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

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.

  • Designate ‘technology-free’ times and spaces

Schedule regular times for your family to be together without screens; eating dinner or driving in the car. Designate a room in your home that has no television or computer. Also, turn off your child’s phone at least 1 hour before bedtime.

  • Give a task

Using a smartphone to distract or calm a child can be especially tempting when you have your hands full with laundry, making dinner, etc. Instead, give your child a small task to do with you as you work. This is an opportunity to teach responsibility and build confidence, while engaging your child in a screen-free activity.

  • Sing songs

Young children respond well to songs and music. This is why it is commonly integrated in routines at school, therapy and recreation programming. Incorporate familiar songs in your daily routines at home and sing them while completing daily tasks or chores.

  • Play a game

Keep a stock of family games on hand to play instead of watching a movie or television show. Games are an opportunity for the family to interact in a playful way. Through games children will become familiar with and have and chance to practice important social skills.

  • Use a favorite toy

Sometimes a favorite toy can be used in place of smartphones or other electronics to calm or soothe a child. Set aside for use only when a child becomes frustrated or upset.

  • Movement break

Get up and move around! One major problem with electronics is its tendency to promote sedentary lifestyles instead of active lifestyles, leading to childhood obesity and other health issues. Keep big toys that promote gross motor movement in your basement or backyard and give your child movement breaks every 1-2 hours.

  • Chill-out zone

As a child or young adult, it is easy to get frustrated about the world around us. If your child becomes easily upset from frustration consider creating a ‘chill-out zone’ free of electronics. Pick a plain, quiet space in your home and fill it with pillows, blankets or bean bag chairs. Allow your child to use this area to decompress instead of turning to a smartphone to relax.

Remember to keep in mind your child’s age and developmental progress. Replace screen-time with playful and purposeful activities to enrich your child’s life. Limit the time you spend on your smartphone, computer and watching television, especially around your child. Use your best judgement when approaching the management of electronic use in your child’s life. Make a plan, set rules and regulations and stick to it! There you have it…tips and tools to help parents manage the time their children spend using electronics.

About the Author:

Lydia Bryant is an enthusiastic and avid advocate for individuals with disabilities and their families. She believes everyone has the right to quality of life and access to recreation and play. Bryant graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in Park and Recreation Administration, specializing in Therapeutic Recreation and maintains certifications as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS). Bryant’s experience in the disability community includes work with children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities, mental illness and addiction. Her work with the CRS program at Chicago’s Anixter Center included planning and facilitating modified and inclusive recreation and leisure activities for adults ages 18-60. Bryant is currently an Inclusive Play Specialist at the National Lekotek Center in Chicago where she modifies and adapts toys and play activities for children with disabilities, ages 0-12, and their families. Additionally, she collaborates on the development of inclusive social programs, special events and community outings with museums, hospitals, libraries and recreation facilities. Bryant also evaluates toys for AblePlay and is an approved SibShops facilitator. Lydia currently lives in Logan Square in Chicago and is a social and active member of her community.

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