Screen-Free Play: Ways to Play, Engage, Reward, and Calm without Using Electronics

May 27, 2017

 The world our children live in today is dominated by screens and technology. In our home we have televisions and computers in many rooms. Our smart phones are in our pockets or in our bags and travel with us wherever we go. We even see screens at the grocery store or gas station! It has become common place to use smartphones to distract or calm children in restaurants, stores or other public places. Findings from a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation give us an idea of exactly how much time American children are spending in front of screens, including children under the age of 2.


Under 2 years old:

  • 43% of children watch TV or DVDs everyday

  • 77% of infants and toddlers have watched TV or DVDs


Under 6 years old:

  • 77% turn on the TV by themselves

  • 71% ask for their favorite videos

  • 67% ask for particular shows

  • 62% use the remote to change channels


How much is too much? Is digital media use damaging to your child’s development? How can parents limit their child’s exposure to screens, without denying the inevitable relationship children will have with technology in the future?

In the age of technology, many parents are aware of the research describing the negative effects of too much screen time on the developing mind of a child. To reemphasize this message, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recently released new guidelines regarding the use of technology and screens with your children.


Birth to 18 months

  • Avoid ALL use of electronics with screens (except for video-chatting)


18 to 24 months

  • Seek out ‘high-quality’ media for your child and do not allow them to watch alone. Consider not only the content but also the construction of the media or TV show. Are there learning opportunities inherent in the programming? Is the show interactive, allowing time to engage the child in learning?

  • DO NOT use electronic devices like a smartphone to calm your child.

2 to 5 years old

  • Only allow 1 hour of ‘high-quality’ screen a day and watch with your child

6 years and older

  • Manage the time child spends using electronic devices

  • Monitor the kinds of media the child is using and be sure it is appropriate

  • Be sure the screen-time does not replace behaviors that are “essential to health” such as physical activity or a good night’s sleep

  • Practice what you preach! Be mindful of your own use of electronics around your child and avoid extended use while engaged with your child.

 The AAP also reminds parents about “brain development in the early years, and the importance of hands-on free play that builds language, thinking and social skills.” At AblePlay®-Lekotek®, we work with parents in creating those opportunities for children of all abilities to develop those skills. Here are a handful of our ideas for playful ways we can engage with our children in place of screen-related activities.