‘No more TV’ edict is too little, too late

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

WHEN I was a child and we came to Suffolk for long weekends and summer breaks there was only one rule – no TV.

It sounds a little bit tyrannical put like that but actually we just simply didn’t have a television set in our holiday home.

Obviously there were times when this restriction was really resented by myself and my siblings – despite the fact there were only four channels to choose from at the time and not a lot on.

But for the most part the lack of technological stimulus went unnoticed because there was so much else to occupy our time.

We would spend hours out on the beach, looking for shells, starfish and skimming stones in the sea.

We would ride our bikes up and down the road leading to our cottage, play tag, tennis, set up camps, go crabbing and make daisy chains long enough to stretch round the perimeter of the garden.

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When evening came we had a cupboard full of boardgames to chose from, and when we had exhausted Monopoly, Guess Who? and Cluedo, my parents would patiently teach us the rules of the card games Whist, Rummy and Canasta.

I have fond memories of those childhood holidays – holidays which inspired me to move here permanently from London as an adult – but I also distinctly remember the year my mum and dad finally relented and bought a small television.

It had been a particularly bad summer, with lots of rain, strong winds and grey skies.

Stuck inside, instead of enjoying our usual outdoor pursuits, my sister, brother and I were at each other’s throats.

One morning my mother lost her temper and my father was sent out on an urgent errand, returning later with an ugly box of a set, which we were restricted to watching just an hour of after tea (and only if we had been well-behaved).

I am quite embarrassed to admit that I impose no such parameters on my own children.

I would love to tell you that they watch only the odd educational programme here and there but the truth is that at ages two and four my kids are already gluttons to the world of technology.

Take breakfast last Saturday morning. Sadly, the house guests we were expecting for the weekend cancelled last-minute, so we were a bit stuck as to what to do.

I came downstairs after making the beds to find my daughter stretched out on the sofa with the remote in her hand, idly flicking through the hundreds of kids’ channels on the Sky Box. Meanwhile, my son had a piece of toast in one hand and my iPhone in the other and was using his sticky fingers to scroll through the menu of icons with ease.

My husband was no better. He was sat in the corner of the room, laptop on his knee, phone to his ear, fiddling with the cables of the Wii games console to try and work out why he had lost connection.

I don’t understand why the scene distressed me quite so much – it really is a fairly normal one in our household – but like some kind of supermum tornado I snatched the remote and iPhone out of my children’s hands and yanked the main socket out of the wall, killing power to the computer and TV.

Dusting off my hands and ignoring the appalled expressions on my family’s faces I made an announcement.

“Right,” I said. “Just one weekend. That’s all I’m after. Two days of no TV, no games consoles and no computer.”

My husband rolled his eyes.

“Fine by me,” he said. “But I bet you are begging to tune into your favourite television shows by 8pm tonight.”

Look, don’t get me wrong, I’m no purist when it comes to entertainment with technology – far from it – but I do think it’s a good idea to unplug once in a while. Last month I read a worrying academic report which found that obesity among pre-schoolers was at record levels.

The study went on to suggest that the worst culprit, leading to flabby toddler tums, was not sweets, crisps or fizzy pop but sedentary behaviour linked to TV-watching and the playing of computer games.

In the words of the study, “pre-schoolers are more malleable in early childhood, which is the ideal window in which to intervene”.

So intervene I did.

The next step was to fill those two days with so much fun that they didn’t miss the box once.

First I sent all three into the garden with a football. Surprisingly, my husband seemed to perk up a bit then and they spent a good hour learning to dribble and score a goal.

The rest of Saturday morning was spent flying a kite, digging for worms in the garden, making paper planes and dancing round the living room in a game of musical statues.

After lunch we spent half an hour drawing a map of Melton Park and then went on a treasure hunt, looking for clues to lead us to the playground.

Supper time was tricky. Usually after eating, the kids like to crawl onto the sofa and immerse themselves in a little CBeebies. It gives me a bit of peace and quiet to tidy up and load the dishwasher.

Instead, I set them up with some finger-painting, which started well but ended up with two rainbow-smeared children for bedtime.

Sunday morning we agreed to head to Southwold for a day out.

Southwold is really one of my favourite spots in Suffolk, with plenty to do and see.

We walked the length of the pier, dodged the waves breaking on the beach, fed the gulls with our leftover picnic and built a huge sandcastle, which my son demolished while my daughter wailed.

After a full day of activities, and all exhausted, we bought the kids a lollipop each (after all, they had had enough exercise to warrant a sweet treat) and sat on the wall next to the beach huts. “It has been nice doing all these things with you and daddy this weekend,” my daughter said.

Delighted, I smiled. “I’m glad you have had fun,” I replied. “What has been your best bit?”

“Coming to Southwold,” she said. “Because this is where they film Grandpa In My Pocket and that is my favourite television programme on CBeebies.”

It seems my intervention was too little, too late.

• Please drop me an email at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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