Family Time with Apps is a free interactive guide for parents and caregivers that highlights some ways that families can use technology together. The book features comic strips that parents and children can enjoy together, as well as tips on selecting apps that can help turn screen time into family time. The guide provides tips on how using apps together can support a child’s learning and development. It is available from the iBook Store.
We’re thrilled to share Jordan Shapiro’s account of a recent road trip to Niagara Falls with his sons. Despite a relaxed screen time policy while on the road, the boys find that having uninterrupted time with Dad is more fun as they create their own adventures together.
Your Children Need Real-Life Video Game Escapades
My boys (7 and 10 years old) are not usually allowed to use electronics in the car. To them, I’m sure it seems like a weird, arbitrary restriction. After all, I rarely limit their screen time. They know that as long as they are also choosing to engage in other types of media and play—reading, LEGO, hiking, drawing, etc.—I won’t get involved in regulating the way they allocate their own time. We’ve talked about it many times before. I’ve explained to them that they need to practice and experiment and discover their own personal time management preferences.
Still, I usually take an uncharacteristically rigid anti-screen stance when we’re all in the car because I think it is important that they learn not to expect stimulation for short 20-30 minute drives. In our media-saturated, hyper-connected culture, I worry that my children could learn to think that they have the right to never be bored. On the contrary, kids (and adults) need to cultivate an appreciation for the aesthetics of boredom. Car rides offer an opportunity for just that.
Long road trips, however, are an exception to my no-screens-in-the-car rule. There’s a clear difference between an everyday commute and a six-and-a-half hour drive. There’s even a good lesson in proactive planning that they can learn as I encourage them to charge all their devices before bedtime so they’re prepped for the morning’s journey. That’s what happened on our recent road trip: I put the responsibility in their hands. I spent the few days prior suggesting they think about how they wanted to fill their own car time. They packed books, graphic novels, a few stuffed animals and their Nintendo 3DS consoles.
But I was surprised to discover that my kids barely touched the gaming devices, or the books that sat in the middle seat between them. First, we cruised from Philadelphia to New York City. Then, we headed northwest to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. During the 13 or 14 hours of total driving, all three of us mostly listened to Elijah Wood’s exceptional reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Please don’t roll your eyes. I assure you this is not some boring, clichéd blog post about how I managed to get my kids to put down the video games and participate in a culturally enriching experience of classic American literature. Let’s be real. Not only did they find that staring at screens while moving made them nauseous, their weekend also started in video game heaven. We spent a night in NYC attending the pre-release party for Nintendo’s new paint-gun-shooter: Splatoon.
The game is one of Nintendo’s most anticipated summer titles. Despite the success of shooter games like Call of Duty and Halo, Nintendo has always held fast to their family friendly commitment, resisting the violence. With Splatoon, they employ shooter mechanics but they avoid bullets and killings. Instead, the game involves paint guns. Players fight “inklings” to color the gameworld.
No, this was clearly not a literary vacation. Our family adventure really began in a room full of Wii U consoles, controllers in hand. The three of us explored Splatoon together, laughing and giggling and howling. We ate cupcakes and healthy organic hipster snacks while trying out all three of the game’s play modes: one-on-one, online multiplayer, and single player 3D platformer. Then my kids slid plastic parkas over their heads and shot paint-filled super soakers at life-sized canvases while running around in circles through a trendy Manhattan loft. They were so exhausted when we walked back to our hotel that the spectacle of Times Square seemed ordinary.
In the morning, our long drive began with a discussion about the game Splatoon. I asked them how they thought I should review it; but I already knew what I was going to write about the game. Really, I had an ulterior parenting motive. Encouraging kids to describe their gaming experiences in detail helps them to develop important critical thinking and rhetoric skills. Each time they exclaim that something is “cool,” I push them to expand on “why was it cool?” or “what’s so cool about it?” Eventually, they learn to intuit my expectations. Soon it becomes habitual for them to follow their observations and interpretations with evidence and support.
So the day started with lots of chit chat about video games. And by and by, we run outta things to say about Splatoon. So I switch Huck Finn back on the car stereo. I had forgot just how pleasin’ Mark Twain’s masterpiece really is. I reckon the conversation the three of us had o’er breakfast about slavery and religion and moral ambiguity was a little confusing to my kids. But they never had heard a first person narrative so fine. And Elijah Wood’s reading is just about as good as could be; I can’t recommend it highly enough. He sure does honor Huck’s voice. Young kids might miss the phil’sophical themes, but they’ll still be ‘sorbed right into the adventure.
After a few bathroom breaks and a stop for breakfast, we arrived at Niagara Falls. We darted from our hotel and did the full agenda of fallsview tourist attractions. Soaked after an into-the-mist boat ride on Hornblower’s Niagara Wonder, we dried off while taking a very long riverside walk all the way up to the Horseshoe Falls. My older son decided the tourists’ promenade was a good location for an imaginary inkling shoot-em-up paint-ball mission. So the three of us pretended that some of the other tourists were fantastical space-alien squids in covert human disguises; we ducked behind trees and sometimes pretended we were running away from color-snipers. “Niagara Falls is cool,” my kids declared as we rode the elevator back up from the underground tunnels, “but I’m not sure it’s worth such a long drive just to look at a bunch of water.”
I get their point. I’ve learned quite a bit after a few of these sight-seeing journeys—we visited the feral horses on Chincoteague Island last spring, and we hiked into the Grand Canyon this past fall. My kids love these trips, but I suspect it doesn’t really matter what we are doing. Vacations with little kids are fun and educational because they are a change from the ordinary. What my boys really enjoy is the undivided attention they get from me and the thrill of an adventure. It doesn’t matter whether we spend that time sightseeing, hiking, listening to books on tape or playing video games. The point is that we’re doing it together. We’re focused and engaged in a family escapade.
To them, it probably feels like the real life equivalent of when we sit on the couch together immersed in a multiplayer platformer. Travel is “Joint Life-world Engagement.” We discover new worlds, new challenges, and new experiences. We talk together about how things feel. The biggest difference between family life-world engagement and game-world engagement is that this trip was three non-stop days long and no matter how convincingly the boys beg, they can rarely get me to play New Super Mario Brothers for more than 30 or 40 minutes at a time.
Sure, Niagara Falls is a real life high-definition spectacular. But it is the uninterrupted dialogue with Dad that makes a trip like this appeal to kids. It is not just about bonding or feeling loved or spending quality time with a parent. Instead, it is about making meaning together—constructing a cohesive narrative collaboratively.
A large part of developing a sense of self has to do with learning how to articulate your own experiences in a way that feels comfortable and unique. Likewise, healthy relationships grow from learning to construct group narratives in ways that honor all of the participants’ voices. Just like parents and kids playing video games together, traveling together can provide an opportunity for young people to engage with adults and practice telling group stories in a safe and playful way.
Jordan Shapiro is the author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide To Maximum Euphoric Bliss and the Mindshift Guide to Games and Learning and a Forbes columnist on game-based learning, education technology, and parenting. He lives in Philadelphia with his two sons and a video game console.