If you’ve read my other posts, you may have noticed that the Little Engineer and I enjoy playing out stories from the books we read. The same goes for videos and games.
The Little Engineer doesn’t ask to watch a lot of TV, and while he loves certain games on our iPad, he generally prefers to play a “live action” version with real objects if he can get one of us to play with him.
The beauty of this is it’s an easy way to limit his screen time without him realizing we’re doing so. If he asks to play Angry Birds, I can say, “Hey, let’s play live action Angry Birds!” and we’re off and running to find his birds and piggies and blocks.
Part of what makes that work for us is allowing a little extra screen time on days when that feels appropriate. And sometimes it can be really helpful to be able to fall back on the TV. So when he made a rare request to watch a Thomas & Friends movie after having already watched another show, I said yes.
But not without having a trick up my sleeve. Because when you can limit screen time by replacing it with play, you can still temper it by transforming screen time into play.
The movie he asked for was Blue Mountain Mystery, the latest Thomas & Friends movie. I turned it on, and quickly built a track layout in front of the TV. Though if I’d had less time, I could have just build the most important part. I knew that one of his favorite parts of the movie is when Blondin Bridge falls down on Paxton, a friendly but not-too-bright diesel engine. Knowing this, I built a bridge out of blocks with a piece of “wacky track” running over it. If you don’t have the right track and accessories to recreate this exactly as I did it, you could just build the bridge supports with blocks, put a piece of straight track on top and run track underneath, and I’ll bet it would be just as fun.
If you look closely, you can see how I designed it so that the blocks can be easily coaxed into falling down on poor Paxton. Those two horizontal blocks directly above the engine are only held up by the weight of the blocks stacked above the posts on either side of the track.
I didn’t have to tell the Little Engineer what this was for, just set it up and said, “It’s ready!”
After he knocked the bridge down, he would try to build it back up again. Sometimes I got called back to assist with that, sometimes he got it to a satisfactory point on his own before — what else — knocking it down again.
Another thing he enjoyed was running other trains across the broken bridge, like Rheneas does in the movie. I had also built the layout with plenty of parallel tracks for a train yard, so many of the trains took turns hauling small rocks around the “quarry.”
And all this time, the movie was playing above him on the television. But was he watching it? I took several photos while he played, and almost all of them looked like this:
Occasionally what he was hearing from the movie would influence his play — it’s great to hear him using words like “keystone” properly in context — but mostly it was passing quite literally over his head. While it’s not exactly “screen-free” time, he got what he wanted and so did I, in a way I was happy with.