Do you feel guilty or stressed every time you see a report about the importance of limiting screen time? Do you want to limit screen time, but aren't sure how to wean your child off of their favorite TV shows? The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released guidelines encouraging very limited screen time for children under 5 years old, but if this is something you struggle with, don't feel discouraged.
Figuring out how to best let our children interact with electronics in a world where they're constantly inundated with screens is one of the most challenging parts of being a parent today.
Try these Montessori-inspired strategies to help meet your screen time goals for your family, whatever they are:
1. Get physical
Montessori incorporates freedom of movement from birth. For babies, Montessori forgoes any devices, such as swings, infant chairs and walkers that put baby in a position they cannot yet get into by themselves. Instead, infants spend time on the floor and have plenty of time to practice rolling, crawling and pulling to stand as they get older.
For older children, free time outdoors is a natural way to encourage physical activity, but it's not the only way. You can incorporate movement into children's indoor play time by using distance games, a common tool in Montessori classrooms.
For example, if your child wants to do a puzzle, try putting the puzzle pieces in their room while you sit with the puzzle frame in the living room. They will have to go back and forth each time to get a piece. This is not only good for keeping them active, but it also challenges their brain as they work hard to remember which piece they were looking for.
2. Encourage independent play
One of the most common reasons parents offer screen time is to get a few precious minutes to themselves. But there's an alternative: help your child learn to play by themselves.
If your child is not used to playing independently, introduce it gradually and be prepared for protests. Change is hard, but that doesn't mean that it's not good.
Start by encouraging them to play by themselves for a 10-minute stretch while you're in the same room. Slowly increase the time you expect your child to play independently and they will become more confident and comfortable with it in time. If your child protests, validate their feelings by saying, "You sound so frustrated. I know you want me to play with you right now. I'm going to finish reading this article, but I can't wait to play together later."
It can help to encourage independent play at the same time each day, perhaps after breakfast. Make sure you have some quality time with your child first, where you give them your full attention, so they're emotionally tanked up and ready for independence.
3. Get them started and back away
While we want our children to play independently, sometimes they need a little help getting started. We use this strategy all of the time in the Montessori classroom, especially on the playground. We may get a game of ring toss started, then back out of it and let the children do it on their own.
4. Implement a routine
If you want to make a change, but dread the constant whining for the iPad, try implementing a routine so your child knows when to expect screen time. In Montessori classrooms, children have a great deal of freedom, but it is all within a predictable structure.
Children arrive at school, have a long block of independent work time, perhaps a group time, then lunch and playtime. Because the children know when playtime happens each day, they don't spend the morning work period begging to go to the playground. The expectations are clear and consistent so there is no point in arguing with them.
You can use this same strategy at home. You might decide that screen time will be limited to a family movie night on Friday or 30 minutes after school each day. No matter what you decide, communicate the new rule to your child. They will likely complain for the first couple of weeks, but soon the rule will become the new normal and they will likely stop arguing with the limits.
5. Prepare the environment
Montessori educators consider the learning process to be a three-way relationship between the child, the teacher and the classroom environment.
The environment, in this case your home, must be set up to support your child's developmental needs for active play and cognitively stimulating quiet play.
If you have an outdoor space, observe your child playing there. Are there ways for them to challenge their body with things like climbing, throwing, hanging, or carrying heavy things?
Are there ways for them to engage in purposeful work, like watering plants or sweeping the patio?
For indoors, have toys or activities that are both fun and challenging for your child; rotating what's available can go a long way toward holding your child's interest. The better your home environment is set up to meet your child's interests and developmental needs, the less they will be looking for passive entertainment. Taking these things into consideration can encourage your child to love outdoor play, and hopefully stop begging for screen time and embrace more active play.
If the new WHO guidelines seem overwhelming, take a step back and think of a smaller goal to get you started, whether it's increasing your child's time outside or breaking their iPad habit at the dinner table.
Start small and try these strategies to make the changes you want.