On Friday evenings, after my family has completed a long week of remote learning and working from home, we eat dinner, clean the kitchen and head into the living room to watch a family movie. In theory, this seems like a great way to decompress, but as many parents know, the idea of family movie night is much different than the reality of family movie night. What should be a relaxing evening spent snuggled up on the couch, eating popcorn and laughing at the onscreen antics of our favorite actors often turns into an argument between my two oldest children, who can't agree on what movie they want to watch. While they argue, my little boy completely loses interest in the movie and begins throwing popcorn everywhere. This flurry of activity (and popcorn) prompts my husband to start vacuuming the living room, which is my cue to pick up my phone and send a text to my girlfriends asking them why family time can feel so stressful. 

Aside from the drama that family movie night can elicit, there's another reason that watching movies is no longer at the top of my after-dinner activity list. Recently, like many children, my kids have been participating in remote learning. This means that the amount of time they spend on electronic devices has increased exponentially, and as someone who has always been concerned about the negative impacts of too much screen time, I decided to explore different ways to keep my family engaged long after the dinner plates have been cleared away. 

With three kids ranging in age from 10 to 3, finding activities to keep everyone entertained without the use of electronics can feel challenging, but it's not impossible. The first and easiest change we made was substituting games for movies. As you can probably imagine, my girls are much more capable of putting together puzzles and playing board games than my (almost) three-year-old son is, but we've found ways to include him in the games we love to play. For example, when we play Sorry!, we put him in charge of moving the pawns, and if we play Lewo, which is a colored version of Jenga, we let him roll the dice to tell us which color block to pull from the tower. These little jobs make him feel like he's part of the action and provide him with early learning opportunities.

He's still a toddler, though, and sometimes no matter what we do, the greatest pleasure he gets out of family game night is flipping the board or demolishing our carefully balanced wooden tower. This can be frustrating for everyone involved, so on evenings when it's obvious he has a surplus of energy, we'll opt out of playing games and take a moonlit stroll instead. As we wander the streets of our neighborhood, illuminated by moonbeams, I'm often reminded of how Henry David Thoureau once wrote, "I had seen her only as it were through a crevice in a shutter, occasionally. Why not walk a little way in her light?"

As the weather turns colder, and night walks become less appealing, reading together has become a favorite evening activity of ours. After dinner, we light a fire in the fireplace and the kids curl up on the sofa under their favorite quilts to listen while my husband and I take turns reading chapters aloud to them from beloved children's books. When we first started doing this, I was certain it was going to be a disaster.  I never assumed that everyone would sit quietly and listen to the story without peppering us with a million questions, so you can imagine how surprised I was to discover that all three of my children listen attentively to the books we read. Much to my delight, during these shared moments, there is a palpable family connection, and best of all, no one is missing the hypnotic glow of iPads and iPhones. 

When asked if her famous books were still relevant in today's world, Laura Ingalls Wilder said, "The way we live and your schools are much different now. So many changes have made living and learning easier. But the real things haven't changed. It is still best to make the most of what we have; to be happy with the simple pleasures." 

There's no doubt that we live in a high-tech world. We're all at the mercy of our devices, and to pretend like there are times when I don't surrender to screens would be a lie. However, in our quest to find entertainment that doesn't involve electronics, my family discovered that disconnecting from technology was much easier than we expected, and in doing so, we reaped the benefits of connecting with each other and finding joy in peaceful pastimes.  

Lana Shovlin lives in Springfield with her husband and three kids, who have all been at home together since March.

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  • Johnnie Owens

    @ Adams Family Patio

    Wed., Nov. 25, 5-7 p.m. and Sat., Nov. 28, 5-7 p.m.