Excluding Friends and Computer Gaming


The Play Date Becomes a Date Alone

It’s a play date. After school. At some point food will be served. Until then there’s time to fill. There’s some overflow energy from school and the two boys head to the garden and leap about on the trampoline. Out of breath, they lie next to each other, looking up at the sky. They chat about “stuff”.

A few minutes with the basketball net and then they are back inside the house, heading for the boy’s room.  Star Wars Lego is pulled out and played with. Mum and Dad can hear the sound of a bit of banter and disagreement and then the topic changes to: “So what have you being doing on Minecraft?”. The talk becomes a bit more hushed, more intense and earnest. And then there is silence.

Inevitable Screen Time

It’s screen time. We always seem to end up here, these days, sooner and sooner.

The boys have this computer game in common and it forms the basis for much feverish chat during school breaks. One of the boys is more “advanced” than the other. He spends more time playing the game, often when his parents don’t know he is playing. But there is only one IPad in the house.

Nick pulls out the IPad and says this: “Shall we play?” Colin nods eagerly, wanting to be part of “cool.”.

Nick soon becomes entirely focused on his game and, despite a few questions from Colin and even a request to “have a go”, Nick quickly zones out of Colin. It takes less than three minutes. There’s a bit of chat and show at first, but then that stops.

Colin might as well have vanished. Colin tries to get some pleasure out of watching the seemingly expert Nick as he builds and destroys. He praises here or there and gets a nod or a grunt that soon diminishes.

Soon Colin actually feels invisible, more like an unwanted ghost. He gets up and finds a book. Twenty minutes later, there is a call from downstairs “Pasta’s ready!”

Colin passes on the message to Neil that food is ready, though both are in the same room with the door open when the call came up the stairs. Colin, ignored, heads downstairs. Neil hasn’t moved. Five minutes later, the IPad ripped from his hands by an indignant mum, Neil is then with Colin, eating Pasta Carbonara and munching garlic bread. Mum wonders if the boys have had a fight. Neither is talking.

Back at Home Alone

Colin gets home and his dad asks if he had a good day. “Yeah” he replies. A bit later Colin tells how his play date was “Ok, but it got a bit boring”. This is now the fifth time in a row that their play dates have ended in the same inevitable place, with Colin an excluded bystander to a computer game. “How did it make you feel?” asks mum? “It makes me feel like he doesn’t really want me to be there.”

Colin’s dad thinks he needs some new friends. In future, Colin wants to get home first before the play date so he can take his own IPad to the play date. He knows there’s a ban on taking them to school, even stowed in a backpack. Mum doesn’t think play dates should involve IPads at all. “It’s only a couple of hours after school!”

In the play date house, Neil’s mum asks Neil how the play date went. “Yeah, ok” says Neil. “But Colin didn’t seem to want to do much.”


When there is only one device and the game is really designed for single user play, friends can become excluded. Soon, play dates become fractured and dissatisfying. The solution could be to ensure that games are collaborative or that there is more than one device available to the children. There are many games out there that require collaboration. However, collaboration-based games of this kind seem to work better when the children are actually in different buildings to each other. They “chat” as they play. But then the collaboration is a bit ghostlike, based on texting. And does this really solve the issue of the fractured play date – placing the kids in different rooms to each other?

Similar things can happen with watching TV. If what is watched is genuinely a shared experience for friends, it will then feel social, shared and there may be joined up conversation during and after. But when the programmes are simply there for one child and the other isn’t interested, or up to date, they become detached, excluded onlookers. This can happen when a child has become glued to a TV series and the guest child hasn’t even seen episode one.

Now excluding is something children learn all about in the school playground. it is part of childhood “monkey” dynamics. We all have experience of being left out of the group, of being told we aren’t part of something. That excluding can toughen us up, traumatise us, we can learn from it, or it can leave us bemused. In a competitive world, exclusion and inclusion are part of life, with positive and negative effects on us. In this play date example, the exclusion doesn’t seem to have anything positive about it. It does teach the lesson that digital gaming can be a solitary thing and that gadgets seem primarily designed for the person holding them, and that person alone. Most of all, on a play date, it seems to dilute the value of that play date and it isn’t the same as a play date going into a phase where the children head off into their own space for a little while, to play alone. It involves leaving a person out in a way that makes them feel ignored and undervalued.

I believe play dates should have ground rules based on inclusivity. Devices and programs should be shared. If we must do digital, then how about some shared stop motion film making? If we must watch a movie, then let it be something both children genuinely want to watch. When digital becomes anti-social, it undermines the benefits of shared time together. The play date dissolves into simply passing time in the same room as each other.

There are collaborative games, but devices themselves tend to be designed to comfortable in the hands of one person; there’s a physical imbalance in how we have to sit, our angle of view. Devices, as they are currently designed – phones, tablets, even PCs, focus on separation, not collaboration. They also encourage the child to zone into them, which consequently leads them to socially zoning out of people around them. If play dates are primarily aimed at sharing time and being social. digital gaming and programme watching can often destroy that aim.

Play dates, especially for younger children, do not have to revolve around screen time. It is okay and even strengthening to create ground rules around play dates. They can include linking screen time to collaboration. Excluding behaviour can have the consequences of less screen time. We can more carefully choose games which are based on collaboration and being social. During play dates we can keep an eye on how screen time is happening:

  • choosing TV and films that everyone wants to watch and stopping for a drinks break to let the children talk about what they are watching
  • Encouraging sharing of devices so not only one person hogs the time – having rules for this
  • create a direct link between shared physical activity and screen time (For example, 200 bounces on the trampoline for 5 mins screen time)
  • chunking screen time with turn-taking – sometimes this results in the children opting for physical play instead anyway
  • ensuring shared screen time is done in a social place, not a locked or closed bedroom. Yes, you can play a game together, but its downstairs at the table, where the rest of us are
  • time-limiting screen time and ensuring that homework is done first
  • using more creative programs and apps such as stop motion animation that can involve screens AND physical activity such as clay model animation, or using an app with a drone
  • rewarding sharing behaviour and discussing after screen time what each child learned or enjoyed about it
  • including adults in some of the screen time; parents become “cool” and people to involve and ask questions, not only viewed by children policemen
  • always having some play date time out of the house – rendering screen time less relevant – when they are on the climbing frame in the park they soon forget about screens
  • place screen time more specifically and overtly; arrange a screen time play date separately; create a new default for play dates based around non-screen activity; ensure plenty of other activities are on tap: things to do in the garden, park trips, sports, crafts and building activities, creative arts etc.

Play dates can become antisocial, disappointing experiences if excluding behaviour occurs; it seems to be occurring more with digital devices. Let’s reclaim play dates as true places of social, shared play for our children.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on September 12, 2015, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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