Practical Tips for Reducing Screen Time and Increasing Play Time

Contributor Post by @lunchesandlittles

Imaginary friends, mid-day campouts, building forts – When I was younger I would spend hours outside or in our basement playroom engaging in imaginary, open-ended play. I remember borrowing my Mom’s pans and apron and being a cook some days, or lining up my dolls, pretending to be a teacher or doctor the next, and so on. I would stay busy for hours, and often I just had items from the house; no expensive toys or elaborate set ups. Mainly just my imagination.

Unfortunately, today it seems that these kinds of activities are becoming less and less attractive as technology has been moving in and taking over. And while some technology can be good and even educational for our little ones (and a welcomed break for parents!) it can’t be the go-to. While I’m not an expert in this area, I am a mother of three little ones, and my husband and I are constantly working to find more balance in our home, so below I am going to share 3 practical tips for reducing screen time and increasing play time with toddlers that have worked for us.

1. Play with your Children

Emphasis on the with. This may seem obvious, but as parents, we can get so busy with our own to-do’s that we fall into the habit of just being around or in the other room while our children are playing in the next. It can become more like supervising them, versus engaging with them. I have caught myself doing this from time to time too much. But, playing with your children is so important, and is much different than simply watching them play.

Whether it’s having a tea party, playing a game, doing crafts. focusing your attention completely on your children and being fully present in those moments with them is an entirely different experience (for both them and you) than just being in the same room together. Playtime with your children is so important, and the undivided attention makes them feel special and says, “you matter.” If you have more than one child, having one on one time with each, as well as family time with all of the kids/parents in the home is crucial. Your children playing on their own of course has its time and place too; see below.

2. Choose Open-ended Play

Toy stores are full of toys that are single purpose, and will only entertain children for a short time. Of course, toys like this are fine, but if you want your children to be more excited about play, I suggest including open-ended play toys, dress up clothes, building blocks, etc. to your play space or toy box. 

When children get bored playing, that is when they look for the next thing to do, and unfortunately, that can be a look in the direction of the television. So, to reduce screen time and increase play time, you need to get your little ones really excited about play, and we have found, in our home, that imaginative play is where it’s at! One of our current favorite toys in this category are Magna-Tiles. All 3 of our little ones love them. For our youngest, they help develop fine-motor skills as well as teach different colors, patterns, and shapes. And when older, Magna-Tiles help with the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, while the child is mastering building and spacial relationships. It’s educational learning that’s fun and doesn’t include a screen. Other great options: Tegu blocks, playhouses/figurine sets, costumes, play kitchen sets and accessories, etc.

Open-ended play is a great way to engage with your children but is also a great way for them to take the lead and play on their own. I love watching my three and four-year-olds come up with story lines and play with their figurines or build monster trucks and towers and other things with their blocks. Let them write the narrative! The times when we really see our children’s imaginations soar are the times when my husband and I are actively encouraging open-ended play; the days when screen time is non-existent. All smiles, stories, and fun; no electronic toys or apps needed; just their imaginations! According to the American Academy of Pediatrics children, two years of age and older should spend no more than two hours in front of the television or other electronic devices per day. Infants 18 months and younger should not be exposed to any digital media, the academy says. Yes, iPads, iPhones, Netflix, etc. can be educational and/or serve as child-friendly entertainment, but these things cannot become go-to activities for our little ones. When we think about our children and play, we need to remember that play isn’t just play for little ones; it is how they learn!

( Magna-Tiles Clear Colors)

3. Set the Examples

Have you ever been out to eat and see a family sitting together, but the parents are busy staring at their phones while their children stare at them? Sadly, I see this a lot. Just last week I saw a family of four (two parents and two teens) at a table nearby our own family and all four of them were on their phones for the majority of the meal. What a missed opportunity for family time and shared conversation.

Our kids learn by example, so we need to set good ones. If we do not want our children watching a lot of television or playing excessively on iPads, etc. we need to limit our own screen time; children always gravitate towards modeled behaviors. So, if our children see us consistently on our phones, or always watching television, they will learn that is good and even appropriate, and they won’t understand when we tell them they can’t do the same.

Offer to play a game with your child(ren), they will likely join in. Read a book; they are more likely to read. Watch a lot of television, and so will they. Play matters, and sometimes the littlest changes can go a long way. Remember, play with your children, choose open-ended play options, and set the example. You may be surprised at the amount of screen time you can reduce and the increased interest in play time in your home with just a few new focuses.