A family games night always thrills my kids, and after a busy start to the school year, I decided to surprise the boys with just that.
As a writer for the Tech Timeout Challenge by life insurance provider Foresters, I made a huge commitment as summer began. I set off to up the ante and do a full week without technology with the whole family. Over the summer, how hard could it be? It was hard. And I am embarrassed to say that we did not succeed. We lasted 3 days. But in the process we did accomplish the original intent of the program. We sat as a family for a minimum of an hour a day for the whole summer, talking, playing board games and playing in the sand. The art of balancing technology use as a parent proved far more challenging than I expected.
“Beep. Ding! Ring!!” Twitter is chirping, the kids just finished a dance-off with the Wii and my facebook feed is buzzing on the Blackberry. As summer approaches, Canadians have a growing social concern about the impact that digital devices and technology are having on family togetherness. Remember those long cottage days as kids when we spent hours playing Battleship, catching fireflies and beating the parents at Monopoly? (I think they let me).
I walked into my Right To Play circle and felt insecure. And then a little boy looked at me. His name was George. George Washington. Seriously. This is Liberia. And we held hands and he showed me what to do. I couldn’t really understand the thick accent of the group leader and I kept doing everything wrong. I started to relax and got into it after one of the kids squeezed my hand. I had just come into one of the poorest slums in the world on a slow road with people everywhere. West Point, Monrovia. I had No Idea. It smelled of fish and feces. Fruit was carried in buckets on heads and babies on backs. And I hadn’t really regrouped yet. After 36 hours of travel, I landed in the dark in an unknown country. My family was worried for my safety (Google Liberia and you see only images of the recent war). I didn’t really know what to expect. But I trusted Right To Play. And so I should have.
We played short games that I could only relate to my many years of theatre (which everyone joked was a form of therapy). The games taught trust, learning and self-revelation. In one we were a team acting as a dragon. With arms around the waist of the person in front, the head of the dragon had to catch the tail. Many of us ended in the sand but before falling, we moved as a group, anticipating the collective movement. In another – I think we call it ‘telephone’ in North America – a phrase was passed around the circle and the final person announced what it ended up being. We talked about discrimination and judgement.
After the final game we did an au revoir, kind of like ballet class when you thank the teacher and your peers. Clap clap head bend, clap clap head bend, clap clap, blow kisses! (In a fab rhythm of course). Giggles and laughter all around.
Walking out of the games area we went into the harsh reality of these kids’ lives. The uniforms always make people look so wealthy. (But I did notice a tear in the back of George’s shirt that needed mending.) I saw a pile of other kids not enrolled in school who were not participating in the Right To Play programs that day. (There are special play days for all the children in the community including those who do not go to school). They wouldn’t make eye contact and were yearning to be a part of the action. The games. The learning. Very different from the kids who just told me the definition of discrimination with confidence and big voices. My heart broke.
We past corrugated tin houses down the 3 foot-wide dirt pathways. To visit the school. The whole thing was the size of one Vancouver classroom, but with 6 classrooms, grades K-6 plus the principal’s office (all labeled with cardboard). The kids were packed like chickens (but still grinning) and Right To Play is currently raising money for a new school. These are the lucky kids. Many of their teachers are Right To Play leaders as well, using the curriculum for the phys-ed portion of the day. Boys, and girls were all hankering to get into my photos. And to, of course, see the result shown on my fancy SLR screen.
We then wandered through more alleyways to the beach. En route I was offered some local fare. Manioc. Crisped beans. Porridge. Fish from the boats off the beach. You see, there is no power here. No water. Fish is the staple (thank goodness for boat launches from the beach) and it is caught and dried. Huge barrels burn with wood to cook and preserve the treats from the ocean. This was the first smell.
Descending on the beach, after running into a woman cleaning up garbage (since Right To Play began, some community members have formed a volunteer group to make the area more habitable), I looked at the extraordinary view, white sand and clear water. I only found one shell. It was like the beaches of the Bahamas. And then I realized what the second smell was about. I saw a few dark spots and got warned about where I stepped. My head was spinning. And then there was a young boy. Probably 6, he pulled his trousers down as he squatted. And then there were three boys doing the same. Their families couldn’t afford the 5 Liberian dollars for the use of the new latrines (ones on stilts that dump into the ocean). Many women are pregnant here and families on average (I would guess) for the area – 4 kids, 2 adults. That’s about $1US per day to use a toilet with privacy. And the average income? $1.25. Beach it is I guess. I walked through the latrine runoff in order to get back to our vehicle as I watched many kids play in the water. These people need a well.
The women carried babies on their backs – a feat I was astounded about. One used a towel. We go back Thursday and I am getting up the confidence for a lesson. The men hung in groups, a few manned stores and many scowled at my camera. (Understandably many feel that I am about to exploit their plight to make money in the West by taking a photo with my expensive SLR).
And that was only the morning. We drove out – 6 of us, silent. The cockroaches and malfunctioning AC in the hotel room seem pretty good right now. I want to play with the kids again.
“Over the River and through the woods…”
Well, you know the rest, don’t you? Gone are the days of congenial drives in the family car to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Did those days ever really exist? Today, our little singer would rather don a pair of earphones and spend time staring at a screen (computer, gaming system, DVD player etc.) than participate in a family sing-a-long in the car. But, if like us and you feel that allowing your child to completely disconnect from the rest of the family is just plain unacceptable, there is a solution. TravelKiddy, a company that specializes in keeping your kids entertained on long car, plane or train rides without the need of an electronic screen is just a mouse click away.