have a sneaky suspicion bordering on certainty that he has not listened to a damn word I’ve uttered.
“I’m throwing your Legos away.”
“Hmm.” The flicker of the electronic glow reflects back to me from vacant eyes.
“Every last one,” I singsong, leaning in over the counter to be sure he’s heard me correctly.
“Yep, okay. Got it, Mom.”
Sound familiar? Of course it does.
Probably one thing almost every parent in the world struggles with is the alluring distraction of electronics, those tantalizing beacons that draw our children into the world of technology like a veritable Pied Piper. A little engagement with gadgets of the electronic variety isn’t a terrible thing, but most experts agree our children suffer negative effects when they spend more than an hour or two disengaged from their environment. When kids spend the majority of their time as passive consumers of entertainment, they aren’t connected to activities that will keep their brains active and stimulate them. As parents, though, we struggle with the need to limit screen time. Sometimes, Mommy just needs one more minute of blessed silence. Or Dad needs to take one more sip of coffee before he jumps in to referee the next blood-pressure-raising squabble.
Is balance possible? Can I lure my kids away from the glow of their electronic companions?
Absolutely. It takes just a little ingenuity and guidance, but tucking in opportunities for learning into every corner of your lives together is not only doable but fun. I promise. Try a few of the following strategies to keep your kids’ brains working at peak performance and your kids growing into something besides ravenous media zombies.
- Read, Read, and Read Some More
The joy of reading is, without a doubt, one of the most important gifts you can give your child. If you don’t have a voracious little reader yet, don’t panic. There are many ways to encourage literacy. Establish a daily story time and stock those bookshelves with fun titles that appeal to your child’s interests. You might be intimidated by all the bookstore ads and recommendations that assure you that you’re investing in the next “classic,” only to watch it languish unloved on the shelf. Don’t worry too much about the material. Your kids can engage their minds reading anything: magazines, cookbooks, restaurant menus, signs when you’re outdoors, or even movie schedules. Buy second-hand books cheap at local garage sales or online. Let them choose what they want to read and find out what interests them. Kids will go on reading tangents sometimes, blasting through every corny mystery they can get their hands on or insisting you read the same book over and over. It’ll be excruciating. You will hate that damn book with a passion. But don’t give up! Although some of these titles are never going to top the award winners’ lists, if your child is reading and engaged with the story, you’re doing something right.
Want to unlock the next level of parenting accomplishment? Ask questions about what your children are reading and encourage them to make connections and explore parallels. Achievement Unlocked. Parenting Level: Expert.
2. On The Road
It is said that parenting is 25% chef, 75% chauffeur. Truth: You spend a lot of time in the car. We all do. Take advantage of your captive audience and try some of these mind exercises and games while you’re on the go. They’ll help pass the time, keep the kids in the backseat from trying to whack each other over the head with toys, and provide you with a feeling of superior parental satisfaction. “See,” you’ll say to yourself, “We do stuff. Important stuff.”
- Story Time
Strap yourself in and double-check those restraints. You’ll need to get creative here and tell a story. I know! You’ve been adulting so long that this is hard. Unleash your inner goofball and just go with it. You can start by saying something like “I love going to the amusement park because of the Big Dipper.” Then it’s time for the kids to get in on the action. They have to repeat what was already said and add to it. For example, “Mom loves going to the amusement park because of the Big Dipper, but I enjoy go-karting because I like the speed of the cars.”
Everyone in the car gets to build on the story, repeating everything in order and then adding to it. In this way, kids not only engage their memories but also learn about association, logic, cause and effect, and the first steps of writing and building a story.
- License Plate Fun
Have everyone look for license plates and write them down. Take out the letters and just keep the numbers. Then have everyone add up the numbers and see who has the largest number.
You can take it even further. Now ask them by how much the number is larger, what would it round up to, what would it round down to, what’s the biggest number in the license plate, what’s in the tens place, what’s in the hundreds place. You can get creative and ask them all sorts of questions relating to the numbers. Maybe even include a bit of multiplication and division or subtraction, too. Your little mathematicians will astound you with the speed at which they pick up these concepts. And they’ll continue to use and apply them, adding up prices at the grocery store or successfully negotiating a higher allowance. You’ve been warned.
- Math, Glorious Math
Numbers. They’re everywhere! And a strong understanding of math can stimulate a lifelong interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects that will ensure a successful future for your very own brainiac. Try these fun games while outdoors or in the comfort of your home.
- At the Store
Ask your kids to look at labels on food. They can look for things like the serving size as well as the number of servings per package. Now get them to think about how many packages would be needed for 4 servings, or 5 servings. For older kids, try to make the calculations a bit harder; for example, how many packages would be needed for 50 servings. When you go to the produce section, tell them how many pounds of fruit you need. Let your shopping companions pick out the fruit (or the vegetables) and weigh them, adding or subtracting to get the correct weight.
Moreover, this is a fabulous time to teach your kids a little about nutrition. Kids can benefit from learning early about the content of food, healthy ingredients, and appropriate serving sizes. After all, you are what you eat. (So apparently, we’re all made of refined sugar and hydrogenated oils. Yuck.) Reading food labels is also a major exercise in vocabulary improvement. Can you pronounce half that stuff? Neither can I. But it’s the phonetic effort here that counts.
- Kitchen Activities
What’s not to love about cooking? It involves deliciousness combined with a possible mess. Help your kids roll up their sleeves and get to work. Pull out a cookbook and look at the ingredients. Get your little chefs to figure out how to double or even triple the recipe. Or halve it. Fraction fun! If they’re too young for all that, get your smallest helpers to show you the right measuring tools and dole out the ingredients. They’re gaining fine motor skills every time they pour, shake, and pinch. It’ll be worth the countertop disasters.
- Try out a New Hobby
Lure them away from those pesky glowing screens with the promise of a new hobby. Give them some suggestions based on their interests. Knitting and crocheting, building model planes, playing a musical instrument, photography, painting, or even drawing are all inexpensive hobbies to invest in. Being creative practices different parts of the mind that assist in appropriate development. If splurging for a class isn’t within your budget, find a local community college or recreation center that offers courses. Your children will benefit, not only from learning something new but also from meeting new people from different backgrounds they might not usually be exposed to.
Trying to get to the next level and earn your parenting merit badge? Take a class with your kid. Seeing adults approach learning with enthusiasm is an invaluable lesson for children.
- Get Active
Kids today are inactive for an alarming amount of time, wedged into the cushions of the couch with their electronic devices for company. For years, pediatricians have sounded the alarm about the health risks of decreased physical activity as childhood obesity reaches epic proportions around the world.
Little brains need physical activity as much as they need mental stimulation. Playing sports or engaging in cooperative outdoor games allows kids to develop strong, healthy bodies and well-adjusted minds. There are Little League, basketball, bike riding, playing cops and robbers outside (remember that?), swinging on the jungle gym, climbing, or even swimming. Studies show that movement actually assists with learning, strengthening connections between different parts of the brain.
One of the best ways to get your children excited about being outside is to introduce them to it yourself as often as possible. Family hikes or walks in the park, meanderings in the woods while looking for insects, and biking around the neighborhood are all ways to show little explorers that a healthy lifestyle is a lifelong pursuit.
- Memory Games
Memory is one of the simplest forms of learning that even very small children can practice. Get those memories working by putting some goodies in a box with a lid. Try about eight to ten items. Let them look at everything in the box for about one minute and then take it away. Now the fun begins. They need to memorize what was in there. If there are a couple of kids involved, it will be even more exciting as it becomes a competition. You can let them take turns at selecting items and being in charge of the game themselves.
Very young children can enjoy a variation of this game that stimulates their sensory learning. Put an item in the box and shut the lid without ever letting them see it. Have your children close their eyes and reach into the box to feel the item and try to guess what it is. Older kids will enjoy this game if you try hard to choose objects that can stump them.
Are you paying attention? No, really. Pay attention – because this game is called Concentration. Get a pack of 52 playing cards and spread them out facedown. The kids will need to match up pairs by memorizing where each card is. Younger children can work up to this with a half or a quarter of the deck until they are ready for the more challenging version. You can also do this with copies of photos, clip art that you printed, or store-bought memory cards. The possibilities are endless. And, sometimes, so is the game.
- Puzzles and Construction Fun
I know. You’re thinking wooden puzzles with knobs. Or those flimsy cardboard puzzles with a thousand pieces that never get finished before the dog eats at least three. But there are lots of different kinds of puzzles, so broaden your mind. Think word searches, crossword puzzles, and Sudoku. Your kids might struggle to pick up the strategies at first, but once they get it, it’ll become a passion.
Another way to get young minds engaged is through imaginative play. This is a great way for kids to learn. Imaginative play is as simple as it sounds. Kids use their imaginations to build things and create things without constant supervision from parents. That’s right, Helicopter Dad. Back off. Some props that can start good bouts of imaginative play are the ever-popular Legos, wooden blocks, sandboxes in which they can create castles or whatever they want, card houses, and big foam blocks. There are loads of manipulative toys on the market too, which allow your kids free rein to use their creativity.
Blocks are probably one of the most versatile toys around. Kids from infants to toddlers enjoy just touching them and gripping them. Two-year-olds start trying to stack. At three, they learn how to put pieces together and start building more complex designs. Four-year-olds recognize designs and structures, and now blocks start to take on a whole new kind of creativity. Once they reach school age, they start to build things that they see around them and become masters of the block universe! Next, they’ll be demanding you spend half your life savings on Legos. This will continue for many years. You should start saving up now.
That’s as inexpensive a hobby as can be: you only need paper and scissors. I used to enjoy that when I was a young kid, though I gave it up when I got older.
- Do something physical
Become a do-it-yourselfer and invite your curious kids to help you.
I’m not speaking of dull, repetitive tasks like mowing the lawn. I’m talking about things like building a piece of furniture for your kid’s room. Instead of buying furniture, buy a furniture kit, and you and your kid can put it together yourself. Kids will be proud to have something they can use that they helped to build themselves. Let a kid use a hammer or a screwdriver once in a while — it won’t kill him.
When it comes time to repaint the home, let your kid choose the color of the paint for his room. Then let him paint at least part of it. It’s fun, it’s exercise, and again, he’ll be proud that he did it himself.
When your toilet needs repair, invite your kid to help. He can at least remove the new parts from the shrinkwrap and keep things organized while you install them. Toilet flushing isn’t magic, as he’ll see.
Keeping kids’ brains keen for learning doesn’t have to be a huge task or take up much time. If you just add a couple of these activities into your regular routine, not only will you be getting them away from their electronic sidekicks but you’ll also be helping their brains develop to their maximum potential.
Parenting accomplishment achieved. Level unlocked: GENIUS.