Plugging Into Family Time: Fun Ways to Connect With Family & Disconnect Devices

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It’s a very well-known and not-always-so-fun-fact that most of us are even more digitally connected than we realize.

My dad owns a flip phone. For those who don’t know what that is, all I can say is that it doesn’t connect to the internet. Despite his complaints about how much people rely on those “blasted devices” for everything, he calls me all the time and asks me to “look something up” online or send texts or Facebook messages to other members of the family. Sorry, Dad, you’re connected.

With a phone in my holster, a laptop strapped to my back and an iPad in-hand ready to zap information to people and ride the rails of the social media highway. There are times that I feel like a “chrome cowgirl.”

While there are oodles of benefits to the digital realm, if it prevents us from taking the time to build real, personal relationships, we need to stop and consider ways to change . . . and make it fun!

In fact, what if our youth were the ones who initiated taking away the phones this year?
Family Time AdvertIt could happen! Our youth are creative individuals and there are plenty of fun activities for both parents and youth to do during the holidays. Make it fun, and maybe next year they will tell you to turn off your phone and come hang out!

I am blessed to have amazing colleagues in North Carolina Cooperative Extension, so here are a collection of ideas from Extension agents and specialists across the state who have some really great thoughts about connecting with families over the holidays:

  • Supply Raid: A favorite with my family was to go through the house and get anything that you could find in 3 minutes and bring it to the living room floor (please note that the kitchen was a literal treasure-trove that we pillaged frequently). Each family member just grabbed stuff and brought it to their pile – string, duct tape, pots, pans, spatulas, magnets, plastic bags, etc., just use what you have! Then each family member gets 20 minutes to build something out of what they have in their pile. You can make it a competition or you can just see what kind of cool stuff you can build!
      • Variation 1: have your family members each pick up two random items and bring them to the table to see what they can build together
      • Variation 2: have a bunch of household items in a bucket and then have each family member pull out one item, get it, and then build something together.
  • The Phone Dare: I’ve heard this from several people, but it’s a great idea! Have everyone put their phones/devices in the middle of the table. Play a game, talk, do something fun. The first time someone reaches for their phone, they are responsible for certain cleaning or chores. Parents really have to be willing to do this too. You can’t just make it about your kids. Checking the time counts too! If they want to see what time it is, they need to check an actual clock or watch, not their phone!
      • Variation: adults who are spending time with other adults – whether family or not – do the same thing except that the person who reaches for their phone before the visit is over will have to pick up the check or host the event next year!
  • Family “Chopped” Challenge: Think your skills in the kitchen rival that of your friends and other family members? Have a competition and see who makes the best healthy Christmas dessert! Pretty sure (like me) that your skills do not rival your friends and family? Be the host/judge! Make a real show out of it!
  • Making Decorations: An oldie, but goodie, and a lot cheaper! For the $15-$20 it would cost you to buy a brand-name ornament, you can buy a lot of paper and popcorn! When you’re through, you can recycle the paper yourself and make paper for holiday cards next year and any popcorn that’s left over can be pulled off the string, given to the birds, and the string re-used!
  • Counting Christmas Lights: Traveling this year? This is a variation on a game we used to play in the car, but instead of counting cows, count the number of houses you see with Christmas lights/decorations. You can only count the houses on your side of the car. Because we traveled in rural areas, the rule was that if you passed a shopping center or a certain store on your side of the car, they took all your lights and you had to start over. The person who ends up with the most lighted houses by the time you reach your destination wins.
  • Go Outside!: Physical exercise is extremely important! But it doesn’t have to be in a gym or on a track. It can be fun playing games as a family outdoors and there are lots of great ways to do this. Being outside has major health benefits and we have some great suggestions:
      • Go to your local park: There are lots of municipal, county, and state parks where you can have fun and explore! Check out this link to find some great parks near you or just search “parks near me” (and then put up the phone when you get there):
      • Play in the yard: Parents too! Whether it’s tag, hide-and-seek, capture the flag, or any other game you come up with, enjoy your time out. Smiles and laughter are contagious and positive!
      • Do you wanna build a snowman?: So maybe we don’t have as much snow in the South as other places, but you can build a lot of forts and other creations out of sticks and leaves! (Just don’t chop down trees). This is a great way to have fun while cleaning your yard!
      • Stargazing!: This is a really cool idea from a colleague to have the family wrap up at night and go outside to see the different constellations. Can’t see them from your house because of all the lights? Time to find friends with a field or go to a park and bring a lawn chair and a cup of hot cocoa! While this is not being totally disconnected from your phone, there is an app that has the constellations listed and can tell you what you’re looking at.
  • Scrapbooking, let me count the ways!: It doesn’t have to be fancy, but you can put together a scrapbook of old photos. Have a teen write a letter to their future child about what they want that child’s holiday to be like. Have each member write down their favorite holiday memory and compile a book of stories.
  • GIVE BACK!: With all of the commercialism out there along with all of the need, it’s so important to realize our own blessings and to give back in return! Volunteer at a shelter or soup kitchen. Give toys to children who might not have presents otherwise. Visit a nursing home or children’s hospital and go caroling. Have a family craft session where you make hats and gloves and then donate them. There are lots of ways to give back and have family time in return!

My colleague, Sarah Delap, said “For my family, it was always about the traditions . . . if [you] have not started some, start now.”  That’s great advice! Habits are formed over time and new, positive habits can be formed by being intentional. We need to make a habit of taking the time to disconnect from devices and build relationships through quality time with family and friends. In time, who knows? Maybe your youth will be the one to say “I’m taking your phone!”

Special thanks to the following contributors for their ideas and input: Sarah Delap, Jones County 4-H Agent; Sarah Miller, Moore County 4-H Agent; Dave Herpy, NC 4-H Camping Specialist; Shea Ann DeJarnett, Robeson County 4-H Agent; Britteny Junious, Granville County 4-H Agent; Louise Hensley, Beaufort County 4-H Agent; Mary Arnaudin, Transylvania County 4-H Agent.