In Clay Warburton’s fourth-grade classroom a chart motivates students to stay off video games, TV, and other unnecessary screens. photo by TL Brown
In Clay Warburton’s fourth-grade classroom a chart motivates students to stay off video games, TV, and other unnecessary screens. photo by TL Brown
What would happen if you turned off all your distracting screens for seven days? For years, teacher and artist Clay Warburton has challenged his fourth-grade students at Sisters Elementary School (SES) to give it a try. This year, the whole school is invited to take part. So is the whole town.

Screen-Free Week is a national, annual effort. Organizers encourage people of all ages to “play, explore, and rediscover the joys of life beyond ad-supported screens,” this year April 29 to May 5.

Adults, families, workplaces, and schools participate, limiting unnecessary screen time and encouraging hands-on learning and play. People turn off their phones, computers, and TVs whenever possible and connect with each other in real life.

“Pets love it,” Warburton said. Pet-owners take more time to walk dogs and play with kittens when their screens are off.

Principal Joan Warburg hopes that this year every SES student and family will give it a go.

“We want our students and families outside enjoying our beautiful community… engaging in fun outdoor activities such as hiking and biking,” she said.

Warburg says families can strengthen their connections during the week by “playing games together, building puzzles, and enjoying a good book. We are striving for 100 percent participation from our staff, students, and families this year.”

She admits it is “a lofty goal.”

In Warburton’s classroom, a small cluster of SES teachers gathered to learn more about Screen-Free Week. He showed hand-drawn signs and progress charts on his wall that encourage kids to keep trying. It’s not always easy.

He described students coming to class after their first screen-free day. One child realized that every person in their family was absorbed in a screen for long stretches of time.

“No one was even looking at each other,” the child said, sounding amazed and sad. During a normal week, that student would be on a screen, too, distracted from even noticing that the family wasn’t connecting together.

“If we have a family who’s very tech-centric, likely the kids are being ignored or neglected to some degree,” said Cris Rowan in a recent webinar.

Rowan is a Canadian pediatric occupational therapist and child-development expert. Working in schools, she began to notice a change in children’s behavior and learning abilities.

Learning difficulties didn’t necessarily indicate a lack of intelligence, she observed, but had more to do with a child’s ability to stay focused and alert. Many kids’ energies were becoming either too charged up or too “zoned out” for learning to be possible.

Increasingly, she found that students were having trouble learning to print, to write their letters — a foundational motor skill and literacy tool. Rowan then conducted extensive research. She found that “many of children’s school performance issues were related to increased use of TV, video games, Internet, cell phones, and tablets.”

Developmental delays and behavior disorders continue to escalate, as does technology use. Rowan said that in most tech-oriented families, “Sleep and screen usage guidelines aren’t being followed. It’s never a problem with the child — it’s the environment.”

Screen Free Week offers a simple tool for changing that environment, at least temporarily. Whether it’s one child or a whole family, during after-school hours or all day long, the challenge helps people recognize how screens are affecting their lives.

“It is our hope that we will continue to grow Screen-Free Week from our small beginnings this year to becoming a community-wide event in the future,” said SES Principal Joan Warburg. “At Sisters Elementary we want to partner with parents in inspiring their children to do other activities rather than spend their time on screens…If members of the community want to join in with us we will have BINGO cards and pledge forms in our school office.”

Any kind of “digital detox” may help people gain perspective on their screen use. Some realize they have a real problem or addiction that deserves serious attention. Others simply rediscover that real life can be more meaningful and nourishing without ever-present screens.

Screen-Free Week accomplishes a short detox (though many participating adults still use screens for work, banking, and other essentials). The advantage of Screen-Free Week over a personal detox is that a whole family or community can share the experience.

Times have changed since the effort began. It was 1994, and organizers called it TV-Free America. Promoted by Adbusters magazine, the effort gained strength — but so did screens. A proliferation of Internet access and then smartphones brought more screens to more places.

The name changed to Digital Detox Week, then Screen-Free Week. Thousands of people take part every year.

Part of an ongoing series about screen-time, health, and nature. If you, your family, or classroom participate in Screen-Free Week activities, contact The Nugget and let us know how it goes. We welcome other local stories and inquiries about screen use; we may be able to quote you anonymously or using a pseudonym (fake name). Email tiffany@plazm.com.