Why We Went “Screen-Free” + 5 Mess-Free Toddler Activities

Today I (Laurel) am delighted to introduce you to my dear friend (and neighbor), Jennifer.  We gave birth to our sons just two weeks apart from each other and have spent a lot of time in the past two years sharing the joys, challenges, and victories that come from motherhood.  I appreciate Jen’s intentionality with her son Isaac.  She loves him well and pours everything into his rearing.  Enjoy this post from her on the topic of screen-free parenting!  

It had been a rough day at our house. We had a string of them, leaving me feeling like a failure and often yelling at my son. He was barely two and the defiance was out of control. Nothing worked, nothing. That day he was finally asleep, and I lay beside him, tears pooling in my eyes. “I am the adult here,” I thought to myself. “I am the one in charge of setting the tone of our relationship.” We struggled over everything – even controlled choices were a problem. What had changed? I thought back over our previous couple of weeks…the weather had turned, cold but not freezing however, chilly enough to make me want to stay inside. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: screen time. As Isaac, my son, had gotten older, he showed greater interest in my iPad. I even bought some apps specifically for him and he played them – he played them a lot. Not only that, we had started watching a movie every morning instead of taking a walk, and it was truly a little kids movie, we watched “Despicable Me”. Then as the days inside got longer, we watched it more than once..twice…three times.

Let me explain: My husband and I are in this alone. Our families are spread out over several states and our parents are far away. I needed to get things done around the house, I needed to cook, and I needed some chill time. We have wonderful friends, yes, but they have lives too – with their children, jobs, and home. Enter the all powerful screen. Hello, babysitter.

Later that same evening, I was talking with my husband, who was also not enjoying the new struggle we had on our hands, and I gave him my theory. “It’s the screen time,” I said. “It needs to end.” He agreed. People, we went cold turkey. The next morning, Isaac asked for his movie. “Maybe later,” I responded brightly. “Let’s paint instead!” And that was the beginning. We painted, we played Play doh, we colored with markers, crayons, chalk. We built blocks, we built legos, we built a train track and ran the train. And every time he asked for the movie, I said “Maybe later!” and distracted him with the next activity. (He never thought to ask for the iPad, it was out of sight and therefore, out of mind.) We braved the cold and went on a nature walk.

My house was a wreck that day but it was worth it. However, since I wanted to have a cleaner, more tidy home AND cook fresh meals AND play with Isaac, I knew something would have to change. Thus began my search for quick, easy, mess free toddler activities.

After only two days of zero screen time we had a whole new child. Was he still defiant, yes, he’s two. But it was manageable. I was highly encouraged and I really believe my son was much happier. He still asked for his movie and I still said “Maybe later” and the iPad was still hidden and really, nothing suffered that terribly. I still cooked and tidied. Although, full disclaimer: I had declared that if anything was going get lost in the chaos it would be the “clean and tidy home” and my husband agreed fully. And, yes, some things get lost in the mix. I’m learning to be ok with that. More importantly, to me at least, was that I learned I didn’t need the screen to be a babysitter all the time and all the activities do not have to be high prep, messy fun. Here’s five low prep, mess free, toddler approved (and even older babies would enjoy some of these) activities that call for supplies you likely have on hand or are super cheap and easy to get.
1. Coffee tree mug and craft rings. This looks so cool, it’s hard to believe it is so simple. Take the rings off and put them on. That’s it. Isaac got bored with using his hands so he showed me how he uses his TOES to do it.
2. Thin spatula, muffin tin, and blocks. Dump out the blocks in a pile, set the muffin tin nearby and use the spatula (make sure it is thin enough to get under the blocks) to lift a block, carry it to the tin and put in one of the cup. Repeat. I thought this was so dumb, that Isaac would not be interested. I didn’t tell Isaac I was setting this one up, I just did it as he was playing with something else. He watched me and I could not believe how his eyes lit up with interest.3. Pipe cleaners and kitchen colander. Poke the pipe cleaners into the holes. Again, I figured he’d get bored. Nope.4. Drinking straw and craft puffs. Spread out some craft puffs (small to medium, so not for littles who still put everything in their mouths) and power the straw with your breath to move the puff. Feeling extra crafty? Make a very easy map or color wheel to have your toddler blow the puffs (put it on green! Now blue!).5. Dot stickers and construction (or any colored) paper. I keep this in my church bag. Get a couple packs of fun colored dot stickers, the kind you’d use for marking prices on garage sale items, and matching colors of paper. By matching, I mean color, not shade. Have your toddler sort stickers by putting the blue sticker on the blue paper, the yellow on the yellow and so forth. (Side note: I ran out of the dot kind, and evidently, so did the store. So, I got rectangles and I cut them to smaller sizes.)

And a bonus mess free activity? Get them outside. Take a walk and go at their pace. Little people are discovering the world and it’s a wonderful way to slow down and see the world from their perspective.

The reality is that we do not live in a screen free world. But if you choose to dramatically limit your children’s screen time, you are not alone. There’s quite a bit being written about the negative effects of screens on developing minds and very little about how good screen time is –including so called “educational apps”. However, there are still times when I don’t hesitate to hand over my iPad in the name of peace (long grocery store line, anyone?) however it’s a genuinely rare occasion these days. It’s been a wonderful change in our home. I highly encourage everyone to set their screens down and unplug for a bit. I very much doubt anyone would end up regretting time spent without a screen.

Going screen free in a screen heavy world can be daunting, but it’s like Robert Frost penned in his poem :
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

A daughter of the King, Jennifer Gonzales is a librarian turned stay at home mom. She spends her days playing with her young son, drinking chai, and trying complicated recipes from Pinterest. Occasionally, she writes blog posts for her family blog, Heart Prints. Psalm 113 

Laurel West

Happy Wife. Mom of Three. Homemaker. Christ Follower. Multigenerational Texan. Chai Addict. Photographer. Health Nut. Natural Birth Junkie. Classically Trained Soprano. Founder of Adventures in Oiling. Amateur Graphic Designer.

2 thoughts on “Why We Went “Screen-Free” + 5 Mess-Free Toddler Activities

  1. Love this post!!!!! It’s been a long cold wet and dreary winter here in the Midwest and I recently realized just how much we have relied on screens for “survival”. It’s hard sometimes as a mama to let things go around the house…I love a clean and tidy home. So I’d add to this list that while it’s hard to sometimes slow down for them, it’s always great to included your children in those chores. Here are some things my boys (3yrs+2yrs) help with:
    Dishes – loading and unloading the silverware, rinsing plates in the sink while I tidy up the rest of the room
    Laundry – as I fold a towel/napkin/washcloth they run and put it away, they put away their own clothes
    Floors – they received a child sized broom and dustpan for Christmas and I put them in charge of a small space to clean in the room I working in.

    I so appreciate hearing from other mamas who are working to limit their children’s screen time…Glad to know I’m not the only one with the desire and struggle!

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