we’re snowed in so we built a computer, plus unschooling “screentime”

Forget a room for every kid: in the yurt we go by the 21st century axiom of a computer (and an internet connection) for every kid, as just basic life gear.

To this end, last year we built a gaming machine that…turned out to be Luc’s machine.  And after a year of being very cool about taking the old, lame computer, it seemed clear that it was Sophie’s turn to have a new, blazing fast computer.  She isn’t quite the gamer that Luc is, but she puts in hours a day doing her artwork using Photoshop for digital painting.  And two computers would mean no more scratching each other’s eyes out negotiating for time on the good machine!


Like last time, we used Pcpartpicker.com to assemble a list of components and to track their prices over time.  When the total dropped under our budget ($700) we pulled the trigger.  Here is the pcpartpicker page for our new machine.  That site is so awesome!  You can look at other builds, read reviews, compare prices.  Really a terrific resource.

Parts!  Once they all came in the mail (mostly from amazon) we just waited for a good day for digging into the project.  Nothing like a snowstorm to clear your calender.

2nd computer 1


2nd computer 2

That’s Luc and me putting in the video card (we got a nice one, WOOT).  We chose a tiny (micro-atx) case because of limited space under the desk—side effect, it was tricky getting things in.  Small hands were a big plus.

Here are the insides: SPAGHETTI MONSTER.  Yes, I hang my head in shame at this, and can only say in my defense that, in this tiny case, you can’t run any of your cords behind the motherboard, so they all end up under the drive bays.  Oh well, when we turned it on, it worked (we cheered), and that’s the main thing.

2nd computer 3

Here it is in its shelf under the desk.  Sophie say the blue lights give us ambiance.

2nd computer 4

And here we have the dueling machines.  No more fighting over turns, plus they can play each other in games with multiplayer modes.  HUGE WIN.2nd computer 5

We have friends who are “anti-screen” and I really like them, but man I don’t understand that line of thinking.  Limiting computer exposure seems like dolling out a huge handicap to people growing up these days.

Plus there is this focus on the device, and an ignoring of the activities being done on the device.  They see “screens” when the activities can be as diverse as reading a book, drawing a picture, talking on the phone, playing a game, etc etc.  If a gal did all of those things in one day (happens all the time), someone might say, wow, they did a lot.  If she did it all on a computer, a screen-phobic person might say “too much screentime!”   Yet, if she had done the same activities using a paperback, a sketchbook, writing a letter, and playing cards, would that say person say, “too much papertime!” ?

Why this preference for dead trees over pixels?  Look at the activity and the mind and happiness of the person doing it, not the interface, that’s what I say.

Anyway, hopefully these computers will last the kids for a few years.  Although even in one year, I can see the difference in power between the two machines.  The tech is advancing so fast.  Indeed, I’m super excited about the HoloLens and similar devices, and how other wearables are coming along.  It’s Marvel’s Ironman style computers (holographs you manipulate with your hands) only you wear goggles to see what you’re doing.  Very cool!

I suspect that in ten years such holographic glasses will be the standard interface, and “screentime” will be a moniker of the past.  Parents will have to freak out about limiting goggle-time I guess.

Listen, if there is any downside (what are the fears, addiction, social backwardness, isolation?) to kids having unlimited access to what they want to do (computer, video game, art supplies, books, tv, movies, manga, yada yada, we see them all as part of an array of Stuff To Do around here) then my kids ought to be exhibiting those problems.  But they don’t.  Therefore, screens aren’t the cause of those problems.  Basic logic.

GAH, one more rant: I hear parents struggling to find the right amount (an hour a day? three hours a day? none?) of computer time for their kids, but to that I say NO.  Wrong question!  The question isn’t the amount, it’s WHO IS DECIDING THAT AMOUNT.  And for whom.  You can’t figure yourself out if you can’t decide for yourself.  Better to get to know what works for you, on your own, when the stakes are low.  Not when you’re suddenly released into the wild at 18 and trying drinking for the first time.  Let ’em figure out their own “right amount.” Don’t presume to know someone else’s “right amount.”

Okay, enough soapbox.

Have fun!  Learn!  Make cool stuff!  Go at it full tilt if that’s what you love, the interface is not important. Playing is learning!  That’s my motto.

