How to have a family holiday without screens

We drove away from our home with no ipads and no computers. Our phones were limited for navigation and essential communication. Our daughter was 3-almost-4yrs old. Our son 8.

Our advantages:

  1. experienced gamers
  2. philosophy of experimentalism
  3. adventurousness and
  4. some capacity for stubbornness and discipline

Hubbie found us a 3-bed AirBnB with peacocks and a plunge pool 30min from the beach. We arrived after a screen-free 3hr drive… and everyone was a little on edge and impatient. Patience and self-reliance were two of the skills we upgraded while away. Patience for boredom; patience for ourselves (and our own capacity to figure out how to exit our boredom) and patience for each other. This trip marked the first time the whole family had ever cohabited on a holiday without any devices to escape into.

In some ways I felt prepared. I’d managed to get the kids and myself to the local library before we left. And after my shameful library fines were paid off we loaded up each kid’s bag with over 10 books a piece. My daughter proactively picked all her picture books. My son relied on his mother’s picks. We’re at a funny age for reading. My son has big ideas yet still a great hunger for silliness that can lead him to books well-below his reading capacity, so the librarian’s wisdom was appreciated.

“I Survived: the Children’s Blizzard, 1888" by Lauren Tarshis

A set of historical fiction I survived books by Lauren Tarshis proved a winner. So while my son read about the blizzards of Dakota in the late 19th century I read about them too in Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser.

“Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser

Prairie Fires is an epic 500 page study of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life including her time writing the infamous ‘Little House’ books in her 60s and 70s — a very inspiring writer’s story for me at the age of 42. One of my favourite parts of the holiday was sharing tales of pioneering days in America and the struggles to survive with my son. For me reading the more complex, contextualised version of Laura’s upbringing and the full colour and difficulty of her life gave me insight into my own life and my own dreams. I’ve been craving my own ‘Little house in the big woods’ since I was 8yrs old. I have been hard on myself for a long, long time; craving a life of meaning and gratitude. Prairie Fires documented how Laura worked with and depended on her daughter, family recollections and photographs to write her classic stories (very much fictionalised and sanitised in the end). The book explains how the Ingalls and Wilder farms never fully-sustained the family. I found this quite liberating! In the end it was writing that created wealth and the legacy. Living and writing about living. I am inspired by this: I must create and I must live.

Ravensburger train station 60 piece puzzle

Jigsaw puzzles were the second component of shared family recreation. We brought two puzzles: A 60 piece Ravensburger train station puzzle and a whopping 1,000 piece Wasjig mystery puzzle where we didn’t know what the jigsaw would look like in the end!

Wasgij Mystery Puzzle 13: A Perrrfect Escape!

Everyone helped out with both puzzles over the 5 days we were away. The train station was built and rebuilt many times. But, perhaps more interestingly, the parents’ obsession with completing the damn Wasgij gave us defensible permission to ignore our children’s whining to be entertained. Pretty quickly the kids transitioned to depending on each other or themselves. The success of the former was most revelatory. In the absence of personalised, passive entertainment both kids figured out how to play together for reasonable lengths of time. It was so freakin’ pleasurable to hear them tearing through the house chasing each other just for the sake of it.

That being said, there was also a lot more parenting than usual: More switched on, present, engaged parenting. We explained more, sung more, goofed around more and taught more. We read more books to our kids, played more games at their level and let idle chat bubble forth. It was very, very good and very, very tiring. I forgive us our use of screens during the busy year given how exhausting it is to be switched on all day at work and switched on for kids and partners at home too.

We were in synch better than we’ve ever been as a family and we probably got sick of each other more too. I felt my first premonitions of my son’s teenage years where he no longer found his parents’ company so desirable. I found my mental health strained by the constant interruptions and social energy. When emotions were frayed, I was grateful to be pushed out of the house for a long solo walk, or pushed into bed for a nap. My daughter’s room had a guitar inside, so she would tantrum into her abode and blues music would float out. We all retired into books, games, magic, music or colouring to be comfortably alone.

Of all the board games were brought to play, a fairly complex cooperative Lovecraftian game set in Australia took up much of our time.

‘Auztralia’ by Martin Wallace

Designed for 13+, this game took up a lot of hubbie’s energies to make it fun for our enthusiastic 8yr old. Yet, there were were, all playing together as the old ones arose to battle our Aussie heros. Our almost-4 yr year old showed remarkable patience playing alongside me, helped enormously by mechanics of train building, farming and gold-collecting. Hubbie ingeniously set up ‘1-player’ mode for our son on the 3rd day, buying us all-important adult jigsaw time.

The simpler game Outfoxed was a welcome cooperative Whodunit game suitable for the whole family.

Outfoxed!

We seem to have arrived at the magical years. No more nappies and bum wiping (well…mostly). Magic, wonder and receptivity abound. Our kids can find their way lying on the grass staring at clouds, or arguing about the next move in a game.

We were incredibly lucky to holiday near a steller book shop and playground, by a warm river and a gentle surf beach. We ate ice cream almost every day and swam morning and night. I mostly kept to the screen-free dictates — definitely no social media. Although I did read a little news and check my emails once or twice. What didn’t happen was two parents absorbed in an else where, engaging with else who. What didn’t happen was surly kid attitudes when parents suggested an activity, asked for help or just said ‘hi’. What didn’t happen was a breakdown in communication stemming from my son’s obsession with discussing the minutiae of a video game I am not playing. I like video games and they can be valuable for kids. But the gulf of shared awareness was bridged this holiday as we battled together in the real world.

On our last night, we had about 100 pieces of the jigsaw to complete. We had to pull the outdoor table under the floodlights to finish it. Both kids circled around the table to help out. Each piece was fiendishly difficult to place. But were were working. My son would occasionally walk past saying “you’re doing a good job” or “you’re making great progress” to bolster the adults’ spirits. At the climax, were were 30 pieces from the end and could not find the protagonist’s cufflink!! The piece just didn’t seem to be there. My son started talking about contacting the manufacturer. My husband started talking about contacting the police! Growing bolder, my son took a phone with the ‘torch’ on and looked over the deck. With a triumphant ‘found it’, he secured the missing piece from the floorboards. Jubilation ensured. Soon the final pieces were secured and the five day odyssey complete.