5 amazing alternatives to screen time: and teaching your toddler to choose them first!

I often get asked about alternatives to screen time. With the pandemic still among us and lots of variation in childcare availability, many parents find themselves at home with their children, trying to stay productive and happy. Screen time is absolutely okay in moderation, and for the 2 to 5 age group, one hour or less is recommended. Within that one hour or less, try and keep the content high quality and educational and encourage social interaction by watching with your child, commenting on what’s happening, and even asking questions. Avoid any content that contains violence or evokes any strong emotions such as fear, over excitement or worry. My son has always been an early riser, so we do screen time in the morning as soon as he gets up. We sit on the couch together and choose the “shows” (as he calls them). Right now, at age 2.2, he is very into Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Each episode is about 20 minutes in duration, and so we watch two together. The rest of the day, screen time isn’t available, and he doesn’t ask for it (I think he may actually think the television doesn’t work after those morning hours!). Whatever you decide, be consistent with your schedule and your limits.

If you’ve established a consistent schedule and are following other general guidelines, you might be asking yourself what possibilities exist for the remaining hours of your day to keep your toddler THAT engaged and even pass some time. And you might be asking what the heck any of this has to do with science! I’m here to help.

Here is a list of fun, engaging, screentime alternatives

When you engage your child in these activities, you have a heightened ability to positive reinforce play behaviors other than screen time and to pair other activities with reinforcing events like positive interaction from you, and any natural positive outcomes that arise from the activity itself (e.g., eating a treat your toddler helped you make in the kitchen).

  1. Helping…. with whatever activity you’re doing: laundry, dishes, cooking, you name it! Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to help and to get involved. You’ll have to adjust expectations based on age and skill set, but all these household duties offer excellent opportunities to keep your child engaged, provide assistance, and establish the importance of helping out around the house! Your child can help:
    1. Unload the dishwasher by simply handing you dishes from the bottom rack. Be strategic here and only put dishes that can’t break and are safe on the bottom when loading.
    1. Do laundry by helping place clothing items into the washer or dryer. Many children love pressing the buttons and you can easily teach them which ones to choose!
    1. Cook in the kitchen by getting ingredients, mixing, or stirring. Some kids may not be fully ready to help with a recipe, but you can engage them by giving them their own set of kitchen tools and allowing them to “cook” along with you. Invest in a helper stool that can give your child the ability to stand with you. My husband and I purchased this one when my son was only a year old and we use it multiple times per day, every day. It’s adjustable so I anticipate it will be a staple part of our kitchen for many years to come!
  2. Play dough – seriously, this classic can keep your child occupied for hours. You can play with them or simply get the supplies out and allow them to play (in a highchair or other station) wherever you are. You can narrate what they are doing, talk to them, and listen to music while you both are engaged.
  3. Coloring – another classic.Be sure to teach your child to hold the paper steady while they draw and to properly hold a crayon or marker – doing so will help them be more independent.Again, you can station them wherever you are and allow for some independent work while you do other things, or you can engage with them. An easy, inexpensive past time activity that sometimes gets overlooked!
  4. Sensory bins – sensory bins can be created out of anything but usually involve dried rice or beans placed in a simple plastic container. Be thoughtful about the size of the bean and only use this activity with kids who are of the age that they will avoid placing the items in their mouth. You can place any simple play toys in the bin, and this activity can help keep them occupied for long periods of time. Best yet – they are engaged in play and learning while doing so! Here is an exhaustive list of bin fillers and ideas!
  5. Get outside – provided the weather is reasonable, getting outside can really do wonders for everyone’s health and happiness. Sometimes, just a change in scenery can keep kids happy and playing. You don’t even have to plan anything extravagant – a walk to the park, riding a bike around the neighborhood, going on a wagon ride, bouncing a ball or even just saying hello to neighbors!

Encouraging alternative activity preference

Now is about the time in the blog where you’re probably asking: “that’s great, but how do I get my kid to want to do these things rather than screen time?” Sometimes, people get in a vicious cycle where screen time is primary, and kids experience all the reinforcement associated with that activity and none of the reinforcement associated with other activities. So, as simple as it sounds, the key to getting your child to want to do other things is first…to simply have them do it. Once they start playing and engaging (especially if you make it extra fun for them), they’ll experience the positives associated with those activities and want to do them more – I promise! For adults, it’s like us trying a new activity. Until we go out and bike, take a walk, or try CrossFit, we only know what we know (hanging around the house, watching TV). So, we make ourselves go out and do those things. And remember, it may take a little while for those activities to become the norm and to be reinforcing – we may not even like them at first and will often prefer our usual. But over time and with practice, we start to experience the positive contingencies associated with the new activities and actively choose to do them instead of other things. This concept works with our kids too! While play dough may not be the most reinforcing activity right away, over time and after building castles and dinosaurs, and having tons of fun with it – it becomes very positive and even preferred.

Get out there parents – flip the switch to “off” and start a positive adventure to making new and healthy choices!

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