Leaving Kids to their Own “Devices”: 5 Ways to Make Screen Time Work During Social Distancing

girl sitting beside the table while operating tablet computer

Whether during Coronavirus or not, parenting today often comes with the question of whether, when, and how to use screen time with children. No time has highlighted this more than right now, when we’re all inside for longer periods of time. What do you do when we, “the grownups” have other tasks to complete (or just want, need, and deserve a little downtime), and children are incessantly asking for a tablet, phone, computer, or any other screen to pass the time?

Focus On What You Can Control

Here’s what I’m going to tell you: In all likelihood, your kids are going to be using technology more than you’d like. Acknowledge it now, accept it now…and move on. 

Move on to what you can control at this time. The first thing to consider is whether your child is looking for technology, or you’re offering it because independent play is difficult for them. If that’s the case, please know that playing independently can be taught. It takes time and repetition and may not last as long as would be convenient, but, with a nod towards a child’s developmental abilities, we can help a child learn to engage on their own. (More on this in another post).

For the purpose of this article, what we can control, is how children use technology and it doesn’t have to be about passive consumption. Here’s what I recommend, and the keyword is diversify.

5 Screen Time Options for Your Kids (Both With You and Independently)

Play a Game

I recommend that whether your child is playing a game or watching a show, that you investigate, or play it yourself first. One of my favorite resources is Common Sense Media. They do a great job of making recommendations based on a child’s development and offer helpful reviews of many types of media.  Depending on when your child will be playing the game, you can choose one that they have already mastered (or at least can manipulate on their own), or one that will require more engagement from you. 

Connect with Friends and Family

Use Facetime, Skype, Google Hangout, or Zoom to schedule a virtual play date or family catch up!  During a virtual play date, children can have building challenges (who can build a tower as tall as they are), follow along to a yoga video on YouTube (screen sharing is great for this!) or have “Show and Tell.”  In my family we “get together” Friday evenings at 6:45. We spend the first part of the call letting the children tell us about what they’ve done all week (schoolwork, projects, exercise, etc.). Then, when the children are all done, they go off to play while the grown-ups connect and check in. 

Get Physical

Use web-based yoga programs, movement activities, Ninja-style obstacle courses that can be replicated, Zumba or dance classes, music classes that are streaming or other gross motor activities. Technology doesn’t always have to be about sitting on the couch and watching. In the same way the internet has lots of options for exercise classes for grown-ups, there’s a plethora of offerings for children as well.  (Need some recommendations? Keep an eye on my Instagram and Facebook pages).

Ask A Question or Do Some Research

One of my favorite things about being with children is the incredible questions they ask! Why not work together to find out how the electricity enters the house to make their nightlight work, how the crunchy outer part ends up on M&Ms, or how long it would really take to get to Mars. Younger children will need a grown-up to help them ask questions and find answers. Older children can do this independently and bring back the answers to share with the rest of the family. This is also a great conversation starter with younger children about reputable resources.

Listen to a Read Aloud

Whether you choose a favorite storybook being read online (test out some books that are audio only), watch a story recreated as a cartoon, listen to a story being read by an astronaut (yes, NASA has this available through their website), or discover a new book, there are a ton of options online! Every now and then, stop the playback and ask your child questions about what was read. What does your child think will happen next? Do you agree?

Bonus Round: Watch a Show

I’m all about realistic expectations…in ordinary and extraordinary times. They’re gonna be okay. A little “passive consumption” is manageable. As I said, I do recommend that you check out the show on Common Sense Media or watch it yourself before you set them up and walk away.

An Important Note:  Engaging with your child, along with the screen, enhances its value by multitudes. It also helps expand the way children view and relate to technology. Try to be sure that if your child is using technology during the day, you set aside some time to participate with them.