I’ll leave you with one of Sophie’s recent drawings, done on the new computer with a Wacom tablet.  She loves making characters like this from scratch, designing their clothes, their expressions.  Each one takes many hours of work.  Actually her work ethic on these (self-chosen) projects is amazing.  (How would it help her to keep her from her chosen materials by limiting her “screentime”?)

girl with ears and scabard on backSO CUTE.

Edited to Add: I inadvertently made a huge addition to this in the comments (about ipads), it makes a good continuation of the computer rant, if you’re so inclined to hear more.

8 thoughts on “we’re snowed in so we built a computer, plus unschooling “screentime”

  1. c

    Thank you for this great post re: screen time, etc. We’re an unschooling family, too — and I go back and forth on this issue, so it’s helpful to read another perspective. I’ve gone through phases where I feel just like you said — that my kids need to decide on their own how much screen time is appropriate, rather than me deciding for them. And then I go through periods where I question what they’re gaining from it and feel like I should limit it — I think this is mainly because their only “computer” is currently in the form of an iPad. I feel like a lot of the pull of the iPad comes just from the joy of the touchscreen experience, rather than any actually beneficial learning? It seems almost addictive — the tapping/pinching/swiping actions involved. Curious what you think about this and if you feel there’s anything to be gained from iPad use? It’s not like you can “master” an iPad, you know? A few taps and swipes and you’ve got the thing figured out. But maybe I’m overlooking something. Or overthinking it! 🙂

    My younger son occasionally asks to use my desktop computer — he’ll use my design software to create roadsigns and other things he’s interested in. When this happens, I’m of course thrilled and feel like he can be on my computer, creating for as long as he’d like! So, you can see how I’m deciding what’s worthwhile activity and what’s not. And I know that… again, I think it’s just the iPad thing and it’s general worthlessness that bugs me. We only have the thing because we don’t own smartphones, so we use it to check our business email when we’re on the road (we camp year round).

    OK, enough rambling. Any thoughts would be much appreciated — thanks again for this post!

    1. maya Post author

      Hi C, thanks so much for stopping by. I love meeting other unschoolers. And okay, since you posted here on my front porch, I’m going to be totally straight with you. I have no idea why you’re so down on ipads. 🙂 Calling it a “computer” in quotes like it’s a pretend computer…but an ipad has more computing power than the machine that put humans on the moon. You talk about tapping/pinching/swiping like this is somehow less than or silly or something…but why, what difference does it make whether you are typing on keys or tapping? Seriously, that’s a serious question. What is superior about a bunch of keys vs. a touchscreen? It’s just an input device. Soon we’ll be gesturing in the air around our bodies as an interface. The easier the interface, the better the machine, if you ask me, because the machine gets out of the way. Should it be harder to turn pages in a book? Are they less valuable because they are easy to turn? 🙂

      You ask, is there anything to be gained from ipad use? Well, Hell Yeah! For one thing, this is a totally arbitrary delineation (ipad vs computer), an ipad IS a computer. Yes it has different specs, but go back a couple of years and all computers had different specs (less) than what they have now, specs do not the computer make. In addition most major apps are available on desktops, laptops, and tablets (like an ipad) alike. But do ipads have value…let’s see, gaming is phenomenal on ipads, especially casual games like Plants vs Zombies, Terraria, Monument Valley (gorgeous). Artists do major work on ipads with aps like Artrage or full-on Photoshop with special touch-sensitive styluses. Writers write novels on them. Movies, tv, anime, easily available. Youtube (which is a homeschoolers DREAM, you can learn to do anything on youtube) is fabulously available on an ipad. I do most of my japanese study with ipad apps such as Anki, and in incredible ios dictionary Midori. Oyster and Overdrive give you a MILLION books to read for next to nothing, right on this tiny device, my daughter reads tons of novels and manga on the ipad, everyday. A library in your bag! That would have made me WEEP as a child with happiness. Texting and skypeing friends is a totally fun activity we do on the ipad. That’s just off the top of my head, but ipads give easy instant access to THE WORLD OF KNOWLEDGE with a gorgeous full color screen IN YOUR LAP. I would say an ipad is nearly indispensable gear for homseschooling. Give one to a kid and BAM watch them learn!

      We have two ipads, a full size and a mini, and they are constantly in use by someone, often just for looking stuff up. We have a running joke about how whenever we hear about kids getting into trouble doing stupid shit (hitting mailboxes with baseball bat comes to mind) we say, “THIS is why kids need ipads!” Because then they can so easily pursue their interests and not be bored enough to do dumb things.

