A few weeks ago, my son sat awkwardly with his two cousins, my niece and nephew, in the family room of my parents’ house on a beautiful summer day. My niece, Ella, was on her iPhone and my nephew, Maddox, was watching over her shoulder. My son, Ben, not knowing what else to do, pulled out his iPhone. No way. I was not having this. They hadn’t seen each other in almost a year and we worked hard to pull off this cousin get together. They were not going to spend the day looking down at screens.
I walked over and held out my hand and said “Park your smartphones here for today.” There was some reluctance but I did retrieve them plus I hid the iPad and stole the mouse away from the Mac in my Mom’s office. “No screens today. Today is about playing and going outside. I brought tennis rackets and a soccer ball. How about you go play at the park across the street?”
Amazingly, they got up excited at the prospect of going to the park by themselves. There was no more awkwardness as shoes and socks were assembled and sports equipment was located. They hurried out the screen door together without looking back.
My parents and I looked at each other relieved. Whew. These kids still knew how to play with each other without digital devices. We continued throughout the day with no screens and the kids did not fall apart. We got out playing cards, board games, and played ball with the dogs. The kids chased each other around the house and had a good time making up their own silly things to do. That’s what I remember about childhood. Making things up and having fun outside with kids my own age.
Later at lunchtime, I engaged my niece and nephew in conversation. They were used to digital devices being at the table so this conversation thing was new to them. I asked them how school was going and they thought school was dumb. They both didn’t like it. I asked them why. They looked at me bewildered. No one had asked them this before. They both said homework and tests. I said I understood and I asked them how they would design school if they were in charge. Ooooh, they both liked this question.
My niece, Ella, immediately said, “I’d teach using Instagram.” I replied that Instagram learning sounded fun. I asked her how that would work and she said she’d upload pictures and information up there and kids could see it. Ella loves Disney characters so we made up a course where kids would learn all of the Disney characters so she would upload pictures and information and even video clips about each character. She was having fun dreaming up this new online course for school.
Then I asked her how she would know if her students had really learned all of the Disney characters. This stopped her short. I could see the gears turning in her head and all she could come up with was...give them a test. A lightbulb went off there as she realized redesigning school to be more exciting was not as easy as she initially thought. There was much more to this education thing. I suggested maybe having an online test or a game where students could show they knew all the characters. She liked that idea.
I decided to push the conversation a little further. I was definitely shaking up her idea of school and what it means to teach and evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching. Next, the conversation turned to what she would improve at her school. My nephew, Maddox, knew how he would improve his school—longer recess, no homework, and longer lunches. The kids at his school only got 10 minutes to play after eating their lunch and even recess was only 15 minutes long. Otherwise, kids were expected to sit in their seats quietly listening the other six hours of the school day. That’s a tall order for our kids.
That’s when I asked Ella something that really stunned her. I asked her if she ever thought about sharing her ideas for improving the school with her teacher or her principal. The look on her face was priceless. She was dumbfounded. She had never, ever thought that she could have a voice in her own schooling. She had never realized that she had power of her own as a kid. No one had ever shared that idea with her before. She looked at me with a look on her face like, “Really? Me?” I assured her that this is an available option but also had to state that those in charge may not change anything but she was well within her rights as a child at that school to share her opinions.
My niece and nephew and my son are all customers or end-users of this thing called “school” and in that light, they can share opinions on how to make things better. They can make suggestions for improvement or even ask for more art or music or yoga or mindfulness programs to come to their school. They can ask. They can raise money. They can help parents organize and get involved.
I wanted these kids to know that they have a voice and they should use it. This will begin their journey into being adults who also know they have a voice and should use it. Change begins with people so I wanted these kids to begin to appreciate this idea.
So, all of that came out of a few hours with no digital devices. We had a pretty important conversation about improving schools, evaluating learning, and finding your voice to speak up for what you want. I was very proud at that moment of the conversation we’d been lucky enough to have. I felt like a good parent and a good aunt. I felt like a good human being. I conversed. I connected. No, wait. WE connected.
That was what felt so good. The lack of digital devices allowed for us to connect—to bond—to share. That was the real lesson that day. I got to know my niece and nephew better and they got to know me. That was what really mattered. That is all that ever really matters.