Guest opinion: Before kindergarten, focus on play without screens

Rick Blauvelt

Rick Blauvelt

A recent visit with my grandkids, ages 5 and 6, reminded me that screens today provide a host of parenting challenges. When I was a child, the 17-inch black-and-white TV with four or five channels would rarely compete with a neighborhood full of kids, pick-up ball games, bikes, sleds and mud.

Even 25 years later in the 1980s, managing screen time for my daughter was simple. Cable television, Nintendo, VHS movies and desktop computers competed for her time, but screens were not mobile, and a typical home had only a few of them. It was easy to suggest that we give Super Mario a rest and play a board game instead.

All of that changed dramatically with the explosion of digital technology, smartphones, computer tablets, laptops, streaming, Facebook and 24/7 access to the world in our back pocket.

Does it matter? Don’t the education, information and communication benefits outweigh the risks? Should parents be concerned? As with many parenting questions, the answers are complex and vary depending on the age of the child. At Raising A Reader Aspen to Parachute, we are particularly interested in the impact of screens on children during their first five years of life. Studies suggest we should be very cautious during these early years.

In a child’s first five years, rapid brain growth and social-emotional development prepare the foundation for a child’s healthy future. During this time, children are hardwired to crave human connections. They learn language by watching, listening and responding to people in their lives. Social skills develop through creative play, sharing, working out disagreements, learning to recognize social cues and discovering the perspectives of others. Motor skills develop through outside play, and any time wheels, balls, blocks, crayons and puzzles are present. Playing alone is important, too, and helps develop creativity, imagination and self-reliance.

Screens become problematic when they interfere significantly with these childhood experiences, and there is mounting evidence that they do. Studies show that poor oral language development is often linked to excessive screen time and low levels of verbal interaction at home. Attention span is declining among children and is likely the result of instant gratification provided by tablets and the frenetic action common on all types of screens. Children are developing social skills more slowly, which is negatively affecting school readiness.

This is not to say that all screen time is bad for children. It does suggest that we should manage their screen time with some background knowledge and common sense. Here are screen-time management suggestions for parents of children newborn to age five based on guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

• From birth to 18 months, the evidence strongly suggests that no learning occurs through screens. Instead, talk, play, read and sing face to face with your children.

• From 18 months to 2 years, if you want to introduce digital media, choose only high-quality programming, watch it with your children and talk about it to enhance their understanding.

• From 2 to 5 years, limit your child’s screen time to one hour per day. Once again, less is better, especially on the younger side of this age range. Sit with your child during time on tablets and smartphones to make social interaction part of the screen experience. Choose television programming and screen-based games with more complex structure, slowly developing plot lines and meaningful lessons, e.g., Daniel Tiger rather than Sponge Bob. Commercial-free programming such as PBS is best.

• When screen time becomes a shared experience with an adult, the experience can be more about learning, talking and sharing and less about touching screens or zoning out.

• Keep screens out of bedrooms, and have other places and times where they are not allowed (meals, story time, outside).

• Use drive time to put screens away. Sing. Play word games such as 20 questions.

• Though human interaction is critical at this age, it is also healthy for children to have time alone (without screens) to creatively entertain themselves.

Screens do become a learning tool and our children will need to be tech savvy. That can happen later. The bigger problem for youngsters through age 5 is the reduction of social, physical and oral language engagement that may be negatively affecting brain development, literacy, social skills and school readiness.

Please visit for tips on reading to and with your child, and like us on Facebook: For more information on screen time recommendations, see the American Academy of Pediatrics, and search “healthy digital media.”

Rick Blauvelt is executive director of Raising A Reader Aspen to Parachute.

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