      Stop looking at the interface! You said, “It’s not like you can “master” an iPad, you know? A few taps and swipes and you’ve got the thing figured out. But maybe I’m overlooking something.” YES, if I may say so, you are. You’re looking at the DEVICE as something to be mastered instead of WHAT PEOPLE CAN DO ON AN IPAD. Is it easy to master digital art, or a library of 100,000 books, is it easy to master knowledge, or fun? These are the things ipads are used for, plus a million others. A tiny example, right now my daughter is looking up reference images of historical crossbows (the real things, hundreds of years old, detailed photographs, instantly available to her, how cool is that?) on the ipad to use for a drawing she is working on. Amazing! It’s not about mastering the ipad, it’s about challenging herself to draw better and better crossbows and the ipad is helping her do that.

      Think of the ipad as a WINDOW to the world and STOP LOOKING AT THE GLASS. Look through the glass at what the kids are actually doing. An ipad is a magical key to a million doors, which makes them AMAZING for homeschoolers.
      I just…okay I’m calming down now. 🙂 I’ll go have some tea. I hope I’m not coming on too strong and scaring you away! *blush* I guess I’ve got strong feelings about all this….

  2. c

    OK, see — this is GREAT because I needed to read this perspective! Yes, you’re coming on a little strong 🙂 but it’s totally fine because you’re thinking about this differently than I have and it’s really helping me to see it from another angle. You’re right — I wasn’t thinking of an iPad as a full-on computer. And I’m not sure why I wasn’t, but you’re helping me come at this from a different angle and the clouds are clearing. I mean, good lord, I use a computer EVERY DAY to create things (I’m a graphic designer) so I should probably have more respect for all computers, one would think. We do use our iPad all the time for looking things up, and it is great for that (among other things) — indispensable. World of knowledge in your lap is right. Homeschooling in the internet age, period, is pretty great — not that I ever tried it in the non-internet age. 🙂

    Anyway, I think I was suffering from a bit of tunnel vision on this particular subject, so when I saw your post — I had to comment to see what more you might have to offer me on this. I think your comment about how an iPad is more powerful than computers that put humans on the moon especially struck me.

    And now I won’t have to wobble back and forth between total iPad freedom for the kids and trying to control it. FREEDOM!!! 🙂

    1. maya Post author

      Hi C! Sorry about the too strong, so glad it was useful to you anyway! Yes, Free the children! Free the children! haha.

  3. c

    No worries! It definitely was helpful, so it’s all good. Honestly, it’s the kind of perspective I was looking for, because my husband and I kept ending up on the same wobbly page about all this — and we’re both tired of the wobbling. 🙂

  4. Pingback: when it rains it pours…ipads | mayaland

  5. JenniferN

    Unschoolers here too.
    I have no down on computers as tools. I am concerned about their addictiveness (I know I get addicted) and whether that means not moving around much or varying focal length for extended periods. Too much sitting. Too much looking at something a set distance away. Too much hunching and forward body use. Overuse syndrome. Too little sunlight. Short term, no problems. Longer term can = back problems, eye problems etc.

    Both my kiddos are teens. I remember being a teen–physical issues seemed a long way off. But I was on a slippery slide to shoulder and back issues without realising it, and I’m concerned for them.

    I’m hoping we (kids and I) can brainstorm options–I use a standing desk and had a walking desk for a while, so they know about those. Physical experts talk about the importance of regularly changing position (completely), every 30 minutes or so. And looking long distance as well. There’s room for some neat solutions here I’m sure of it,

    How does everyone else deal with this?

    1. maya Post author

      Nice to meet you Jennifer. Honestly, I’d say you are borrowing trouble and creating tension and stress where there doesn’t need to be any. You could say all of those things (sitting, focal length, not moving, forward body use, etc) about reading books. But you probably aren’t worried about your kids reading too much. Relax and let people own their own bodies, is my suggestion. If you’re having over use problems, work to find solutions for your self. I have a standing desk too, and really like it for a lot of my computer work. I also have a special mouse and keybaord. I wrote a post about it somewhere on here. There is no need to worry about future problems that may or may not even happen to other people. Relaxation and peace between you and your teens NOW, on the other hand, will most definitely improve your lives both short and long term.


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