I couldn’t help but stare at the two children. They were in a wonderful park with a huge climbing frame, several slides, monkey bars, a tunnel to crawl their way through, not to mention the woods and fields surrounding it. Little E and Little O played in the park for an hour and even then it was difficult to tear them away when it was time to go home.
Yet rather than playing, these two children were sat on a climbing frame watching an iPad. An actual Apple iPad. One that costs a few hundred pounds and that I’ve never been able to afford. I’m not ‘anti-screen’ at all. I wouldn’t have a career without it, for a start! Technology is a big part of all of our lives and I know there are a lot of educational apps that help children learn to read, write, count or speak foreign languages (although we don’t really use them), not to mention giving children the chance to Skype and FaceTime with family who don’t live locally (something we have found brilliant). But there’s a time and a place for it, and a sunny day, in a busy play park is certainly not it. They weren’t being especially careful with the iPad, either. More than once, my heart leapt when the iPad got dropped, or other children climbing past very nearly knocked it out of its owners’ hands.
I was trying not to judge too much as you never quite know what’s going on in someone else’s life. Perhaps the children had some kind of special needs. It didn’t seem that way, although I accept it’s not always obvious. Perhaps it was a reward for good behaviour. Perhaps the parents in question were fed up of being asked and after a thousand times of saying no, gave in and said yes. Or perhaps they were at the end of their fuse with their children tantrumming and fighting with each other, and desperately needed five minutes of peace and quiet. We’ve all been there.
Yet as much as I tried to find something that would justify it, I just can’t see any reason why two children should be sat on a climbing frame, watching cartoons for at least half an hour. Why, on a beautiful sunny day – when we know opportunities to get outside like this can be a rarity – would you feel the need to give your children a screen? We’re always being told children these days have too much screen time and don’t know how to do things like climb trees or play conkers. Why would you want to miss an opportunity for them to run around and get some fresh air and exercise? Why would you instead prefer to put more strain on their eyes and cause more damage to their growing bodies as they sit hunched up over a screen? Why would you make the effort to go to the park and then give your children a screen when you get there? Even if there was ever an excuse to let them watch an iPad at the park, why would you let them sit on the actual climbing frame and not on the bench at the side? Why should other parents have to tell their own children to watch where they are playing so they don’t damage the iPad? I felt ridiculous giving that warning to my children.
I see it at soft play centres too. Children watching TV shows on their parents’ phones, instead of playing, climbing and sliding. Not on the sidelines, but in the middle of the activities. And not just for five minutes to calm them down, but for half an hour or more. I see it week after week at the side of the swimming pool where my children have their lessons. While one child is in the pool, the parent is on their smart phone and a sibling is on a tablet, both in silence, not even looking at each other. How about showing the child in the pool that you and their sibling are supporting them by watching them, or spending half an hour of quality one-to-one time with the other child, talking or reading a book? I see it in restaurants, cafés and coffee shops too. The moment a family sits down, the children – often toddlers and preschoolers – are handed a tablet or smart phone. I know it can be challenging keeping a little one occupied when the food takes forever to come, and it is horrible when you feel the other diners are judging your family if your children aren’t being as well-behaved as you might like. But why not try a conversation or a colouring book first? They might surprise you. I feel the same about long car journeys too, preferring traditional car games and conversation to seeing my children spaced out in front of a screen.
And as for those children in the park? I desperately wanted their parents to tell them they’d had enough screen time (it had been at least half an hour) and that it was time to play. I wanted their parents to tell them if they’re done with regular playing, that climbing frames make great pirate ships or fairy castles or a rocket heading to space or a shop or a restaurant. I wanted their parents to tell them there were fields to run around in, bugs to hunt for, hills to roll down.
I don’t think that was ever going to happen though, because the parents were engrossed in their smart phones too.
What do you think? Is the park ever the place for an iPad? Is our obsession with smartphones and tablets affecting our ability to enjoy life? Do let me know in the comments below, by tweeting @cardiffmummy or on the Cardiff Mummy Says Facebook page.