Ellie Dix: How To Reclaim Your Kids From The Screen

It's all about balance, says Ellie Dix, and a cupboard full of board games.

Everyone has an opinion about kids’ screen time. The whats, wheres, whens and hows are endlessly debated. Whatever decisions you make as a parent, they’ll always be others that disagree. Personally, I find that liberating. For me it’s about balance.

I want my children to be able to interact and engage with the online world; where the possibilities are endless and exciting. But I don’t want technology to dominate. I want screens to know their place. The possibilities of life offline are also endless and exciting.

But it’s one thing knowing how you want to parent and another thing doing it. Like many, my children prioritise online entertainment… and it leads to arguments, bargains, exasperation, bribery and a feeling of failure. Oh yes, I’m familiar with that particular rabbit hole. The problem is that as parents we’re competing with super-fast, ever-present, totally-portable, multi-faceted, attention-demanding devices… and they’re difficult to outsmart. Difficult, but not impossible.

As parents we need to make the offline world irresistible so that it rivals the online one. When we restrict or remove online access, even for a while, we leave a large screen-sized hole. This hole needs filling and most children don’t know how to do that by themselves; at least, not straight away.

Board games are magnificent. They spark conversation, develop social and learning skills, have proven health benefits and bring families together by creating lasting shared memories. The world of board games is vast and growing every day. Rest assured that there are thousands of amazing games and you’re going to find ones that suit your family perfectly.

But it’s possible that your announcement of a family game night won’t elicit the reaction you were hoping for. If, up until now, your family’s board game experiences have centred only around Christmas Monopoly, and the arguments not resolved until well after New Year (“BUT GRANNY CHEATED!!”) then this is perfectly understandable. Your children don’t yet know what they’re missing. So how do you hook seemingly reluctant children into tabletop gaming?

Start by immersing yourself in a new game and setting yourself up to be discovered. Find a good game that you can play alone or with another adult. I suggest Pandemic – a cooperative game in which a team of specialists works together to control the spread of infection across the world. You can play this alone acting as all the characters, with all the information face up on the table. Position yourself so you know your children will find you. This should draw them in. They may watch for a bit or ask to join in. Manoeuvre things to make space for them but always keep your attention on the game. Your interest and enthusiasm will be infectious.

When you’re trying to hook in the reluctant, find opportunities to catch them unawares. Get them playing before they realise what’s happening. Deal out cards while you hand out plates at dinner. It’s easy to play while you eat and it may well extend the time you have together at the table. Choose a few small games that you can keep on the kitchen surface – accost your children when they have a few minutes to spare. Squeeze in a couple of rounds of Love Letter while you wait for the kettle to boil or to accompany late night ice cream eating. Kids are often looking for a distraction. Use this to your advantage.

When you’ve hoodwinked them into a game a few times, your family’s previous judgements about board game will start to fade and be replaced by new experiences. Your job is to keep these associations positive. Look for games that have a good table presence. Great artwork and interesting components have a magnetic effect. Azul has some great tiles; Photosynthesis and Bosk have pretty 3D trees that bring the space to life; Fireball Island has your figures dodging moving hazards while trying to grab the crystal and dexterity games like Junk Art, Rhino Hero and Tokyo Highway have you building precarious but impressive structures.

Add rituals to your game nights to make them an event your children don’t want to miss. Get in favourite snacks, mix up a mocktail, position the mascot on the table and put on some game-night tunes. Invite some “special guests” to join you: grandparents, aunts, family friends.

Keep your growing board game library on display. Make sure they are seen so they can’t lie forgotten.  Give boxes a prominent position in the home: leave Kamisado set up on the coffee table and keep Qwixx in the car. Ramp up your family’s exposure, give them interesting experiences and bit by bit board games will start to feel like a real alternative to screens.

It doesn’t take long to make a big change, but it requires continued effort.  To get your family to prioritise board games you must prioritise it yourself. Board games can strengthen relationships but it will not happen on its own. You are the creator of the new world order in your family: carry the torch and keep it high.

– Ellie Dix is author of The Board Game Family: Reclaim your children from the screen and director of TheDarkImp.com a family board gaming resource

© Ellie Dix 2019

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