Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Screen time

There's a discussion on an e-mail list I'm a member of about screen time and I got thinking about this again.

We don't really watch TV, though we have satellite service for dh so he can watch the news or occasional sports game. We get no local reception and there's no cable here, so this is the only way for him to watch the news. He watches maybe 4 or 5 hours a week. I'm just as happy getting my news on the radio or internet. We've tended not to buy newspapers because the kids read them.

Anyway, for whatever reason the kids have just never gravitated to TV, and I've never turned it on for them. We have an understanding that they can watch something if they have planned in advance what they want to watch, but they're so bad at planning and transitions that they just never get it together to work out what they want to watch and turn the TV on. I wanted to avoid the habit of turning the TV on because they can't think of anything to do. If they really want to watch something in particular, they're always welcome to. But they don't.

I have fretted a little over the computer use around here. The kids have gone through phases of playing computer a lot. We have a bench in front of the computer that seats three, so they usually play games socially, and the games we have are pretty much all things I have helped select or approve of at any rate. So I'm comfortable with what they play and how they play at the computer, but I haven't always been comfortable with how much they play.

Lately, though, I see all of them using the computer much more as a tool, and less as [albeit educational] entertainment. They're writing, sending e-mail letters, creating lists, editing photos for printing for journals, and so on. Last night Noah started a book report! Don't know what got into him, but there you are. So I'm feeling better about the role the computer is playing in our house.

We have weekly family meetings where, among other things, we discuss how the issue of screen-time has played out over the previous week, just to keep the kids aware that their choices about how much time they spend in front of a video screen are matters of physical and intellectual health. I don't seem to have to make any pronouncements or judgements, or set any limits; just asking "How are we doing with screen time this week?" is enough to keep them aware of the necessity of creating some balance in their lives.

So that's our family's path so far. No limits on quantity, just some structural things that hopefully encourage better-quality choices. And of course plenty of enticing alternatives to screen time. Mostly I'm happy with the balance.

Monday, November 01, 2004

A Little Structure to our Learning

As I continue to travel this path the distinction between unschooler and non-unschooler seems less important.

A couple of months ago we decided to try subscribing to an on-line DVD rental service. Netflix and Mentura have been running in the US for quite a while, but in Canada these services are only just becoming viable. We signed up with, knowing that the shipping time would be fairly slow to our far-flung rural part of the country, but figuring it might be worth it anyway because we have no local rental place anyway.

For those not familiar with these services, basically you create a 'queue', a wishlist of videos you'd like to see, from the immense on-line library. For a monthly fee you are entitled to have 4 (or some specific number) videos signed out at any time. They send you whatever is at the top of your queue that is available on the day of shipment. They arrive at your home and you are free to keep them as long as you wish. You send them back in the postage-prepaid mailers when you're ready to. As soon as they receive one of your four back, they send you another one from your queue.

We're really pleased with the selection ... it's immense. And the transit time has been a little better on average than we expected. We're getting two or three videos a week.

Now, we're not much of a TV family, so this is a fair bit more TV time than we're used to. But still not much compared to the North American average ... maybe an hour a day, or a little less. We're watching about 50% documentaries, and another 25% are dramatizations of books we've read. I think that educationally speaking I'm comfortable with the role the TV is playing in our family.

About the structure. I discovered that had the entire 12-episode video documentary "Canada: A People's History". So I said to the kids "Well, you guys are enjoying our Zip membership, but it's important to me that we can justify the expense for more than entertainment. So I want to make sure that at least some of what we're watching is helping you learn stuff. How would you feel about ordering the Canadian history documentary series one episode at a time, and at the same time, reading our way through "The Story of Canada" [a wonderful 300-page hardcover overview of Canadian history that we own but have never read systematically]?"

They said "yeah, okay, sure."

And so every couple of days we sit down together and I read 10 or so pages aloud from this history book. And once a week or so, we watch another episode of this wonderful video documentary series. No one's complaining. No one's rolling their eyes. They're listening and watching with interest. So far so good.