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What is ScreenBreak?

Since 1995, the Winnetka Alliance for Early Childhood has sponsored ScreenBreak (formerly TV Tune Out) Week. For the first several years, it was held in early February. Recently, it has been held in early March. Children from approximately age three to 13 and their families are encouraged to turn off their television sets and other screens, such as video and computer games, for seven days and, together, experience the adventure of a week with no screens. During the week, there are many alternative activities going on throughout the community.

In 2011, 29 schools were involved, including all the public, private and parochial preschools, elementary schools, junior highs, and day care centers in Winnetka, Northfield and Kenilworth. Several schools from surrounding communities, such as Wilmette, Glenview, Glencoe, and Highland Park, also took part. Approximately 5,000 children participated.

What is the purpose and goals?

The purpose of the ScreenBreak is not to suggest throwing out the family television set forever nor is it to make families feel guilty about watching screens. Instead, ScreenBreak Week marks a time each year for families to evaluate the role that television and other screens play in their lives, to explore other options, and to become more educated about screen media.

Community activities during ScreenBreak Week

ScreenBreak fosters a wonderful sense of community and a feeling that "we're all in this together." To provide alternatives to screens during the week, dozens of merchants, schools, and organizations in Winnetka, Northfield, Kenilworth and other communities sponsor events and activities. These are listed in The ScreenBreak Guide, which is distributed primarily through the schools to every participating child, along with a ScreenBreak button or ScreenBreak wristband.

There were a wide variety of activities available. For example, during ScreenBreak 2011, kids wearing ScreenBreak buttons or carrying a ScreenBreak card could attend several story hours; learn how to tie a fishing fly; take a needlepoint, golf, oil painting, or candymaking class; play basketball at open gym; make their own pizza;or learn about gardening, nutrition, yoga, using a compass, or fixing a flat tire on a bike. They could have a mini-manicure, savour a free sundae, play board games, or enjoy shows featuring such acts as Sideswipe Martial Arts Group, a magician, or a play, "The Jungle Book ." Also available were tours of the Winnetka Fire Department, the Winnetka and Nortfield Police Departments, Becker Animal Hospital, or Panera Bread; introductory music and dance classes; and a language open house where children could play games in French, Spanish, or Mandarin.

While some families enjoyed participating in several activities throughout the week, others found this a perfect week to participate in low-key family activities at home, such as reading, arts and crafts, games, cooking, or other family projects.

Community service opportunities

Since 1997, one of the most popular activities during ScreenBreak Week has been community service. Each year, The Volunteer Center of New Trier Township makes several community service opportunities available. In 2011, children could participate in a crafts project to brighten the day of those in need. Kids could donate to and learn about the New Trier Food Pantry. They could help clean up Skokie Lagoons through the BackYard Nature Center.

School events

Many schools hold special events or celebrations during ScreenBreak Week. There were pajama parties and story hours at some of the preschools. Elementary schools held family bingo nights, spaghetti dinners, and created opportunities to play games or make "gorp" for a local food pantry instead of watching videos during the lunch hour. Many schools incorporated ScreenBreak into their curriculum, asking children to chart activities they did instead of watching TV or to keep journals throughout the week. It was a great opportunity for media education.

Theme and poster contest

The theme of ScreenBreak 2011 was "Tune Out: Create Your Own Adventure." Each year, The Alliance sponsors a ScreenBreak Drawing Contest. Children age 13 and under are invited to submit drawings. An 4th grader from Christian Heritage Academy was the Senior Division winner in 2011 (for kids from 2nd to 8th grade). Her drawing appeared on the ScreenBreak poster. A first grader from Hubbard Woods School won the Junior Division competition (preschool through first grade). His drawing appeared on the back cover of the ScreenBreak Guide. The drawings of the second and third place Senior Division winners were featured inside the ScreenBreak Guide. Both divisions had honorable mentions, as well. All winners were honored at the ScreenBreak Kick Off Event on Sunday, March 6. Over 100 children submitted drawings for the poster contest and those entries were displayed all week at the Winnetka Public Library.

Sponsors provide funds to cover the costs of ScreenBreak Week

Each ScreenBreak participant receives a ScreenBreak button or wristband and a copy of the ScreenBreak Guide, which lists all activities going on in the community, as well as ideas for projects and games to do at home. Each year, the Alliance has been able to provide Guides, buttons and wristbands to all children who want to participate through the generosity of community sponsors, including banks, merchants, local organizations and parents. There are different levels of sponsorship that are available, including Alliance Partners who give $1,000 in return for a full page ad in the Guide and a front cover mention, as well as ads in both Alliance newsletters; half-page ads for $500; business card size ads for $350; and one-line mentions for $150.

What did families learn from it?

During all 17 ScreenBreaks, many families discovered that TV and other screens influenced children's use of free time and also had an impact on their reading, playing, learning and in family interactions. Some liked how the removal of screens enhanced the lives of family members. Parents have reported more creative, involved play; better sibling relationships and interactive play; a quieter, more peaceful household (although some reported a louder, messier house!); and more use of art materials, games and toys that had been unused or forgotten. A typical reaction: "I had no idea we used that TV so much!"

We hear a variety of reports from participating families. Each year, many families tell us that they have made some permanent changes in their use of television and other screens. A few families turn off the TV set and never turn it back on again. There are always some families who are reassured that they really don't watch a lot of TV or use other screens excessively anyway. And each year, some report returning to their previous screen habits as soon as the Tune Out ends (but are grateful for the annual reminder). The Alliance encourages each family to use the ScreenBreak in whatever way suits it best, setting its own goals and its own rules for participation.

In conclusion

After 17 years, ScreenBreak Week has become a tradition in Winnetka, Northfield, and Kenilworth. It has grown each year. In 1995, its first year, approximately 3,000 children participated. These were primarily students in preschools and elementary schools in Winnetka and Northfield. All the activities for the entire week fit on two sides of one piece of paper! In 1998, we added the junior high schools in Winnetka and Northfield, realizing that these children had participated as elementary school students and wanted to continue when they went on to junior high. As a result, we added activities more appropriate for older students. In 2006, Kenilworth joined us for the first time. In 2011, our seven Associate Member schools, located in Wilmette, Glenview, and Glencoe, participated as well. As a result, our numbers continue to grow. Approximately 5,000 children participated in 2011.

Families look forward to this special week each year. ScreenBreak Week is both educational and enlightening. And it's fun, too!