Is your child’s screen time and online gaming driving you crazy?

Managing my son’s screen time and online gaming has (so far) been my biggest everyday parenting challenge. I’ve set time limits. I’ve ensured he does other activities before screen is allowed. And I’ve ‘Mum-splained’ many times that the TV and iPad do not count as a ‘screen break’ from his computer. He also does a number of sports. I have every strategy going, and yet screen time still feels like an ongoing negotiation, requiring energy I don’t have. He is nearly ten and he is exceptionally persistent when it comes to computers.

Ban the screen? Why not, it worked for me!

It doesn’t help that my parents actually sold our TV when I was in grade three. The story goes that I came home from school one day, raced in the door to turn on the TV. My Dad (who was a teacher, so walked home from school with us) said to me ‘turn that thing off and go read a book’, to which I unwittingly pronounced ‘I hate reading!’ That was it. Our TV was gone!

A strict approach to screen time is very tempting, but it just doesn’t seem practical in today’s world. All I missed out on were two pretty ordinary TV channels (which was all that was available in regional Queensland in the 1980s). And I could roam the neighbourhood with my siblings and had kids next door to play with. Computers and ‘digital futures’ weren’t part of the ‘after school’ landscape. My son has already told me that when he grows up, he will either work for Mojang (makers of Minecraft) or Roblox Corporation (makers of Roblox – another very popular online building game).

Online gaming – do you have issues like this too?

Recently, I allowed my son to join the Roblox Brick Club ($5/month), which means he gets about $400 Robux (in-game money) to spend zhooshing up his avatar. I’d made his account secure and disabled the chat function. However, within a week he tells me he wants to call his friend after school and gift her $150 of Robux to her Roblox account. I talk to him about how giving or lending money to friends can end up creating all kinds of problems (why would online money be any different?). I suggest that his friend can come over for a play in place of giving her the Robux. Of course, they are both cool with this. It seems counter-intuitive, but soon after this incident, I went onto Steam and bought him a Lego Batman game he’d been asking for – purely to provide a diversion from online games like Roblox.

Could ‘more’ screen time be the answer?

Last month, I came across the answer to some of my concerns at a Writally content marketing event where I was learning to blog. One of the guest speakers – Josh Wulf (Legendary Recruiter at Just Digital People) talked about how awesome it was to have his teenage son involved in one of his businesses (Magikcraft.io) as he had encouraged his son to learn how to code. He described a similar situation to mine where his son was passively engaged with computers. Josh said he wanted to flip this and get him constructively engaged and even potentially set him up for a future career. I was ALL EARS! The answer was learning how to code…

Have you heard of Coding Kids?

Coding Kids is a weekly coding class available in Brisbane and Ipswich. I enrolled my son in the Tuesday class run at the Ipswich Junior Grammar School (there is a class on a Thursday as well for a younger children). It is obviously pitched at children who attend this school as the hour-long classes start at 3:15pm. However, as I don’t work on this day, I can pick my son up 15 minutes early from his nearby school and arrive in time.

What happens at Coding Kids?

My son has been to two classes so far. Coding Kids teaches ‘Scratch’, which is an introductory coding platform, designed for 8 – 16-year-olds. Scratch has been around for ten years and is used in over 150 countries to create games, animations and stories (and much more). If you really get into it there is an online community to share, discuss and remix each other’s coding projects. The real beauty of Scratch for a first time coding student is that you get to see what you have created straight away as the screen is split into two areas. It is also quite easy to use. You simply drag and drop commands and then snap them together.

In the classes, they learn how to code in Scratch by doing a project together. At the first class, the kids coded a project where they needed to fill up a cup of water for Scratchy the cat.

The following week they finished up the cat project and moved onto creating a maths game where the player could ask any maths question of the dog, and see if they got the answer correct.

What my son likes about Coding Kids

  • ‘It’s fun!’ When I asked him what specifically was ‘fun’ about Coding Kids he said it is the group of kids and the conversations they have among themselves and with the teacher. There is quite a bit of discussion and questioning going on as they work through a coding project.
  • He’s signed into Scratch at home and checked out other people’s coding projects. He recognises some other Scratch based games, which he already plays, like Geometry Dash. The cool thing about Scratch is that he can look up the code behind any project on the site.
  • There are experience levels within Scratch. He is currently a ‘new Scratcher’ and he can become a ‘Scratcher’ by creating projects himself and commenting helpfully on other people’s projects. This can take a few weeks or more to achieve. These ‘levels’ of expertise (and attaining them) have always motivated my son in online games.

Why I give Coding Kids a ‘thumbs up’

  • The classes are very hands on – the kids are creating on the computer within minutes of arriving (as they wrap up the project from the week before as a starting point).
  • When each new project is introduced, the teacher guides them through a problem solving and design process, while showing them the elements of Scratch as they go.
  • The teacher is fantastic at asking questions. ‘What are the elements will we need?’ He doesn’t stop if someone gets the answer. He keeps going around and says ‘Johnny, what do you think?’ At least a couple of times a lesson, he’ll give everyone an opportunity to share what they think before revealing the answer. The questions are wide-ranging, such as:
    • ‘what does the dog do?’ – which gets the kids thinking about what they’ll need to code,
    • ‘how do I add a new sprite?’ – which gets them to revisit something they have already learnt.
    • ‘what do you think we should work on first?’ – which gets them thinking about the order in which to code,
  • The teacher also encourages them to break down any complicated steps and demonstrates in the Scratch program how to add comments. He always adds comments to show his plan for the code. It reminds me of how teachers get students to plan their paragraphs before starting to write.
  • The teacher also encourages the kids to try out their ideas and experiment. If one of them asks him if such and such will work, he responds ‘It’s worth trying, play around with it’.

Learn to code – a great way to mix up screen time and prepare for the future!

I’m really glad that my son is enjoying learning to code at Coding Kids. It means that not every minute of his screen time is dedicated to online gaming or watching other people play online games (via YouTube).

The lessons work out to be just under $22/hour, which on one level may seem expensive, but if you think about it, your child is learning a language. Further, Australia’s Digital Pulse – a joint report released last year by Deloitte Access Economics and the Australian Computer Society – says that about 600, 000 people worked in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) industry in 2014 in Australia, and there is demand for a further 100, 000 by 2020. Clearly, there are huge opportunities for children who learn how to code today!

If you want to transform your children’s screen time into something more active and less passive, check out Coding Kids as I have found that students:

  • are asked to think about a variety of coding projects and design solutions,
  • get to talk together about how the code could be done (the class size is small), and
  • are repeatedly being exposed to a way of thinking, questioning and planning which will be useful for any situation (whether it relates to computers or not).

I found it easy to enrol my son online and the venue has computers. You just need to set up a Scratch account beforehand (Coding Kids send you an email about this beforehand and it is free and easy to do).

If you have a computer-obsessed child (aged 7–14), consider coding as a great way to flip their computer use into something constructive. Coding Kids is a fun way for them to start learning code with a well-known, open-source computer language. They have holiday programs as well!

By Nancy Entwistle