We’ve all been there: You’re out in public when your toddler decides to throw an epic tantrum. You try everything in your parenting bag of tricks to calm him down, but nothing’s working. At a loss, you hand him your iPhone. He’s immediately quieted, mesmerized by the shiny display of dancing cartoon characters on the screen. Yes, electronics are the often easiest and most convenient way to keep little ones entertained. However, too much screentime can be detrimental to a child’s growth and development. If you want to combat your tot’s obsession with electronics, you’ll need an arsenal of screen-free, boredom-busting, kid-friendly games.
"You have to make prevalent activities that initially rival the dopamine release that technology offers until these activities become pleasurable enough to be self-reinforcing."
Dr. Joe Dilley, licensed psychologist
First thing's first: Breaking the habit
Children, on average, spend over two and a half hours a day watching television, according to a survey conducted by Child Wise. Add in the amount of time they spend on the computer, using a tablet, or playing video games, and that number can soar as high as five to seven hours per day. Too much screentime can lead to attention problems, school issues, sleeping and eating disorders, and even obesity.
To help shift your child’s interests away from electronics, try using them as a reward instead of a bribe, advises Dr. Joe Dilley, a licensed psychologist and author of "The Game is playing your kid: How to unplug and reconnect in the digital age." “We all know it's a bad idea, yet we all do it,” he says. “We're at a nice restaurant and our kids suddenly launch into a circus act. We feel helpless, so we give them what they want. What's so great is that, even in this troubling scenario, we're only seconds away from doing it right.”
The key, he states, is to hand over the phone or turn on the TV after your child settles down, not so he settles down. “That's the main difference between a bribe and a reward: a bribe precedes the requested behaviour, while a reward follows it. After you go to work, then you get paid. That's not a bribe, but an effective reward. So now imagine that at the nice restaurant, your kid has already behaved himself throughout dinner, so he's now enjoying the fruits of his labour -- yes, perhaps via your phone -- while you enjoy the fruits in your glass of Cabernet,” Dilley says.
When at home...
The opportunities for fun-filled, screen-free play at home are endless, but in our tech-heavy world, children often consider them second-best to electronics, says Dilley. “Our world is such that we no longer consider them first, because they tend to be somewhat less stimulating than tech-based activity,” he explains. “So you have to make prevalent activities that initially rival the dopamine release that technology offers until these activities and their variants become pleasurable enough to be self-reinforcing.”
You can encourage your children to participate in what Dilley refers to as “whole-body engagements” like completing a giant floor puzzle or drawing a football pitch or hopscotch court on a driveway with chalk. Other great at-home activities include:
• Sensory-based activities like finger painting, playing with moulding compounds, and making homemade “slime.” • Three-dimensional games, building towers out of magnetic tiles, or creating structures from lolly sticks. If they’re old enough to follow directions, building a Lego model can provide hours of engagement. • Outdoor adventures such as digging in a sandbox or garden or jumping on a trampoline – with supervision, of course.
Classic hide-and-seek games can help young children learn counting, while building forts and castles from sand, leaves, twigs, or stones can help develop your child’s thinking skills, notes Dr. Gail Gross, a behavioural psychologist. “All of these activities require cognitive skill, planning, and execution, which can help your preschooler mature and learn about healthy social interactions and relationships," she says.
For toddlers and preschoolers, create a collection of busy bags, which are simple yet engaging activities that are stored in zip-top bags (see Resources). They are inexpensive to make – often, they can be created with items that you already have around the house – and are perfect for quiet time.
When out of the house...
Teaching children to wait patiently – without resorting to a tablet or smartphone – presents another set of challenges. If you’re going to be traveling or know you’re in for a long wait at a doctor’s office, you’ll need to be prepared.
Something as simple as telling each other knock-knock jokes, which Dilley does with his own daughter, can help to pass the time. “It gets funnier every time, because we have to get more creative,” he says. At his practice, he provides little visitors with a variety of screen-free choices in his waiting room, many of which are transportable and great for preventing boredom while waiting or travelling. For instance:
• Three-dimensional, manipulative combination puzzles like Rubik’s Cube. • Brain teasers such as classic peg-jump games. • Riddle and joke books. • Card games such as solitaire. • Travel draughts or chess.
Other great on-the-go games that require nothing other than good old-fashioned brain power can also be effective, says Gross. These include:
• Story games, where one child tells a story, then additional children add to it. • Rhyming games, such as childhood rhymes recited during skipping. • Memory games, such as Chinese whispers, where the first person whispers a word or phrase into someone else’s ear, that person whispers it into the next person's, and so on, until it gets to the person at the end of the line. The last person says the phrase out loud, which is usually nothing at all like the original.
Is screen time ever OK?
It's important to remember that there is no magic age for allowing your child to have regular screen time, says Dilley.
“Consider what your child's actions bespeak about what kinds of privileges she can handle,” he advises. “Those privileges will include things like the content and duration of screen time, but they'll also include plenty of other requests she's making, like spending the night at a friend's house or piercing her ears. The interplay between responsibility and privilege is always changing.” If her behaviour suggests she can handle the activity, then go for it. “The answers to questions about when kids are allowed to access certain privileges require consideration of where they are on the developmental continuum, rather than how old they are,” he says.