Screen time and playtime: balancing pleasure, play and development at home.

2016-02-05-19.10.58.jpg.jpegScreens have entered the childhood experience and are here to stay. They are a part of our modern life, are conveniently child-sized, children are fascinated by them and parents cannot go a day without referring to them. Screens have become essential to our entertainment, sources of information, creative expressions and social interactions. They are not a bad thing. We all feel a little bit guilty though, when it comes to screen time and children. There is a great deal of research out there to prove that screen time isn’t good for children’s development – and typical of internet research you will also find articles that will state it makes little difference to children’s lives at all.

My practical suggestions about how to manage family times around screens are not intended to be judgmental, rather are based on my own experience as a mother of three children, and as an experienced teacher who has noticed what a difference reduced screen time makes for children at school, and in their personal development. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

Children are presenting with increased tracking and visual problems. 

What I have noticed: More schools are asking for early visual tests for children prior to starting school, so that early interventions can be put into place to help children with their learning and development. Among many other learning needs, schools are experiencing increased difficulties with children’s visual tracking and focusing. I’m definitely not an expert on this subject, however as a teacher I’ve noticed some of the visual challenges many children are presenting with now include coordinating movements with both eyes, difficulty focusing from near to far and the other way around, challenges keeping focused on single words in a line, and moving from left to right across a page. This affects literacy learning, but also children’s ability to concentrate, self-regulate and stay energised during learning times. It can make school hard.

What is happening here? I couldn’t say if this is caused by excessive screen time, but when children are watching screens their eyes are not moving in the ways that support the movement, coordination and focusing skills required for normal visual health and development. When children are on screens they are likely inside – and when they are inside they are not experiencing natural light, which is essential for visual development. When children are playing outside, their eyes are required to re-focus according to light, distance and detail, and track visual movement all the time. When children are engaged in creative projects, their visual movements, focus and discrimination are constantly challenged and developed.

Some suggestions:

  • Play outside at all times of the day.
  • Go for evening walks together with torches. Light candles and campfires and see pictures and patterns in the flames.
  • Bushwalk and look for treasures among the foliage. Birdwatch.
  • Use magnifiers and binoculars.
  • Visit art galleries, sculptural parks and make your own art.
  • Go to the library to find books to share. The act of searching for books among the shelves is a challenge for the eyes as much as reading them.
  • Paint, draw, craft, and use scissors, needles and thread.
  • Go to see puppet shows, plays, live music, theater and ballet performances with your children.

Screen themes dominate children’s social play.

What I’ve noticed: In their social play children re-enact what they know about their world and what they are interested in. Stories have always provided fuel for children’s play themes, long before screen entertainment became popular. Heros will always inspire children’s play adventures and storytelling. Their play themes are drawn from their life experiences and their social play is their time to process what they understand about this.  As an early childhood teacher I have noticed that children who have heavy screen influence tend to ‘stick to the script’ with what they have seen and experienced through tv shows, movies and gaming. Children with less screen time tend to add their own influence and ideas and run with it, until they have created their own new story, even if still with popular characters.

What is happening here? The detail we see in movies and tv shows does not allow for us to ‘feel’ our way forward in the story in the same way that we can when we read or are read to. When we must create our own inner pictorial images of the characters’ experiences then we are engaging our wonder and imagination and are drawing on our own life experiences with reflection and empathy. In playing out story themes that children have had to interpret themselves, they will be expanding their vocabulary, inner visualisation, social conversation, explaining their thinking, relating to others and reflecting upon their own experiences. One of the reasons we like to present children with many traditional and adventurous storytelling in early childhood is to add to their playful vocabulary, their social script and imaginative possibilities, and to engage in a human experience of adventure, empathy and problem-solving.

Some suggestions:

  • Read books. Tell stories. Create daily family moments where children expect you to be present to them and where you engage with each other to practice conversation, eye contact and physical contact. A screen-free dinner time followed by a read-aloud story before bedtime is a great beginning. It may require effort to read aloud at the end of a long tiring day, but children look forward to this moment every day, and it is worth the effort to send your children into their dreams with their own inner experience of a story, feeding their dream-times and enhancing their play-times.
  • Put boundaries around content for young children. Research appropriate content for your child’s developmental age and agree to how many hours across the week they can access it. This may involve a discussion with older members of the family about where and when to view adult-themed shows and games to support the little ones in the family (referring to the above discussion of how play is affected by screen themes). Watching/listening to the news, music clips, adult-themed shows and gaming WILL affect your child’s understanding of the world – and this WILL come out in their play.
  • Reduce your own screen time. When parents are not setting an example of mindful and moderate screen time use we can hardly expect our children to understand when they are given limits. Are your interactions with children punctuated with checking your phone? How are we teaching our children to interact with others using good manners, conversational skills, eye contact, when we may not be demonstrating these things ourselves? (Yes, this is something I must practice too!) Screen time may not crucially affect our own growing developmental needs as it does for children, but it has the same immediate effect of addiction to being entertained, reduced social interaction and affects time spent engaged in creative and physical pursuits.

