The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop, working on my laptop, when a mom with two school-aged kids came in. It was a hot, sticky day, and they’d obviously just come from the park or the pool. The mama was frazzled, juggling a large tote packed to the gills with towels, sports equipment and water guns, as well as her purse and her phone. Just as she approached the counter, she dropped her cell on the ground and her kids leapt on it. “I had it first!” the older one said, thrusting it in the air triumphantly. “No fair!” the little one wailed.

The mom, exasperated, caught my eye just then and I smiled in solidarity. “I know how that is,” I said. “Mine do the same thing.” She sighed and shook her head, but then she turned back to her brood and said, “You know the rule.”

“Dance parties only,” they said, resigned, and handed her the phone. I laughed out loud. “We had too much screen time happening,” she said to me. “They only get the phone for music now.” Brilliant, I told her. But then I got thinking—what else can you do with a smartphone that doesn’t actually involve the screen?

Here are my top five ideas to try this summer, but I’d love to hear yours, too!

Play name that tune

In the same vein as the dance party, use a streaming service (or even YouTube) to play a few bars of popular songs. Get your kiddos to guess the song titles, playing a little more from each song when they get stuck. Got a carful of kids? Divide them into teams and play Family Feud-style to pass the time during a road trip.

Make it memorable: Choose a few songs that are important to your family. You’ll love reminiscing about the music memory.

Go geocaching

For those of you unfamiliar with geocaching, it’s basically a treasure hunt for prizes left by other geocachers. Download a geocaching app like Geocaching or GeoCaches and hit the road. You’re most likely to find geocaches off the beaten path or in forested areas, so turn on your phone’s location services and look for regions with lots of finds (they appear as icons or dots) to keep the kids entertained. 

Make it memorable: Pack a picnic and make a day of it, or coordinate with friends or family members to meet up as a surprise along the way. 

Create a photo essay

Kids see things differently than adults do, and what your children see through the lens may surprise and delight you (and you never know, you might just encourage a future photography career!). Give your kiddos a theme (like we did for our summer photo essay) and hand over the phone. Just turn on Airplane Mode if you’re worried they’ll sneak a video or two while they’re setting up their shots!

Make it memorable: Look up some basic photography tips in advance. Show them how to focus on something in the distance, or on a detail up-close (like the outtake from our essay below!). Teach them to look for the less obvious in the image. Then, sift through the pictures together and choose a selection to frame.

Teach art lessons

Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat because your kids will need to see the screen. There are a ton of drawing tutorials available online—choose a style that interests your brood and set up the phone where everyone can see (you can also use an HDMI cable and plug it into the TV, for a larger view). Practice the illustrations together.

Make it memorable: Buy some permanent pens and a set of watercolour pencils. The kids will be thrilled to outline and colour their work with new tools.

Make a movie

This sounds daunting but has the potential to be a pretty amazing accomplishment. Sit down with the kids and write a screenplay – it doesn’t need to be long, but it should have a simple plot the kids can act out (assign roles as you write so you don’t have any arguments after the fact!). Decide on costumes and props and set the kids loose to scope locations. Be the cameraperson and film the play. (Tip: Try not to direct, or insert yourself too much. You’ll get better footage if they forget you’re watching.)

Make it memorable: If you’re up for it, look for some easy editing software and piece the final cut together. There are simple ways to add title cards and credits, too. Have a viewing party for friends and family.

Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue.