How To Scale Back Screen Time Over School Breaks

by Melissa Bernstein, the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Melissa & Doug and Dr. Jenny Radesky, M.D., a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. 

With school and extracurricular activities on hiatus plus travel plans on tap for many families, kids have an abundance of unstructured time on their hands. Normally, that’s a gift because most children don’t get enough downtime these days. One of the greatest skills we can foster in children is teaching them how to “fill the blank canvas” and not think of boredom as a negative. But it’s all too tempting for kids to fall into the tech trap of becoming glued to screens, isolated from one another, and passively consuming content rather than engaging with the world. Limiting screen time is hard enough during our regular routines. But how can we as parents and caregivers help our kids scale back on tech during this post-holiday period before school resumes?

Understanding the Purpose Technology Plays for Your Family

When thinking about replacement activities for digital media, video games, and time spent on phones and tablets, the most helpful question to ask yourself is what function the technology is serving for you and your family. Once you reflect on the underlying purpose, you’ll better be able to find a replacement game or activity meeting that same need.

1. Competition

If your kids are drawn to action-packed video games with clear winners and losers, they likely crave competition and the thrill of game play. They are also probably interested in mastering strategies and techniques to improve their performance. Luckily, there are loads of options for competitive play in the analog world.

Try these screen-free ways to play: Brainstorm activities that spark competitive spirit but won’t make children fall to pieces when they lose! Kids can generally handle card games, timed obstacle courses, sock battles (best done with clean laundry), and age-appropriate board games, especially those involving strategy.

2. Visual-Spatial Problem Solving

If your child is obsessed with MineCraft or your preschooler loves to move shapes around on a screen, they are probably experiencing the joy of fitting pieces together to build something original or the accomplishment of getting from point A to point B. Keep in mind, however, that studies have shown toddlers don’t transfer the knowledge they gain from “manipulating” objects on a screen (2D skills) to manipulating them in the real world (3D skills). That’s why it’s essential to offer kids hands-on opportunities for building and problem-solving play.

Try these screen-free ways to play: Visual learners love puzzles, mazes, “I Spy” games, and dot-to-dot activities. Try building a town using wooden blocks or bricks, or design a marble run and race away!

How To Scale Back Screen Time Over School Breaks

3. Relaxation

Sometimes kids (and grown-ups!) use technology as a soothing pacifier to simply zone out and unwind from the day. But its addictive design can lead us down the rabbit hole of surfing for stimulation that ultimately may not serve to provide relaxation at all.

Try these screen-free ways to play: Some children calm down through reading or coloring and others through sensory input: bean bag chairs that hug the body; visual input from snow globes, watching their flakes floating gently around; or auditory input from calm or beautiful music. If the weather’s not frightful, go outside with your children and observe birds or other creatures, trees, and clouds. For physical kids, try choreographing a dance or gymnastics routine, or try some simple stretches or yoga poses.

How To Scale Back Screen Time Over School Breaks

4. Storytelling

If you find your child tends to spend their screen time watching streaming shows or movies, they’re likely responding to narratives, characters, and plot. See if you can channel that impulse into activities inspiring imagination and fostering connections.

Try these screen-free ways to play Listen to audiobooks with children to help stretch their attention over multiple chapters. In addition to reading books, you can also look at photo albums and ask aunts, uncles, grandparents to tell your children interesting stories about their childhoods.

How To Scale Back Screen Time Over School Breaks

5. “Electronic Babysitter”

Many families tend to use digital devices as a way to keep children occupied, entertained, and, well, quiet as grown-ups cook, clean, run errands, or go about their busy lives..

Try these screen-free ways to play: Enlist children as helpers, giving them a small piece of the big task that you’re working on. Kids can be eager and enthusiastic partners in chores. They thrive on our attention and interaction, and love the satisfaction of doing “grown-up” activities. And while, yes, perhaps their involvement will slow down the job at hand, the conversations and emotional bonds that develop as you tackle a project together are worth the extra minutes.

As you’re cooking, try giving children age-appropriate tasks (gathering ingredients, stirring, chopping). While running errands, appoint your child as special assistant who can hold your checklist, search for the shortest checkout lines, and bag and carry items. When you’re working from home, give them “work,” which could be projects as simple as cutting scrap paper into 3-by-3-inch squares for use as note paper or drawing pictures to adorn your work area.

6. Laughs

Have a kid who gets sucked into watching silly prank videos or swiping through funny memes? They are clearly looking to be entertained and let off steam in laughing. See if you can flip the script and have them take an active, rather than passive, role in the entertainment. Making their own fun and actively developing their senses of humor are skills that will serve them for a lifetime!

Try these screen-free ways to play: “Mad Libs”-style activities are great for one-on-one interactions. Also try charades, joke books, and funny board games that involve drawing or silly word play. One of our family favorites is the “finish my sentence” game — each person says one word and the next person keeps building the sentence, leading to lots of laughs. And lastly, have kids create their own “Broadway show,” devising homemade costumes, and creating a program and tickets to boot!

How To Scale Back Screen Time Over School Breaks

We know trying to scale back on technology use can be stressful — especially when kids start stomping and screaming when you impose limits — but we encourage you to resist the impulse to give in. Take a breath and be enthusiastic about introducing new activities. As parents, we must strive to make our enthusiasm and energy contagious so our children pick up on it.

Good luck! 

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