Are the days of ‘are we there yet?’ finally over?
The age-old childhood refrain may be on the verge of being killed off by the humble tablet. Rather than the sounds of noisy children in your backseat, imagine making your way through holiday traffic to the eerie sound of silence. Glancing in the rearview mirror, instead of the sight of squabbling siblings you might be more likely to see your children completely absorbed in their screen of choice.
A holiday is an aspirational thing. They can be a formative part of our family's well-being. We imagine smiling children at the beach and long evening chats with loved ones; laughs around a dinner table and siblings playing sweetly together. Add technology into the mix, however, and the picture isn't always so rosy. Mealtimes are taken over by YouTube and social media; a far cry from the idyllic family gathering we've been picturing.
The reality is, that it’s almost impossible to go cold turkey with technology these days. But a much-needed holiday is the perfect place to start to make small changes, reconnect with your loved ones and give your eyes a break. Of course, screens won’t be banished altogether; you may still need to navigate with Google Maps, shoot off an urgent email or keep up with your friends on social media. But by putting some limits in place you can still have a guilt-free screen-free holiday.
In order to help you plan some fun activities off the screen, we’ve put together a handy guide that you can use while travelling. And who knows? Maybe some of these ideas will seep into your everyday routine even after the holiday ends.
Before diving into our guide, you might be asking why a change in routine is necessary at all. A study from Research Britain and Leeds University has shown that 50% of adults are now looking at their screens for an enormous 11 hours or more each day. More than 25% use screens for 14 hours a day. This quarter of the population are practically sleeping, rising, looking at a screen all day, and then going back to bed. A scary thought.
Without being too pessimistic (there are positive sides to technology, after all), work undertaken by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), the NHS and Public Health England has pinpointed some of the physical and psychological effects of too much screen time.
Here’s a shortlist of the worst offenders:
While going cold turkey is a pipedream for most of us, we could all make better choices; whether it's turning phones off after work, switching out an hour of screen time in favour of an hour outside, or designating screen-free zones, such as the kitchen or the bedroom.
We all know that ditching a screen entirely is nigh-on impossible. Even on holiday, where work and schooling aren’t a consideration, you might need to use Google Maps, send an urgent email, or enjoy emergency wet-weather entertainment.
However, reducing our screen time by just small amounts each day can reap rewards. Less time on-screen normally equates to less sedentary activity, with all the health benefits that brings.
We appreciate that getting rid of screens altogether can be quite a holier-than-thou attitude to take. It’s not practical for most busy working parents, which is why sticking to screen reduction on holidays might be an easier first step. And if you need any more convincing, here are a few of the other mood-enhancing benefits of turning off your tech:
All of these benefits come with the most minimal effort. And what makes it even easier is locating a spectacular rural holiday cottage with a patchy phone signal, or, even better, no WiFi availability.
It will come as no surprise that the best way to go screen-free is to be forced into it. With no temptation to check emails or scroll on your socials, you can be fully present for your partner, your friends and your children.
There are still many holiday hotspots here in the UK that offer unreliable phone signals and patchy connections. While this is the stuff of nightmares in the real world, for a holiday it offers the perfect opportunity to disconnect and put your devices down.
Escape your frenetic daily life with a retreat to one of these glorious rural destinations, renowned for their wild landscapes and rolling hills.
Best for: Hiking amid tall mountains and wild swimming in chilly lochs
Like many of the UK’s upland areas, signal in the Scottish Highlands is patchy at best. Road trips through the mountains will be gloriously tech-free and the outdoorsy nature of the Highlands is designed to keep kids active. With older children, try hiking up Ben Nevis for a real challenge. Younger family members will be amazed at coming face to face with snow leopards and red pandas at the Highland Wildlife Park.
Best for: Watersports and coastal walks
The area around St Davids, the UK’s smallest city, is particularly erratic in terms of connectivity. But there is so much to enjoy here that you won’t need technology to have fun. Visit the outstanding medieval cathedral, rent paddleboards from one of the city’s surf shops, or drive to the nearby Blue Lagoon. This one-time slate quarry is now a bright emerald-green lake, and daredevils can be seen jumping off the rocks into the chilly pool below.
