As an onsite owner of a Goddard School (an educationally based franchise preschool with extended hours), my staff and I recently noticed that one of the three-year-old students had become increasingly tired in the morning with frequent meltdowns in the classroom. She had also become more difficult to awaken after naptime. Communication between the parents and the teachers produced the answers to the child’s change of behavior. The parents revealed that they had recently started giving an iPad to their daughter at bedtime and were letting her put herself to sleep. We explained the negative impact of too much screen time, especially at night, and encouraged the parents to not hand their child a screen for bedtime.
In our increasingly technological world, screens are here to stay and now is the time to be setting boundaries and limits so they will be used as a teaching tool instead of taking away precious interactions with family members. The introduction of smaller and smaller devices creates more opportunities to increase screen time for children and the temptation for tired parents to hand their child a screen. Most often with parenting the ‘easy thing is often not the best thing’ and we must always be thinking about the long-term results of our choices.
As a parent of three teen children, I know firsthand how difficult it is to stop screens from slowly creeping into our home life. My advice is to set boundaries now because when your child has a cell phone it will become increasingly difficult to monitor them. Tools they learn as preschoolers can pay dividends long into the future. Setting boundaries that you and your spouse both agree on and providing many fun, alternative and enriching activities will be the key to a happy home where children are not overtired and healthy relationships can grow.
You may be thinking to yourself, “I already know that too much screen time is not healthy, what I need is some practical help. How does one limit our children’s screen time and what are some fun activities we can be doing with our preschooler at home?” I believe the answer resides with balance as we seek to provide a variety of interactions for our children and to not let too much screen time take away from other fun and stimulating activities. Consistency between the home and school is very important and our expert and degreed teachers within our classroom environments have much to teach us all.
- Limit your child to only 15 minutes of screen time.
Students at the Goddard School are limited in their screen time, as the iPads and computers in the classroom are used as teaching tools and only contain educational apps and websites. A popular free website called Starfall offers educational games that a child can use at school and at home. Since students must take turns in the classroom, the students learn quickly that they cannot stay at the computer or pad for more than 15 minutes. I suggest setting your phone timer for 15 minutes and when the timer goes off, or a few minutes before; remind your child that they should be finishing up. Setting a 15-minute limit teaches your child a lifetime lesson that individuals are in control of electronic devices and not the other way around. Remember that these educational games are great teaching tools but should never replace the human interaction of snuggle time at night, to appease a tantrum, or to ‘babysit’ a child.
- Make bedtime the most special time of the day.
Not only was the use of the iPad depriving the above-mentioned three-year-old of enough sleep at night, but also precious snuggle time and the joy of sharing books with a parent. While educational games are a wonderful supplement to help your child to learn basic skills, they can never replace the joy of sharing a funny or touching book. Spending a little extra time at night to ensure that your child receives a warm relaxing bath, a chance to debrief and lots of snuggle time will most likely help ensure a happier morning the following day.Bedtime should be a time to unwind and slowly prepare for a deep refreshing sleep. However, studies have recently shown that the blue light on computer screens contributes to less sleep as the light interferes with the melatonin that helps one drift off to sleep. A sleep-deprived child is not a happy child and according to Charles Czeisler, Director of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital in Boston, “Sleep deprived children become hyperactive rather than dozy, and sleep loss may be mistaken for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Ensuring that your child has enough sleep will give him or her a better chance behavior-wise for a more successful day. Make bath time fun with lots of bath toys and foam letters, and make storytime special as you ask questions and use different voices as you read to your preschooler. One important and clear boundary for bedtime for instance would be to not allow a TV in your child’s room and to take away all iPads or hand held games before bath and story time.
- Create an imaginative play area in your home.
At the Goddard School, the students are surrounded by so many fun, hands on activities that when their iPad or computer time ends they are excited to go on to the next activity. Look around your child’s classroom and take note. Try to include similar materials and activities for an accessible area in your home to encourage your child’s imaginative playtime. Collect dress up clothes (Halloween costumes) and your own used purses and items for your child to play dress-up. Create a “play” kitchen area where your child can imitate you as you prepare dinner close to or in your own kitchen area. Include real boxes and containers from your kitchen that you have cleaned and add some real utensils. Add an easel and art supplies so they can create and imitate the morning message that their teacher writes each day. Other ideas include a cash register so they can learn about money, cards for concentration, coloring books, clay or Floam or the new kinetic sand (that won first place in the Goddard Toy contest). Also, put in bins different types of manipulatives such as puzzles, Legos, Lincoln Logs, and other building materials. I would often give my children old magazines and child safe scissors and as they happily cut out pictures and letters their fine motor skills increased. Just as your child’s teachers put out different centers each day, take out new items and put away other items so to increase your child’s interest. The more non-electronic activities you have available, the easier it will be to hand over the iPad or stop watching TV. Moreover, if an adult comes down to the child’s level and plays with the child, the chances of a tantrum free transition increases.
- Make mealtime meaningful.
Mealtime should be more than putting nutrients in our bodies, but a time to reconnect with our family members about each other’s day. The Goddard School teachers sit at the table with the children and eat with them. The children are encouraged to wait until everyone has their food and daily learn good table manners from watching their teachers. Make sure you are reading the activity report from your Tadpole app and use this information to ask your child about his or her day. Ask about the book that their teacher read, or the fun activity they played outside, or the messy process art activity that they created during the past day. By asking questions about their day, your child is learning lifetime lessons on communicating and at the same time extending the learning made during the school day. Some families have each member describe a ‘high for the day and a low for the day.’ This is an enriching exercise for all family members to learn to both listen and to share the good of the day and also share a challenging time. “So what was something good that happened today?” I often ask my family. I want my children to realize that each day has some good in it. So one important and clear boundary for mealtime would be to turn off all TV’s and cell phones and give all of one’s attention to the family at mealtime.
- Use Physical touch and exercise.
Preschoolers need touch and fun physical interactions with those that love them. Children are just like adults who receive and perceive love through physical touch and quality time. At our last PTO meeting in January, I asked the parents for our monthly icebreaker to “describe their favorite non-electronic or non-screen activity to do with their preschooler.” Parents described with smiles playing “hide and go seek” and “tickle monster” with their children. One parent has set up tunnels and has an obstacle course in the basement and the entire family goes down to runs races and play together. Just as the children love to dance and get their wiggles at school – How about putting on some dance music and just dancing together as a family after dinner each night? Try playing a variety of music genres as we do at school. A favorite for the children is the Disney song from Frozen “Let it Go,” the dance song “Move It Move It,” and of course the chicken dance and the hokey pokey. A fun game of Freeze dance in which the music stops and everyone freezes in midair teaches concentration and produces lots of giggles and smiles. Play classic games such as Duck Duck Goose, Ring around the rosy and London Bridges. All these games include touch, whole body movement and provide social interactions that a screen can never do.
Always remember that your most important goal as a parent is to build up a healthy lifelong close relationship with your child.
May our children remember bedtime stories and playing hide and go seek more than they have memories of us as parents texting on our cell phones. Model for your child that you are in control of all media and choose to set boundaries especially for mealtime and bedtime.