A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of avoiding screens and instituting a "screen diet." Professionals and experts recommend avoiding screen exposure for very young children under two years old and limiting technology use for children 2-5 years old.
Without TVs, tablets, and phones, children and parents sometimes fall into the trap of seeking out constant stimulation from their environment. And young children will always want to spend more time with you. They thrive on your undivided attention and will often protest when you need to move away from them. These transitions, when viewed as a type of separation, can be supported by routines, kind yet firm language, and consistency.
Children benefit from independent time, to be in their own minds, explore freely, and simply take in the world. When our presence and gadgets intrude, we rob children the opportunity to be present, in their space, body, and consciousness.
When thinking about how to engage children, how to keep them entertained, without screens, let's consider how to help them feel ABSORBED in the world.
ACCEPTANCE & AFFIRMATIONS
Okay. I know, two A's. But I like them both.
Expect and accept your child's protests in response to screen-based or independent play. If your child is already accustomed to screens, reducing or eliminating screen-time may be challenging. They may protest loudly, and for a long time. Your consistent, calm, and measured language like "I know you want to watch TV. It's so very fun. We're not going to watch TV right now," will eventually calm them.
Some children easily play independently from a young age. Even infants can play autonomously, so long as they are reasonably close to their caregivers. If free play is not, or has not been part of your home routine, your child will likely protest your attempt to have them play alone. Provide validation of feelings and authentic affirmations about their abilities and creativity. They can play and entertain themselves. You're right there with them, and they can do it all by themselves.
Think about your personal limits, your parenting boundaries, and your family values around screen time, and play time. Get clear on these first for yourself, then be clear with your children about your expectations and limitations. Boundaries are important. Your child may test these rules and may be upset by your "no" response, but ultimately, limits help children feel safe. With boundaries, children predictably know what to expect. Once you feel grounded in your values, you can respond with a more calm and measured tone in your voice.
All young children benefit from sensory play; these are toys and activities that specifically target different senses and experiences. Many parents DIY sensory bins for young children. Some sensory games require supervision. Allowing your child to explore all their feelings supports sensory integration, tactile exploration, and self-regulation. Some examples include water play, rice bins, finger-painting, water beads, playdough, sniff and guess, and tasting games.
Spending time outdoors leads to all kinds of benefits for young children, including the reduction in ADD/HD symptoms, increase in exercise and physical fitness, and increase in self-confidence. The natural world readily provides stimulation for young children, from finding treasures, bugs, plants, etc. Young children often need some supervision when playing outdoors. Independent play outdoors can feel more relaxed than independent play indoors, especially if you have an enclosed yard and can watch children from the porch or window.
Young children grow when given reasonable responsibilities. Even very young children can learn to put away a few toys or place dirty dishes in the sink. Responsibilities help children feel belonging, capable, and confident. Allow children to help with chores like cooking, cleaning, and tidying up. As they age, you can add more responsibilities to meet their capacities. Note: Most children struggle to put toys away when it marks the end of their fun play. This upsets many parents. What may actually be happening, is your child feels sad about ending, and putting the toys away signifies the end. In my work with children, I just ask that they put one thing away. Most of the time this leads to putting many things away. A kind, gentle, and firm ask while validating feelings often leads to cooperation.
Without screens, boredom creeps in. Even adults squirm away from the feeling. We hate it. This "B" involves modeling and practice from you as a parent. We may not like boredom, but if we think of it as the seed of creativity, perhaps we can welcome the feeling into our lives. The truth is, we rarely feel bored for long. Our minds work in incredible ways, and our environments are naturally engaging. If we take a moment, breath in and out, and allow some space, you may find that boredom is your new friend and muse. Practice gazing out the window, flipping through a magazine, just sitting and thinking before you turn to your phone. It's hard. But you can do it.
Children naturally have a lot of energy and require plenty of physical activity to release that energy. Babies and young children are usually eager to move about physically; it gives them opportunities to practice new skills. When you give your child independence to move around physically, and when you try not to intervene in their learning, children learn to live at the edge of their physical capacities, which helps keep them safe and learning.
DANCE & MUSIC
Music and dancing are key features in all cultures across the globe. Babies and young children love to listen to music and move their bodies. Put on some music and allow your child to dance around or listen to the melody and sing along.
Building routines and predictable habits around each of these tips will help you find success. Parenting is hard. And it's a skill that you can work on. You can hack this.