As parents, we spend a lot of time worrying about our kids. Are they sleeping enough? Are they meeting their milestones? Are they eating healthy — or in my case, are they going to eat any of the lunch I packed this morning at all?
And when it comes to screens, parents not only worry about the time their kids spend with screens, but we also tend to feel guilty for the time we allow. We worry that watching TV or playing games on the iPad takes away from real-life experiences. We worry about the messages media is sending our children about who they are and who they should be. We worry that our kids are not being social, not getting enough fresh air, not learning.
As the head of PBS KIDS digital, I’m often asked how I handle screen time with my own kids. And what comes up first are questions about how much time is OK. The truth is, the rules not only change household to household, but also kid to kid. My five-year-old needs major limits because he would watch all day if I let him, while my almost three-year-old is rarely interested in sitting still longer than 20 minutes.
And while, understandably, our automatic reaction is to set limits on the things that scare us, in my 18 years working with kids and media I’ve come to understand how educational media can be a powerful tool for helping our children learn — and parents play an important part.
There’s an alternate route to saying “no.” There’s an easier approach we can follow. Through the fears, concerns, and worries about screen time, there is, in fact, a truly simple answer for turning media into a thoughtful, constructive learning experience for children.
Just show up. Sit down next to your child. Ask a couple questions about what they’re doing or watching. Research shows us that watching, playing, and engaging with our children through educational media helps them learn. Children and media researcher Eric Rasmussen explains it this way: watching TV with your child communicates that what your child wants to do is important to you and that you approve of the content they’re watching. This not only creates a bonding moment, but also inspires your child to pay closer attention to the lessons within the show. Your presence alone is enough for your child to learn better.
One of the best things we can do for our children, overall, is talk to them. And, as we all know, it can sometimes be difficult to get answers about school or our child’s day. So why not use screen time to engage with them? When you talk to kids about what they’re watching and playing, you’re also setting up a strong media habit. Kids are learning that media is meant to be shared and discussed, and isn’t just a solo experience. Here are some ways I use media to bond with my kids and help them learn and grow:
Use media to teach life lessons. In my household, my three-year-old is having trouble with taking turns (as many three-year-olds do!), so we’ve been making a point of watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood during his screen time. Later, over dinner, I’ll ask him some questions about it: “I noticed that Katarina and Daniel were having an argument. How did they figure it out?” Or, “What would you do if your friends weren’t sharing?”
When he responds, a few things are happening. First, he’s working on his own social and emotional growth while talking through his reactions to the story. Second, he’s developing literacy skills: telling a story in order, recognizing what happened first, next, and last – key preschool- and kindergarten-readiness skills. Finally, he and I are bonding, having a fun conversation together, and creating a shared moment!
Point out how characters are feeling. Help young children begin to understand emotions by pointing out how characters in books or on TV might feel. For example, “Daniel Tiger is MAD because his block tower fell down, but he took a deep breath, counted to four, and now he feels better. Maybe he can build a new tower!” You can also use the free Daniel Tiger for Parents app to help your child work through tough feelings, wherever you might be.
Let your child teach you. Ask your little gamer about their play — or even if they’ll teach you to play! This can help young children build their creative storytelling skills (“Did you see? I made a car out of pickle! I drove so fast!”) and older children think through strategy and problem-solving skills. Try asking, “What do you need to do next in this game?” or “Why do you think that happened?”
Connect digital experiences to your child’s world. Watching and playing with your child gives you information you can build on in the future. For example, “Can you show Grandma how the bats flew in that game you played? Do you remember what they ate?” Or “That train looks like the one we saw on TV! How many cars do you think it has? Let’s count them!”
Explore your child’s interests. Tuning into your little one’s favorite on screen experiences can help you extend their learning in other ways. Take a trip to the library to check out dinosaur books for your T-Rex lover. Or help your outdoor explorer find different animals, plants, and insects at the park. Or encourage your budding artist to draw what he watched on TV. Whether it’s science or art or math, if you start with an area that sparks your child’s interests and curiosity, they’ll learn more from it.
Above all, remember that you are the answer to your concerns about screen time. You know what’s best for your child when it comes to time limits and the content they play and watch. Your proactive presence while your child engages with media might be what matters most. And spending time with our children, no matter what the activity, helps us create shared memories and experiences we’ll treasure forever. When we cuddle and laugh together during a particularly funny show or solve problems as a team with a video game, we’re creating lasting bonds.