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James Van Der Beek On Prioritizing Family Fun: ‘Being a Dad Is an Excuse to Play’

We’d be hard-pressed to name a celebrity father who appears to get more joy out of parenting than James Van Der Beek. The one-time teen heartthrob, who gained his fame starring in Dawson’s Creek and Varsity Blues, has moved on. It turns out that Dawson Leery is starring in his biggest production yet — as a devoted dad to five kids.

Van Der Beek and his wife, Kimberly, have four daughters — Olivia, 11, Annabel, 7, Emilia, 5, and Gwendolyn, 3 — as well as son Joshua, 9, and while the actor has certainly stayed busy in show business since those marquee roles, like so many working parents, the past couple of years have prompted him to make some major life changes. In 2019, he and Kimberly suffered a tragic pregnancy loss, which he has spoken about with heartbreaking honesty; last year, the family moved from Hollywood to Austin, Texas. And more than ever, he’s prioritizing family over fame.

It’s one reason why his latest professional effort, with Nature’s Bakery, makes perfect sense. Van Der Beek partnered with the family-friendly snack bar company to announce the launch of a microsite called Snack Sized Adventures that gives pandemic-weary parents more than 100 activities and ideas for family bonding. (Seriously, can we all just take a moment to appreciate the fact that the site’s URL is whatonearthshouldidowithmykids.com?!)

Speaking to SheKnows over Zoom, the actor and dad is relaxed (and enjoying what we can only imagine is a rare moment of alone time) as he discusses prioritizing his family, screen-free fun, and why there’s always so much fruit at his house.

SheKnows: Obviously, the pandemic has been challenging for all of us, but how it has been for you and your kids?

James Van Der Beek: I feel like the luckiest guy. I mean having five, they’ve got their social crew — they’ve got playmates, siblings, socialization, they’ve got constant activity. For us, our approach [has been] really looking at it as, what’s the spiritual medicine here? What can we learn from this? How can this benefit our family? And I think a lot of parents have started to reprioritize what it is they want in their life and what is important and what investment in time and energy yields the happiest return.

I was always very dedicated to my family and made it a priority to spend time with them. But this whole situation really just highlighted how much of a priority my family is, over other things that were important to me pre-pandemic. Different goals, different brass rings that I had been chasing career-wise, I just realized, wow, all of that exists to support my family and time with my kids. This whole shutdown just made it abundantly clear that was what made me happiest. You can take me off set, you can take away all the meetings and all the events and all the premieres and I was incredibly happy just to have all my kids near me. In the beginning, they all went and grabbed mattresses and sleeping bags and slept in our room and it was one of my happiest memories. And obviously, there has been tragedy and it has been tough, and we have had a tough pandemic, the things that have gone on with us, but there is a real reprioritization that happened with our family, and I think it has happened with a lot of other families, too.

SK: You moved to Texas — was that part of it? Just realizing that what you were doing before wasn’t working and you have the ability right now to make changes?

JVDB: It certainly made it easier. It was something that we had been wanting to do for quite some time, we saw the way the kids responded when they were out in nature, when they were given a little more autonomy in a natural environment, and in L.A. it is tough to come by.

I’m writing and developing and producing, and the shutdown allowed that to all happen remotely. So once that tether got really, really long geographically, we just said, let’s go to where our heart is calling us, and that became Texas, and it has been the best thing we have ever done. We are very lucky to be able to do it.

It’s interesting, I know a lot of other families and parents trying to work the same way from home, the same hours, and it is just not conducive. For me, that’s really what this whole thing brought up – what’s not working. You can kind of ignore what’s not working when you go into the office and you have all those distractions, but when you’re at home, man it becomes really clear what isn’t working. I think that’s really the end of it, it’s not like it’s all sunsets and rainbows for us, but it was a really great teacher at showing us what was not working in the work-life balance.

SK: With this Nature’s Bakery microsite, we’re talking about family bonding and keeping kids off of screens. And this was an interesting year in that regard — remote schooling meant a lot of time on screens. And for many working parents, maybe having your kid on a screen was what you needed to do in order to get your job done. Did the pandemic change screentime rules in your house?

JVDB: The amount of screen time and how we used it came much more clearly into focus. I will be the first to admit that in our house with five kids, there are some nights where if it wasn’t for Pixar dinner wouldn’t get made. I think we became much more judicious in how we used it and where, and became more engaged in what they were using the screens for.

At one point we just said no to all of the little games that are on the phones. In the beginning, we thought, ‘oh this is just two weeks to stop the spread, play a couple of video games,’ but once we realized oh no this is gonna last a while, then we had to really grab a little more control of the situation.

Encouraging other activities can be a challenge, which is why when Nature’s Bakery reached out to me with this idea of a microsite, which gives parents ideas, I really responded to it. Because in the midst of everything, while you’re trying to run a household and make sure dishes are washed and laundry’s done and food is prepared, to try and then be cruise director with kids is tricky. I love the idea of a microsite [where] you have the virtual community to help you out, give you ideas of things to do to get kids off screens, and to take the pressure off — because you can’t do it by yourself.

SK: What are some favorite non-screen activities in your home?

JVDB: Fairy houses are a big one with my kids — building little tiny houses to create that space for a loving energy they want to visit them. It has some kind of power that you can’t calculate.

SK: You mean outside, like little fairy gardens outdoors?

JVDB: Yeah, they gather whatever they can find in nature and then make a little tiny house so if a little loving fairy wishes to come visit they have [a space]. They get into it; they make tables and chairs and beds and roofs and they just can be really occupied for quite some time. And they all make their own and they compare and they get ideas and they fight because “so-and-so stole my idea for the roof” and I explain to them that it’s not really stealing, they’re all collaborating. There are a lot of lessons that can come from them, that’s definitely a big one.

SK: You mentioned that with five kids, they’re kind of their own crew and it sounds like they play nicely together, for the most part. But do you like to play? Are you a playful dad?

JVDB: I mean, being a dad is kind of an excuse to play. That kind of focused time with them, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. The one lesson that I’ve learned is sometimes it really is the quality of time that’s more important than quantity. If you put your phone down, you’re completely focused, you’re letting them take the lead, you’re playing make-believe, you’re letting them drive it, that really focused time, even if it’s just for a little bit, can be so impactful.

SK: As an actor, do you have a sort of different take on screen time or what your kids watch?

JVDB: Yeah, it impacts my priorities as a storyteller, for sure. I had kids and immediately started thinking, what stories am I telling? What am I putting out there? What is this project saying — is it inspiring, is it empowering, is it scary?

Honestly, Pixar is really kinda the gold star those are always entertaining. I always really appreciate the energy behind the lessons and character arcs in those and they are entertaining for adults as well.

SK: Any parent play hacks you can share that you’ve learned in your years of parenting?

JVDB: When traveling, there’s a place for screens — whether you’re traveling in an RV, which we just did or an airplane – but consider those the big guns, save those for last. Start off with the simpler stuff. Start off with the action figures, start of with the thing, the art – things they can draw, things they can create – start with that because if you start off with the screen, you start of with the movie, if you start with Moana, it’s hard to go backwards from that.

And snacks. Don’t underestimate the satisfaction power of a snack when you have a bored kid traveling.

SK: OK, any other favorite snacks? Yours or your kids?

JVDB: We go through fruit, like it’s insane — people come over and they make a snide joke like ‘You have enough fruit?’ and I’m like ‘No, come back in a day and a half that will all be gone’.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Before you go, check out our favorite screen-free toys:

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