Best for: Wildlife spotting along the Norfolk Coast AONB
Your miniature explorers will be amazed by the fens, fossils and forests found up on Norfolk’s north coast. A fertile ground for wildlife, you can don your wellies and go on a voyage of discovery during your time here. Take a trip to Blakeney Point and visit the UK’s largest seal colony. Or adventure by night to Wiveton Downs, one of the area’s Dark Sky Discovery sites, and spot the different constellations in these magnificent crystal clear skies.
Best for: Golden beaches and great food
While Cornwall isn’t typically billed as a ‘technology-free’ hotspot, the combination of poor signal and impressive beaches is hard to resist. From Bude’s colourful beach huts to Newquay’s epic surf conditions, the beaches here each have a character of their own. Spend the day sunbathing and exploring the craggy coves, before heading to foodie Padstow for some of the county’s best fish and chips.
Best for: Historic villages and scenic countryside
With the misty moorland of Exmoor National Park, the hot springs at Bath and the beautiful towns of Wells, Dunster and Frome, Somerset is a great little county to get away from it all. Relaxing in Bath’s healing waters makes a digital detox all the more satisfying, while the non-traditional market town of Frome is packed full of independent boutiques, artists and quirky cafes.
Screen-free family activities are easy to come by when you’re on holiday, where the great outdoors beckons kids of all ages. Despite that, recent research has shown that today’s children are playing outside only half as much as their parents did. Take a look at just five of our favourite outdoor attractions to get you and the family exploring in a screen-free environment.
This enormous stretch of heathland, forest and farmland goes all the way from the Solent up to the cathedral town of Salisbury. Its wild and rugged woodland is packed with walking and biking trails for adults and older children, as well as idyllic villages with tasty cake stops.
Ideas for screen-free exploration:
The team at Chester Zoo spend an enormous amount of money and time each year on animal conservation and research. While keeping animals in captivity isn’t ideal (and could be a good talking point with your children), this zoo brings in a lot of money each year that goes back into supporting endangered species.
Ideas for screen-free exploration:
In a country full of outstanding national parks, it’s a tough ask to pick our favourite. Snowdonia has lots of diverse attractions to hold your attention, from the UK’s longest zip line to an intense mining experience that will introduce you to the important Welsh mining heritage.
Ideas for screen-free exploration:
This Yorkshire attraction is both a gigantic adventure playground that children will love, and a paradise for adult hikers. The ruins of the abbey itself are simply stunning, with their Gothic overtones, while the estate is an enormous site covering ancient woodland, aqueducts, rivers and more.
Ideas for screen-free exploration:
Bewilderwood is an absolutely amazing adventure playground, set in an area of Norfolk woodland. Based on the magical Tom Blofeld books of the same name, Bewilderwood offers enchantment to curious children, in the form of giant swings, quirky treehouses, storytelling, outdoor crafts, giant slides and so much more.
Ideas for screen-free exploration:
Stuck in a digital relationship rut? There are plenty of screen-free activities that couples can enjoy, from the comfort of your living room or in the sunny outdoors.
With the popularity of Wordle and its many knock-off iterations, the humble puzzle has never been more popular. Expand your mind with jigsaws, crosswords, brain teasers and more, and challenge yourselves to a friendly competition. This is a perfect lazy holiday morning activity for when you just want a slow breakfast and ease into the day.
If you live in or are holidaying in a city, many pubs have a selection of board games to help you while away the hours with a few pints and a competitive afternoon. If the weather is too bad to leave the holiday home, pack a scrabble or Yahtzee set for a fun, screen-free day.
More often than not, rural holiday spots will have crystal clear night skies. There’s nothing more romantic than packing a late-night picnic and cuddling up on a blanket underneath the stars. Book a cottage with a hot tub for a little extra luxury.
It may be obvious, but even if you’re not a mega keen hiker, just going out for a simple walk with your partner can spark conversation and rekindle a connection. Try coastal walks in Cornwall with an ice cream treat when the end’s in sight, or tougher fell walks in Scotland, Yorkshire or the Lake District.
