Right now, my daughter is at university, being clever and studying neuroscience, but when she was little, she once asked me at the dinner table: “Dad, is Baby Tiger actually alive?” This was a serious question. Baby Tiger was a scruffy little stuffed toy that was her constant companion – and mine, too, because it was me who mostly did the voices, and made him speak. He was an important member of our growing family, but was he actually alive? Well, he was to us. “We make him come alive,” I said, “but to most people…” I picked up Baby Tiger by the scruff of his neck and gave him a once-over, admitting: “To most people he’s just a toy stuffed with cotton.” Baby Tiger was not happy about this, and made his feelings clear. In fact his outraged reaction dominated most of the post-dinner play.
Whatever your definition of life is, play and make-believe are precious and irreplaceable commodities – but under the digital cosh of 21st century life, they are at risk of extinction. While my daughter’s childhood was free of tablets and mobiles, today’s infants paw at them even in their prams. From phone to tablet to laptop and smart TV, our lives are lived through multiple screens, each demanding our time and attention, even as we complain that we don’t have enough to give.
As a result, whether we’re posting on social sites, scrolling through emails, playing games or watching on-demand entertainment, we seem to be glued to our digital devices more than ever, ending up in a kind of voluntary solitary confinement. This means we risk becoming ever-more remote from real-life experiences as families, whether that be playing games, sharing outdoors adventures, reading together, or simply sitting down to eat at the same time.
So when it comes to family time, what is it really all about? “It’s about sharing things together and creating bonds and attachments so that children feel they belong in the family and have routines and traditions,” says Dr Gummer, who is also founder of Fundamentally Children, which promotes the value of play in healthy childhoods. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be sat round a screen watching a film or engaging with a Wii or Minecraft,” she adds. “The danger is we demonise tech itself with a broad brush, when it is all about the activities.”
For Dr Gummer, quality family time – sharing experiences and creating memories – gives children that sense of belonging they crave. “You get to pass on shared values and opinions, and you get to have discussions about what’s going on in life, and children feel more valued, more heard, and they understand their parents more as well.”
So good family time isn’t about imposing a blanket digital ban, simply a more balanced diet of play. “At Fundamentally Children we compare play to food. So you have your ‘superfoods’ – your active, outdoor, social child-led play, which is really good for them – it does masses for mental health, for social and emotional skills – and then there are the ‘sweets and chocolate’ of solitary, sedentary, passive play – for example an addictive computer game or box set. Everyone needs to zone out now and again, but this should be very limited. Also, remember you can use tech in creative ways as a family – such as making a home movie or using photos to make a simple funny GIF.”
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