Photo: Kristin Van de Water

I have a love-hate relationship with screen time. On the one hand, I depend on it to keep my kids connected to school while we shelter in place. On the other hand, I despise it when it creates grumpy monsters out of my normally pleasant offspring.

As much as I bemoan the lifeless stares that result from mindlessly absorbing video after video, today gave me a glimmer of hope for this screen-obsessed generation—stuck inside during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the past week or so, my seven-year-old son has used his afternoon free time after completing remote learning schoolwork to watch marble races on YouTube. For a few minutes, I thought it was pretty fascinating and found myself getting drawn into the competition amongst these rolling orbs. But pretty soon I just got dizzy. My son, however, was still entranced hours later.

“Are you really still watching this?” I interrupted. “Wouldn’t it be more fun to do something in real life? You know, you do have a marble set.” And yet, when free time came the following day, he chose to go right back to those virtual marbles.

Fast forward to this week when my son asked me out of the blue, “Want me to make a list of all the countries I can think of?”

“Sure,” I said. “Sounds like fun.” Honestly, anything that gets my son excited about writing is a win these days. So, I dug his dusty notebook out from under the coffee table and said, “Go for it!”

Now, our geography “lessons” at home basically consist of the occasional fascination with Google Maps, a virtual tour of the earth from space on Earth Day (thanks to the American Museum of Natural History), and a silly video personifying states the kids discovered on BookFlix. So, I wasn’t sure where this inspiration was coming from.

Flipping through his notebook that night, I discovered the list he had made by sounding out the names of 27 countries! Where in the world did he learn all those names? (Angola…Luxembourg…Pakistan!)

Then it hit me. Those weren’t just random marbles rolling down tracks. My son was cheering his way through an entire virtual Olympic-st‌yle tournament, where each marble represented a different country. The announcer would comment on the race as statistics for each marble popped up on the leader board with the name and flag of its country.

My son’s creatively spelled country list would have been surprising on its own, but the off-line learning and playtime extensions didn’t stop there.

Next thing I knew, my son was taping and then stapling dozens of folded index cards together to make a ski-jump like ramp for races of his own. Yesterday, he unearthed our set of marble tracks and expanded his racecourse.

When he realized that his marbles had disappeared into who knows what toy bin or under which couch, my son set out to find or make his own alternative.

“Frozen peas?” I suggested.

“Those would melt!” chimed in his twin sister.

“Do we have playdough?” he pondered, not having sought it out in years.

Sure enough, we still had a bin. He rolled a few balls but discovered that they would get stuck, either from being too sticky when freshly rolled or too lumpy when dried out.

Next, he pried open a game with colorful balls that, unfortunately, turned out to be too big for the track. Amazing, he reassembled the game without any harm done.

That’s when he noticed a necklace Grandma had sent as part of a care package a few weeks back. Its beads were perfectly marble-shaped. It had served its purpose in the realm of dress-up. Now, it became an object to dissect in the name of marble racing.

When the kitchen shears wouldn’t cut though the wire linking the beads, we searched the toolbox for wire cutters with no luck. But the needle-nose pliers looked intriguing. Before long, my son had unwound coil after decorative coil and, with the help of his sister, plucked free 15 “marbles” for his project. Um…hello, practical, persistent, fine-motor, teamwork skills!

My son spent several blissful hours that afternoon building and racing and recording times on a chart he made. He even went to the extent of building a tournament bracket out of Legos, perching each round’s winning marble on the next colorful brick until one lucky marble earned the coveted spot inside a Lego trophy.

My daughter busted out her camera and filmed the races, narrating it all with play-by-play commentary. With their new-found tech savvy, the kids hooked up the camera to play the video on the TV, with the whole family gathered to watch this celebration of creativity and resourcefulness.

So, the next time I catch my kids staring at a screen, seemingly wasting their time in a zoned-out state, I won’t jump to conclusions. After all, who knows what learning adventures it will spark tomorrow?