Turn your cottage’s dining room into a cosy bar with a homemade cocktail night. Set out some candles, write a menu that includes your favourite ingredients, and treat yourselves to an evening of good conversation and great aperitifs.
Wondering how to have fun without electronics? It’s a common concern for families who need to find activities that will appeal to everyone. Take a look at our top recommendations for screen-free activities for teenagers, infants and the whole family.
Are you living with a budding Mary Berry or a wannabe Paul Hollywood? Baking might be a family cliche but it’s so easy to involve the whole family; older children can help with measuring, melting and whisking, while younger kids can manage shaping biscuits and doling out cupcake mix. These days, holiday cottages have a fully stocked kitchen so you can whip up a treat in no time at all.
OK, this one is a little bit of a cheat as it does require the use of technology. Geocaching is a huge outdoor treasure hunt, which sees keen participants using GPS and a mobile phone to locate small containers (or 'caches') that are hidden in locations all over the world. Beloved by families, it's a great way to let children take the lead in an activity. With caches hidden throughout the UK, with many in holiday beauty spots, it's ideal for making the outdoors fun and exciting. By starting an account on geocaching.com, you can follow the clues to find your cache. Choose small things to leave behind for the next seeker; a button, a little stone or a bit of ribbon. Anything goes.
Encouraging your children to enjoy riding a bike from a young age will stand them in really good stead in later life. Investigate easy routes for younger children, or challenge teens to take on longer or hillier rides.
Card nights can be a great alternative to watching TV in the evening. There are lots of books or websites available with easy game rules. Put some music on, get some snacks and get ready for some competitive fun.
There are loads of free printables online for crafty activities, from Disney-themed finger puppets and design your own dinosaurs to elaborate paper aeroplanes. All you need is coloured paper, scissors and a printer. Even without the luxury of printing, craft materials can be found everywhere. If you’re at the seaside and the weather turns, why not paint rocks picked up from the beach? Or turn pasta shapes into a beautiful necklace? With just a little creativity, the possibilities are endless.
This is an excellent way to liven up car journeys or long walks. Create bingo sheets with words or pictures that children can spot in nature. Going for a walk along the canal? Why not put in ducks, canal boats and locks. Or if you’re in the woods, make it more challenging with insects or small plants (in season).
Here’s one for both indoors and outdoors. Create a den inside with sofa cushions, blankets and pillows. Make it cosy with fairy lights, and use it for games or reading as a family. Or if the weather is good, head to the woods and use natural materials to create a formidable fortress.
Younger kids love water, whether it’s in a river or the sea, or at home. Get a paintbrush (or make one from leaves) and do some water painting - all you need is a dry surface like a wall and a pan of water. Or make some paper boats for sailing in a stream. If you’d rather stay in your comfortable cottage garden, make a slip and slide with some bin bags, water and fairy liquid.
Encouraging children to get outside is usually pretty easy, even in poor weather. Often it’s ourselves that we need to convince! Packing wellies are a good idea even for a summer holiday, so you can go outside even when it’s raining. Take a little magnifying glass with you, and with a little preparation, a list of plants or flowers that you might spot wherever you’re wandering.
Encourage children to take pictures (preferably on a disposable or polaroid camera, but even on a phone), and then when you return get them to recreate their favourite plant with paints, colouring pens or pencils. You can even print the pictures and make flower collages.
Once the holiday is over, it’s tempting to sink back into your old routine. You could avoid this by trying to incorporate screen time in moderation and reshaping your habits. Here are some final tips from us on how to achieve this in a realistic and practical way.
And there you have it. Our guide to having a guilt-free, screen-free holiday. With just a little bit of activity planning, these ideas are easy to implement and simple to take away with you on holiday.
Once the seed of a (nearly) tech-free holiday has been planted with your family, this should ease your transition into reducing screen use in everyday life. And remember, this isn’t about beating yourself up every time you hop onto Instagram or leave your children in front of Paw Patrol. It's all about moderation, allowing you to enjoy all the benefits of screen use while avoiding its negative effects. So stop reading this, put your computer away, and start your guilt-free, screen-free life now!