If children are using screens daily then they are sitting still.

What I have noticed: Constant screen use replaces children’s need to find their own fun, make stuff, explore hobbies, explore their backyard or neighborhood, find friends, or play physical games. What could your child be doing with their bodies if they were not sitting still in front of a screen?

What is happening here? Children need heavy work to engage their physical and sensory development as well as to participate as a member of a family or community. Heavy work involves movement where children are required engage their large muscles (arms, legs and back), small muscles (in their fingers, wrists and feet) as well as their balance and sense of spacial awareness. Heavy work could involve chores such as sweeping, vacuuming, hanging out laundry, washing cars, making beds, pulling weeds, raking leaves, cooking, cleaning bathrooms and windows. It could also be engaged through sports, playing with big loose parts outside, hanging from monkey bars or branches and physical play with friends.

Children who don’t engage in heavy work may have difficulty developing core strength and will grow tired easily. The flow-on effects involve difficulty with writing tasks, engaging in physical play, knowing how much force to use when playing with friends, inability to coordinate arms and legs and poor sense of balance and spacial awareness. As a teacher, I can tell you these things are very noticeable throughout the school day!

Some suggestions:

  • Agree when the tv/xbox/etc goes on and when it stays off. At all other times give your children chores or send them outside to play!
  • Create weekly family moments that are screen-free and movement-based. Working around the house, gardening, visiting parks, walking, going to the beach, riding bikes, attending sports games, having picnics, having one evening meal outside each week, gathering with neighbours …
  • Watch a family movie once a week, and children can earn another one, or other independent computer time if they have a) spent an equal amount of time playing or helping outside, and b) have completed other responsibilities (household cleaning tasks, tidy rooms, fed the chooks, folded washing, read five books, etc).

Children have less down-time.

What I have noticed: They are so busy. After a day at school, after school activities, homework and chores, children have run out of puff and screen time lets us rest our bodies and our thinking, while still providing stimulation. What we really need in these moments though, is nothing times. Children need moments when nothing is expected of them, nothing is provided for them, and they are not surrounded by the ‘white noise’ of constant sensory stimulation. Children need times when they experience a pause moment – and it may be very boring indeed. To use a screen-time analogy: they are “buffering”.

What is happening here? Working through this moment can be challenging for all of us, particularly for children who are used to being entertained and unused to creating their own fun. Understand that once we are alone with our own thoughts, are tired and unoccupied, children’s expression of boredom may also not be very polite (at least, initially!) and we may need to support children by allowing time to express what arises, and push themselves through. Remember that it will be more difficult if children haven’t developed skills for self-entertainment yet, they may need you to help them transition into independent time.

Boredom means children might just need a rest from “experiencing” and may need to find a new, gentle way to engage their senses. Perhaps they might need some inner daydream time to process thoughts, ideas and feelings. Allowing pauses in our life is important for us all. Don’t fix boredom with screen time. Don’t fix it by thinking of things for your children to do.

Some suggestions:

  • Cultivate quiet times. At least once a day, for 10 – 20 minutes when there is no radio/music/background noise. Chill out by reading a book, drawing, quiet Lego building, mindful movement, staring out the window. Just stop. This is healing for everyone.
  • Use audio books. With a great audio book children can lay down and relax while they listen, or they can be busy with a project. We borrow audio cds from the library and access audiobooks online. Many of our favourites are on YouTube. My children like to listen while they colour, draw, paint, sew, knit or tinker with their projects, so they are still engaged in something creative while their chapters unfold.
  • Screen time for children should never be allowed in bedrooms or behind closed doors. Bedrooms are for resting and relaxing in, although a cd player is a useful tool for relaxation. When screen times are social times we become less dependent upon them for our down-time.

I am always wary of offering opinions and advice about the use of screen time for families and children. I am very aware that every family is unique. I am also very aware of how pleasurable it is to enjoy a good tv show or movie, and sometimes how necessary it is, sometimes, to put something on to watch just to chill out or get things done. Our family has chosen not to have a tv in the house, and we aim for balance – this does not mean we don’t have a big blow-out now and then. My own children look forward to watching screens as often as they are allowed to, and holidays may bring days of minecraft frenzy. I have been known to binge-watch my favourite series while I am crafting (or pretending to craft). Sometimes, though it just isn’t worth the after effects of rumpled manners, rough play, silliness and frazzled nerves that happens after excessive screen time.

It’s good for children to experience this for themselves, to be able to compare how they feel after intense screen time to how they feel after lots of physical play, creative pursuits and helpful activities. If you’ve got to this point, I would say you must have a good balance happening between screen time and playtime at home.

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