Screen Free Play

I’m Scott, Shopkeeper at Timeless Toys in Chicago. Today, we will talk about screen free play and why it is so important. We will take a look at what the research says about screen time and its effects on attention and language development skills.


Research on recreational screen time shows that it impairs executive functioning.  Research done by the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington shows a link between television viewing at ages 1 and 3 and attentional problems at age 7.  With 1300 children at age 1 and 1300 children at age 3 tested, over 10% had attention problems at age 7. Another study by the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia shows that fast paced television and educational cartoons had an immediate negative effect on 4 year olds’ executive functions. The typical kid watches 4.5 hours of TV and videos a day before age 5. This gives them a 45% higher risk of having attention problems in school. This is because watching videos preconditions children’s brains to expect rapid changing stimulation. The world moves at a much slower pace.  So when school and life are much slower than television programming, the child becomes board. If you would like to learn more about this, there is a great Ted Talk by pediatrician, Dr. Dimitri Christakis that is worth checking out.


Television can also lead to a delay in language development. I a study done by DR Frederick Zimmerman with a total of 1000 parents of children age 2-24 months showed that among infants, each hour per day of viewing baby DVDs associated with a 16.99 point decrease on a Communicative Development Inventory test. This basically means that children understood an average of 6-8 fewer words per hour of “educational” Dvds viewed per day.


It is a common misconception that videos and toys that speak to the child will help the child develop language skills.  These types of products actually slow down language learning. When a child has a toy or video that speaks, they let it speak on their behalf instead of learning the language themselves.  Children learn language by interacting with adults and seeing their mouths form words while listening. When screens are on, adults and children speak less and learn less.


So why do we use screens with children?  The answer is simple, it keeps them entertained.  It is difficult to keep a young child sitting still and staying entertained while trying to cook dinner or while out and about.  As a father of a 1.5 year old, i completely understand this. I am often tempted myself to take an ipad and put it in front of my child just so I can get some things done around the house. So, what are our other options? How do we get through a plane ride or a restaurant without using screens?


It is going to be hard, but in the end it will be worth it.  The key is starting as soon as possible. Here are a few key things to start with
  1. Surround your kids with toys that are age appropriate
    1. Age appropriate toys consider choking hazards and difficulty to play with.  
    2. Find a toy that is somewhat challenging for your child to play with but is still possible for them to complete the task at hand.
    3. It is ok for your child to not get it right away and become a little frustrated.  This is the learning process. Your child will eventually figure it out. You are there to show them if they need help or encourage them to do it on their own.
  2. Find a toy that allows for imaginative play
    1. Most toys come with instructions…..don’t think too much about them.  Let your kid play with a toy however he/she wants.
    2. Toy instructions are just guidelines.  Let the mind wander. You will be surprised out far it can go
  3. Find something that you are interested in as well
    1. It is easier for a kid to step away from a screen if someone is playing with them.  Show them that you are interested and want to play too. Your child will have much more fun bonding with you that staring mindlessly at a screen
  4. Screens can have their time and place
    1. Screens have their time and place and we can learn how to use them effectively without children
    2. Set time limits
    3. Set content limits
    4. Monitor what they are watching..there is a lot of content out there that is not ok for children to see and is labeled as child friendly.
  5. Encourage what is called Free or undirected play!
    1. We will get into this in further episodes
  6. Some other things that can help
    1. Change your TV stand to a play table!  This will change your main room of the house into a true “family” room
    2. Eat dinner in a room without a TV and make that a completely “screen Free” room to promote family meal time
    3. Explore the outdoors!  Spring is here and kids love being outside.  
    4. Limit your own screen time.  When your kid is playing, so are you!  If you are busy in the moment, you will remember it for the rest of your life so there is no need for a picture. Your children will take the hint.

If you are struggling to find the right product, visit your LOCAL toy store.  To find the closest specialty toy store to you, visit astratoy.org and click the shop local link in the middle of the page.

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