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Are Smartphones Disconnecting Your Family?

ActivityHero providers are experts at getting kids to go (temporarily) off the grid. Here 6 of their tips to help your family welcome more tech-free time.

By Rachel Stamper

Tech is typically banned at school and during after school activities — and for good reason: Smartphones and tablets distract kids from instructional time. At bedtime, exposure to blue light from smartphones, tablets, computers, and the TV can actually make it tougher for kids and adults to fall asleep because the light they emit prevents the release of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. And with 20 digital devices in the average home, according to a recent Yahoo! poll, there are plenty of screens competing for your family’s attention. Left unchecked, all that screen time could affect your relationship with your children, the quantity and quality of sleep your family gets, and how engaged your kids are during the school day and at activities.

To get some help in corralling the tech, we reached out to a few ActivityHero providers who are experts on powering down kids’ smartphone usage — at least temporarily. Here, we offer their suggestions, along with our own research, to help you figure out the best times and ways to use a little less data each day.

1. Get an Old-School Alarm Clock

“Today too many people use their phones as alarms. That means it’s super-tempting to check your social media or favorite news sites right before you go to sleep,” says Ed Caballero, Executive Director of Camp Edmo, which offers high-quality enrichment programs in science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, and math. His suggestion: Leave your phone in another room to recharge at night, and use a regular alarm clock to rise in the morning. “It’s also a great to give your body a break from being close to that radiation for 6 to 10 hours a day,” he adds. A standard clock with a battery backup is just as reliable as a cell phone alarm.

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2. Schedule Some Official “Silent Times”

Caballero also says, “You might have a hard time keeping the cell phone out of your child’s hand at all times. However, you can establish Silent Times like dinner, family gatherings, etc., when the phone is set to silent. When you don’t have the angst of wondering if your phone vibrated, pinged, or rang, you can actually be more present and conversational. By turning your phones to silent, you can focus on the people you’re with and check messages at socially appropriate times — when you’re alone later.” Whether it’s dinner at home, at a restaurant, or at a special event, if everyone powers down at the same time, there’s a sense of fairness. (Yes, that means us adults, too!)

3. Reframe the Conversation

Blake Longfellow, Co-owner and Director of UCamps, which provide fun, educational, arts, leadership, and outdoor enrichment programs, allows only counselors, not kids, to have cell phones. “When I promote the summer programs, kids always ask can they have their phones,” he says. “I reframe the conversation to remind them if they don’t have their cell phones, their parents can’t tell them what to do.” Kids can make their own choices, choose their own classes, decide who they “hang out” with, and get a break from “parental communication.” Rather than focusing on what you might miss by unplugging, talk about how you’ll be able to positively experience the world without a digital distraction.

4. Don’t Break Electronics Bans

Longfellow adds, “We have a no-phone policy for campers and it’s the parents that complain — 90 percent of the kids are okay with it. Some parents will try and sneak in a phone, but having a phone can foster homesickness. In previous years, 10 or 11 kids left camp each summer due to homesickness, but since we set a phone ban, no kids have asked to leave. Kids are more present and enjoy the time without a phone.” Promise yourself now that you won’t fight phone bans at school or activities, no matter how inconvenient it may seem at first. When you set a good example, says Longfellow, “This teaches kids to respect your phone rules too.”

5. Think About Your Own Habits

Clinical psychologist Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, says that it’s not just parents who are upset about tech interruptions; it’s kids who hurt, too. “We as parents have to be much more mindful about … interacting with technology when our children need us …. Children of all ages — 2, 15, 18, 22 — used the same phrases to talk about how hard it is for them to get their parents’ attention when they need it: sad, angry, mad, frustrated.” By putting down your digital device, you model this habit for your kids. This means no checking your phone at mealtime, while in the car, or during family time. It may be a challenge at first, but imagine what a relief it will be to have some off-the-grid moments when no one can steal your serenity with a stressed-out email or text.

6. Go “Old School” in the Evenings

The blue light of devices is particularly bad in the two to three hours before bedtime. To help your kids get the right quantity and quality of sleep, consider reading paper books or playing board games in the evening rather than using eBooks or apps before bed. A recent study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston showed that screen activity before bed makes it harder to fall asleep. Dr. Anne-Marie Chang says, “The best recommendation (although not the most popular) would be to avoid use of light-emitting screens before bedtime.” Plus, board games improve executive function (the brain’s control of cognitive processes such as memory, reasoning, and problem-solving) and let you bond and engage with your kids. Just be sure to silence your phones first!

Give Tech-Loving Kids Another Option

If your child simply loves technology, take a look at the computer programming and coding classes available on ActivityHero! This is a great way to support your kids’ interest in electronics in a way that allows them to learn, socialize, and possibly prepare for a future career.

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Parenting Resources

10 Ways to Instill Healthy Eating Habits in Your Child

Encouraging your child to develop healthy eating habits is not an easy task. Throw in a few busy schedules, after school activities, and fussy eaters and you’ve got your work cut out for you. With childhood obesity and diabetes on the rise, instilling healthy habits in your child are more important than ever. Here are a few things you can do to help your child have a healthy future.

1. Try as many new foods as possible. If kids are used to a regular regimen of chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and French fries, they’ll grow to expect that and become picky eaters. In order for their taste buds to develop, they have to try new things. Keep your kids guessing at dinner time and it will be exciting for everyone. Try to have a few side dishes with every entrée so that if they don’t like one thing they won’t go to bed hungry. Once you discover some favorites, you can create a dinner rotation filled with tried and true meals as well as new recipes.

2. Avoid saying “you wouldn’t like this.” First impressions are everything. Once kids have an idea in their head that they don’t like something, they are not likely to forget it. If they’re not allowed to try your spinach, they may write spinach off altogether and refuse to eat it. Let your child explore and be their own judge of what they do and do not like. You may be surprised!

3. Educate your child about their food. Did you know that carrots used to be purple before the 17th century? What do you think a purple carrot would taste like? What animal is famous for loving carrots? What do they look like when they eat their carrots? Ask your kids questions and learn some fun facts about food to encourage curiosity and eagerness to try new things. If kids insist they don’t like something that they’ve never tried before, such as carrots, ask them to show you how a rabbit would eat a carrot. Think Randy’s piggy mashed potatoes from “A Christmas Story,” only less messy. They may just find out that they have loved carrots all along!

4. Lead by example. Most kids are more willing to try foods if they see their parents enjoying them. Don’t be afraid to let the “mmm’s” and “ahh’s” flow at the dinner table to encourage your kids try the dreaded broccoli. Try to bring as many new tastes into the home as possible and let your child observe you enjoying them. Liking the same foods can create a bond that only you and your child can share. Perhaps everyone in your house hates kiwis, but you and your daughter love them. You can share your love of kiwis by creating recipes together and finding out what other tastes you have in common.

5. Grow a garden. A garden is a labor of love and a great learning experience for any child. Once kids see how much effort goes into growing a garden, they’ll be less likely to waste their food. They’ll also learn responsibility and how much a garden is affected if not watered for just one day. If your family lives in an urban setting where gardening is not an option, try growing herbs in pots. Most herbs can easily be grown inside and will open your child up to new tastes.

6. Let kids help in the kitchen. The more involved that kids are with the cooking process, the more excited they will be to indulge in their finished product. If kids are presented with a mystery dish again and again, they’ll be quicker to turn it away or pick apart the pieces that they don’t like. Encourage your child to help prepare dinner by doing simple and safe tasks like washing vegetables and measuring ingredients. If they’re interested, allow them to taste each piece that goes into the meal before it’s a finished product to appreciate every aspect of it. Try a sweet pea before it goes into a shepherd’s pie or a bit of green pepper before tossing it into the pot of chili.

7. Don’t use negative reinforcement with food. “If you don’t finish your vegetables, you won’t get dessert.” How many times have we heard this phrase? Forcing kids to clear their plates can result in overeating. If they are constantly rewarded for eating everything in front of them no matter how hungry they are, they’ll stop paying attention to the voice in their head that tells them to stop when they’re full. In addition, your child may begin to dread meal time and see it as a punishment if they simply aren’t hungry.

8. Start with small portions to avoid waste. We’ve all heard the phrase, “your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” This is especially true for kids. Serve small portions of meals with equal amounts of each dish on the plate to begin with. If they decide they’d like more of something, they can take more once they’ve finished their portion. This reduces the amount of wasted food and encourages kids to clear their plate without using negative reinforcement.

9. Create a good balance. According to the USDA, a meal should consist of almost equal portions of vegetables, grains, proteins, and fruits with a smaller portion of dairy. Try to include as many healthy and diverse options in every meal as possible. Even pizza night can get a healthy makeover with some diced broccoli and peppers. The more kids are used to seeing different food groups the more willing they will be to clear their plate.

10. Try to make family dinner time as regular as possible. With varying work schedules and after school activities, most families have very diverse schedules making family dinner time a thing of the past. When everyone eats at different times, it often results in too much snacking and not eating a full balanced meal. Try to clear your schedules to arrange a time that your entire family can sit down together for a meal. Even if it’s only once per week, family dinner time is sometimes the only time that the entire family can be in the same room and have a conversation. Kids may even look forward to the structured bonding time.

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