Radical Unschooling and “Screentime”

On the path toward radical unschooling, one of the first big changes we made was allowing more freedom with technology.

“Screentime” is a Misnomer

Screens are not all the same! We do so many interesting things with screens, it makes no more sense to lump it together under the word screentime than it would to lump all our use of paper as papertime. We don’t say papertime. That would be silly. We should not say screentime, either.

If an adult is using a television set, or a laptop computer, or a smartphone, and somebody asks them what they are doing they will say “watching the game” or “reading on Wikipedia” or “texting my friend”. They will never say “having screentime”. –Virginia Warren

Adults spend a very large portion of each day using screens (tv, computer, tablet, phone, e-reader, smart watch, etc) to do a HUGE range of activities. Some things (really just a few!) we do with screens:

  • Check the weather
  • Navigate with maps
  • Read books, news, blog posts, encyclopedia entries
  • Play games
  • Explore recipes
  • Watch interesting videos
  • Manage finances
  • Shop
  • Plan events
  • Talk to friends and family
  • Clock in and out of work
  • Find inspiration for arts and crafts

Our Journey

We are maybe four or five months down this road with N. Until about 2½ years old, he was restricted to half an hour a day of screentime, then about an hour a day till he was 3, and then the limit was something like “as little as possible unless mama is busy with the baby” and that came out to maybe 2-3 hours a day when C was an infant. We lumped all time with screens together, as if it were all the same, and we bought into the idea that too much screentime could damage our kid. I no longer buy into either of those ideas.

When we stopped setting arbitrary limits around digital technology, N went a little hog wild, I guess. It started with the TV and his phone (a very old iPhone 3 with a few games on it), then it expanded to Xbox 360 games, computer games, YouTube, and Netflix…

At first he seemed glued to the screen almost all day, but I quickly started to see what people (mistakenly) call self-regulation. He would take breaks to come play with C and me. He would run around a bit, being active. He would do a little imaginative play on his own, usually based around what he’d been exploring on screens (oh em gee… learning!).

Screens are now a much more integrated part of our lives. We aren’t living in fear of “too much.” We are appreciating all the joy and learning. When I see him watching something, I look at his face and see him drinking it all in. How people interact, how notes sound good together in music, how to logic, all kinds of things about art… and many times, he’s smiling in joy and appreciation as he watches. Where is the harm in that?

And his gaming? There is zero doubt of the learning happening there. You can see his progression, his ability to do new things he couldn’t previously do. And I believe all learning is valuable. His mastering the ability to use two thumbsticks to simultaneously move and look around in a game may not seem like an important life skill in and of itself, but he learned that on his own, he can use that skill to play all kinds of games that can expose him to all kinds of ideas and ways of thinking, and I believe it carries over into other hand-eye coordination abilities. That’s not even to mention all the other learning that happens that is very obviously relevant to life, such as addition, multiplication, decision-making…

The goal is for screen access to be truly unlimited, but S and I still have some deschooling to do. I have found that we are comfortable with not limiting the duration of N’s activities but still want to hold onto some control over the perceived quality of his activities. It’s easy for us to critique what he’s interested in and say that such-and-such a show is stupid! It’s also easy for us to decide that something is “too mature” for him. We need to remember that he can see for himself if something is too scary, too mature, too beneath him, too dumb. In fact, he has already decided that some things are too scary for him, and we certainly did not have to tell him. In fact, we thought he’d like those things, and he is saying no.

Are Screens Bad?

I think what parents are really complaining about when it comes to kids and screens is gaming and video watching because these things appear to some as “mindless” recreation. They see neither the value nor the potential for learning, and they do not respect their kids’ interests. (Look for a post about respect and childism coming soon.)

When kids are wanting to do something, there is a reason for it. Assuming the home is peaceful, there’s no stress to escape (school is a huge source of stress!), and assuming there is no false sense of scarcity around a certain activity because it has been restricted, kids are going to choose activities where they are learning. I see it all the time with my two. They want to play with things that give a potential for mastery or (especially as N gets older) imagination.

Recreation is not separate from learning! Being in a state of calm and joy is, in and of itself, very conducive to learning. Following one’s interests improves learning, too. The fears about attention span, changes in the brain, eye strain, et cetera… I now am confident to dismiss them. I can SEE how false they are. And, by the way, you can read more about that.

I don’t want to live in fear in anything. God has not given us a spirit of fear. And making decisions out of fear – those are the worst decisions! I choose God, and I choose love, joy, and peace. Those are the things I am reaching for in my decision-making. Fear can just shut up.

…Further Reading…

Sense and Nonsense About Video Game Addiction

Value and Uses of TV and Video for Unschoolers

Benefits of Video Games

What Can Be Learned from Minecraft

Rejecting a Pre-Packaged Life


Learning Is Not Linear: How Unschooled Children Learn

Fun is More Important Than “Education”

Learning Happens When it’s Relevant and Relatable: the Case for Learning in the Real World

Limiting Your Child’s Fire Time



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