Screen time at a game? No way, José!

In the movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal’s character recounts one of the best days of his life, inspired by the actor’s actual experiences as a lifelong New York Yankees fan:

“I’m seven years old, and my dad takes me to Yankee Stadium. My first game. We’re going in this long dark tunnel underneath the stands, and I’m holding his hand, and we come up out of the tunnel, into the light. It was huge. How green the grass was, and the brown dirt…we had a black and white TV, so this was the first game I ever saw in colour. I sat there the whole game next to my dad. He taught me how to keep score, and Mickey [Mantle] hit one out. I still have the program.”

Fast forward to 2015, during the Toronto Blue Jays’ storybook season that would culminate in an American League East Division title and a memorable playoff run. I was with my family in the stands at a regular season game, and noticed that there were two young boys – about 6 or 7 years old – sitting a few rows in front of us. The game was in progress, but they had their heads down, because they were playing video games on handheld devices.

This scene was incredibly disappointing to me, both as a baseball fan and a parent. It stood in stark contrast to the sense of awe and parent-child bonding time that Billy Crystal described. Many children would give anything to attend a Major League Baseball game, and to witness this level of disinterest was upsetting.

It is well documented that screen time is hijacking the attention of today’s youth, and that overexposure can have negative effects. Admittedly, sitting and watching a live sporting event is not inherently active, but it can have great inspirational possibilities. The outbreak of Blue Jays fever last fall has led to a dramatic increase in youth baseball registration across Canada. Whether it’s professional baseball, a CFL football game or a Major League Soccer match, exposing kids to a sport at its highest level may naturally motivate them to be active in it themselves. My kids love to go out to the backyard and re-enact plays they’ve seen at a game.

Another bonus is the shared excitement that comes from attending a big-league event, and parents need to set the tone. If your family is going to a game, do yourselves a favour and leave the screens behind. Of course, it can be challenging for young kids to sit still and tune in until the last inning or quarter. Luckily, there are many fun and easy ways to keep kids engaged and enhance your family’s overall experience:

Choose a family-friendly day

Scan the schedule for special days with kid-oriented promotions, giveaways, or themes. In the case of the Blue Jays, all Saturday home games start at 1:00 pm and are designated as “Junior Jays Saturdays” for kids 14 and under. These dates have pre-game activities outside the stadium, such as a pitch-speed measurement station and an inflatable obstacle course. During the game, kids can visit interactive activity zones around the ballpark, including face painting and funny photo backdrops. The big finale is getting to run the bases on the field after the game.

Get to know the team

Watch part of a game on TV together, and see what your kids notice. Sometimes they will choose a favourite player based on a jersey number or distinguishing characteristic (curiously, my sons are fascinated by guys with scruffy beards). Kids typically love mascots, so familiarize yourself with the animal or creature that represents your team. Do a proactive online search and choose some images or videos to share with the kids – for example, the Blue Jays’ mascot, Ace, has an amusing series of ads for Expedia and a profile page on the team’s website.

The day before the game, print out the rosters of the home and visiting teams. They’re handy for following along during the game, and you can encourage the kids to look for relevant connections with the players’ birthdays, hometowns, initials, and so on.

Research the venue

Check the policy about outside food and drink, and bring a snack bag if you can. Make a note of the location of the Guest Services booth, as they can provide everything from booster seats to “First Game” certificates. Also, some stadiums have added features such as kids’ play areas and carnival-type rides.

If your young fans are keen to observe the players, but your tickets are in the “nosebleed” section, find out when the gates open and get there early for some pre-game action. You may be able to get closer to the field, take better photos, and maybe snag a ball or an autograph. Wear team gear or at least the team’s colours, to make it clear who you’re rooting for.

Mainly, the idea is to unplug from your devices, soak up the unique atmosphere, and recapture some of the childlike wonder that Billy Crystal was talking about. And, if you’re concerned that you can’t survive the game without screen time, never fear — the stadium likely has a giant video screen measuring 30 feet tall and 100 feet wide.

You'll be fine.