Distractions are a problem in modern family life. It’s all too easy to let the weekend slip away spending more time staring at a screen rather than engaging with your children.
For kids too there are ever more shiny things vying for their attention. Screen time is a difficult thing to manage at the best of times, never mind when apps and games incentivise “just one more go” or “needing to finish the stage” before stopping.
In the last month though, the family started using an app called Forest, available on iOS and Android, to help with this tension and get us spending more time with each other with fewer distractions.
The premise of Forest is simple. It enables you to grow a beautiful forest of different trees each day, gives you an ongoing score and unlocks new varieties and sizes as you progress.
So far so simple. However, with Forest the way you grow the trees is to set a timer and then not touch your tablet or phone until it runs out. If you use any other app, the tree dies. A withered leaf-less trunk remains in your forest for that day forever.
It’s a game you can only win by not playing it.
It’s a beautiful app, with each tree variety changing depending on how long you have invested to grow it. Each day you have a new forest to start and previous days can be viewed and contribute to your overall score.
Loading this onto each of our children’s iPad and iPod Touch devices, they soon got into the idea and really cared about crafting the best forest each day. A cry of pain could be heard when one of them intentionally, or inadvertently, navigated away from the app and killed a tree.
For the first time they had a real incentive to put their screens down and do something else. Of course, there are other screens in the house they would migrate to if we weren’t careful, but a few simple rules about what they could do while growing their trees helped engage them in a variety of less technological pursuits.
Over time we upped the incentive with small prizes for accumulating 24 hours worth of tree growing. Some of them took this very seriously and got their total in a few days while others steadily worked their way up the ranks.
Wanting to play along and help encourage the children, my wife and I also installed the app on our iPhones and were soon competing for how many trees we could grow in a day.
But more than playing for the sake of the kids, having a tangible way to commit to time away from our smartphones has become something valuable for us in its own right.
It’s a welcome solution for that moment where you put your phone down because you’re sick of checking Facebook for the last 10 minutes. Then within a few seconds it’s in your hands again and Facebook is open.
Setting a tree growing when we put our phones down takes the possibility of returning to our habitual checking off the table.
The children soon got us to all put two hour trees on to grow when we settled down to watch family films together. No more did we have the temptation to surreptitiously check Facebook half way through Mary Poppins.
There aren’t many apps I’d say are essential for our family, but Forest has instantly made it onto that list. If you are looking for a way to be less distracted and see each other’s faces more often then it’s well worth checking out.