My three oldest kids are ages 5, 7, and 8. We’re always experimenting with ways to help them learn to use devices in a healthy way. Our latest experiment, “Daily Demos,” has been the most successful one yet, so I figured I’d share it.
I think we’re all aware of the the problem. Screens can be addictive, and it’s easy for anyone (both kids and adults) to fall into unhealthy patterns using them. Most parents of my generation turn to screen-time restrictions to prevent excessive screen use (and to feel less parental guilt). I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with screen-time restrictions. Yes, screens are portals of endless consumption but they are also amazing tools for creativity. I don’t want to restrict that.
Enter Daily Demos
Daily Demos is s a ritual that incentivizes our kids to use devices for creativity. Here’s how it works.
Every day, before we begin our bedtime routine, I call my kids together for Daily Demos. It’s just a dedicated time for each child to show me what they created that day.* Here are some of our ground rules:
- You can only demo things you create, not things you discover. I’m glad when my kids discover new things (like a weird insect or a new video game level), but that’s not what daily demos is for.
- You can demo any type of creation. Physical or digital, it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen everything from drawings and dance moves to stop-motion videos and Minecraft towers.
- You can only demo what you created today. This is just to avoid long sessions of digging through backlogs of past creations. I make exceptions when we have to postpone Daily Demos, or if someone realizes they forgot to demo something specific. “It’s ok, you can demo it tomorrow.”
- You can demo incremental progress on a long-term creation. They can just show me the parts that are new. Or, if they want to wait until it’s complete to demo it, I’m ok with that too.
When each kid gives a demo, they have total ownership. They’re the one holding the device, navigating around, and explaining what they did. As they demo, I’m very intentional about how I respond.
First, I encourage good behavior, by heaping them with attention and praise. This takes a few forms:
- I recognize them for trying new and challenging things. “Is this the first time you used GarageBand to compose a song? It turned out really good for your first try.”
- I point out my favorite parts of what they made. “I really like how you used watercolors for the sunset. It makes the colors blend together smoothly.”
- I ask tons of questions. “Why did you build it like that?” “Where did you get that idea?” “How are you planning on improving this in the future?” “If you had to do this over again, how would you do it differently?”
- I give them ideas. “Wouldn’t it be cool if you put a pool of lava under this narrow bridge?” Sometimes these ideas kick off a mini-brainstorming session. I want their eyes to light up with enthusiasm to continue working on it in the future.
Importantly, I don’t discourage bad behavior. If a kid spends all day binging on dumb videos and has nothing to demo, that’s totally fine. I’ll say something like, “Oh, that’s ok. You’ll have another chance to demo things tomorrow.”
This part is critical. I am not interested in making them feel guilty for “wasting time.” This isn’t about wasting time. This is about instilling a desire to create. I want them to waste whole days on dumb videos. And I want them to see how they feel at the end of that day, as they watch their siblings proudly demo their creations.
This isn’t a contrived scenario… it’s how the world works. As an adult, it’s ok to spend all your time consuming. Nobody will care. Nobody will stop you. In fact, businesses and advertisers will try their hardest to encourage you!
But when you see that friend of yours launch an app or write a book, you realize that you might have more to offer.
At the end of the day, the world rewards the creators. For those who consistently build useful things, the world will heap them with attention and praise (and maybe even money). Choosing to consume has a cost.
With Daily Demos, every day is an opportunity for my kids to learn how to regulate between consumption, and creation. It’s driven by incentives, not rules. It’s bottom-up, not top-down.
We’ve been following this routine for about 4 months now. It’s been great, but we’ve had to work through a few challenges:
- Kids have to learn how to demo. At first the demos were pretty rough… the kids would often dive right in to the details, and I’d have no clue what they were talking about. I had to show them how to take a step back and summarize what they did. Other times they’d open an app, start demoing, get distracted, and start playing. For that, we came up with a rule that they can’t make updates during demos.
- Demos can go long. With three kids, demos can easily take 30+ minutes a day (even more in the summer). It can feel a little long, but the time doubles as bonding-time and helps me stay involved in the kids’ daily activities.
- Daily doesn’t always happen. We aim for daily, but sometimes life gets in the way. If we get home late we’ll postpone it for a day, and that’s usually fine. If we miss several days in a row, the demos pile up and the kids can feel frustrated.
- They need creative opportunities. You don’t have to teach kids how to be creative… that’s just how they are. But you have to give them opportunities. With the right tools, kids today can write stories, make comics, compose music, take photos, produce films, make games, and more (things that only adults could do a generation ago). It’s my job to give them those tools.
To expand on that last point, we’ve found that our kids will do whatever we make accessible to them. If we make watching TV as easy as pushing a button, they’ll do that. Likewise, we can encourage creativity by making it convenient.
To do this, we fill up our devices with creative apps like ArtRage, Garageband, and Inventioneers, (and go light on the games and video apps). Also, our Chromebook is loaded with bookmarks to websites like Beepbox, Scratch, and Triangulart, and our shelves are full of Legos, modeling clay, and art supplies. All of this takes planning, but drowning kids in creative opportunities is the best way to ensure they’ll have things to demo.
Making it work for you
This is the process that works best for us, but I’m sure you could adjust it to work for kids of various ages and needs. For example, you may want to reduce the frequency of demos for older kids (with lots of homework).
And if you already have screen-time restrictions, you don’t have to get rid of them. You can add the demos to your existing routine to encourage good use of that time.
If you end up trying it out, feel free to email me and let me know how it goes.
*Yes, I’m a software developer, and yes, this is partially inspired by the sprint demos you see in agile software development 🙃