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Preschoolers and Play in the Digital Age

by By Anne Fishel, Ph.D and Tristan Gorrindo, MD

By Anne Fishel, Ph.D and Tristan Gorrindo, MD

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School. Tristan Gorrindo, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA. Read more »

A three-year-old boy sits in a grocery-shopping cart, transfixed as he holds a shiny smart phone and blows into it. His breath causes digital balloons to transform into balloon animals, which then scamper across the screen. He is quietly entertained while his mother picks out a bunch of cherries. Is this play or a distracting toy?
For children ages 2 to 6, imaginative play is their most important work. They replay important life scenarios in order to feel they've mastered a skill, perhaps imagining themselves as a doctor giving shots or a parent doling out treats. Pretend play also gives kids a chance to share, take turns and to put themselves into someone else's shoes -- to learn empathy. Play spurs the imagination and gives kids a way to work out their worries.  Digital play -- including computer games, smart phones and other handheld devices; peek-a-boo while skyping with grandparents; watching funny video clips -- is the new kid on the block.   
Digital play is different from pretend play with a parent or friend because, for the most part, it isn't self-generated.  In other words, technology-based play is limited by the actual design of the game or device.  When children play pretend, it involves give and take; only the players can determine how their actions evolve. Technology can't duplcate this, but it is still fun, and most young kids are drawn to it. 

In our work with families of young children, parents have two main attitudes towards technology: interest and worry.  Many parents like the inventive and fun ways that their children can use technology. While a child watches a podcast without commercials, his parent can make a quick dinner. A little girl watches her parents in a video clip and then acts out their roles. Another parent finds Scooby Doo on YouTube and and is able to share a favorite TV moment from his own childhood. Kids listen to Raffi, hear Yertle the Turtle, and play Koi Pond all on their parents' phones.   

At the same time, parents worry because their kids' use of technology far outstrips what is known about its impact. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that children under the age of 2 should not watch TV at all, and that kids over 2, should not watch more than 1-to-2 hours of high quality, age-appropriate programming per day.  

While the AAP has started replacing language about "TV" with language about any "screen time," there remains little direct guidance, and even less research, about how parents should use technology with young children and what the impact of this early exposure might be.  
So without guidance or data, parents are making it up as they go. And many are anxious. Parents tell us that they wonder if their kids will get too dependent on digital play and not want to socialize or play outdoors. They worry that their children's brains get wired to crave more and more digital stimulation.  

Based on our experience and the limited data that are available, we offer the following thoughts: 

  1. Patterns that are set up now around technology will likely shape a child's future relationship with technology. In the teenage years, parents who set even the most minimal rules around technology have teens who use significantly less technology than their unrestricted peers.  Parents who get in the habit of setting limits with their preschoolers will have an easier time as their children grow up.

  3. During these early years, preschool-aged children are mimicking behaviors of parents; so, parents should be mindful of their own technology use during family time (dinners, playing outside together, etc).

  5. Until we know more about what the effects of exposure to technology are on the developing brain, it's a good idea to limit all screen time (that is TV, PCs, and all other digital devices with screens) to 1-2 hours per day, as the AAP suggests, with the caveat that screen time should be developmentally appropriate and used as part of a nurturing activity between you and your child.

  7. The benefits of imaginative, pretend play with dolls, blocks, Legos, clothes, rocks and found objects is well established. If you have to choose between this kind of play and digital play, it's safe to say that your child will be better nurtured with the former. That said, creativity and learning can be fueled by digital play as well. The key is to help your child get the most out of any screen he interacts with.

How do you see the role of digital play in the development of your child?   What kind of digital activities have you and your child enjoyed together? 


Jeffrey writes...

My wife and I have been underwhelmed at what digital play has to offer kids. As you say, their imaginations seem very constricted by playing in a planned digital space, whereas something like Legos and dolls seem to leave more room for them to imagine.

But when our daughter hit first grade, video games became so ubiquitous in her class that she was looked on as odd for NOT playing video games, not knowing the characters, etc. Now the same thing is happening with her brother.

This has been such a huge factor, we're considering relenting and getting a Wii, or one of the less hardcore systems for occasional use. (I personally don't think I want my kids to ever have the hand-held video games.)

Any thoughts on how use of video games should be regulated? A couple of hours over the weekend? Ten minutes a day? Anyone have ideas?

Anne? writes...

I think that every family needs to define its relationship to digital input at home, and some families may opt for some cultural push-back. I don't think you do your kids any harm to welcome some digital play, and exclude others. And, of course, even if your children don't play video games at home they may play them at friend's houses and so have some exposure.
If you decide to allow your children to play video games, here are some guidelines to consider:
-Any video game should "count" towards a child's daily allotment of screen time, which the AAP recommends should be limited to 1-2 hours a day.
- Video games should be educational in nature and complement what your child is learning in preschool or at home
-Use the ESRB ( rating scales when selecting a game. In the same way you would limit a child to G-rated films when going to the movies, you should limit preschool-aged children to EC-rated (or Early Childhood Rated) games. Since your daughter is in first grade, she may be appropriate for an E-rated (or Everyone-Rated game) which has been deemed appropriate for children over the age of 6.
-Video games, and other screen time, should be thought of like a dessert-- to be enjoyed on occasion, but not a substitute for more nutrient rich stimulation like pretend play.

nicole writes...

I sometimes worry that my kids are not as digitally-inclined as they should be. They rarely play computer games, but all of their friends do.

Tai writes...

i am finding that my toddler asks to watch her 15-30 minutes of sesame street at the same time each day---shortly after waking. she sometimes wakes up crying and then will say "movies -her word for sesame street---make her feel better". How would you understand this--as something of a calming ritual or something that reflects more the actual addictive potential/reality of screen time? are there specific guidelines for toddlers---2-6 is a wide age-range. great column!

Tristan? writes...

Your toddler's asking for Sesame Street after waking up seems like a calming ritual, not something more worrisome. If the only way she could soothe herself was to rush to a TV or screen, that might be cause for concern; but, if she has other strategies in her repertoire-- like wanting a hug, or cuddling with you, or asking to have a book read to her before sleep-- and this is just her morning routine, I'd say that this behavior is not cause for alarm.

What is concerning, however, is that there is little research about the effects of screen time on the developing brains of toddlers. What we do know is that toddlers are sponges for observing and copying the behaviors of their parents so it's important to be careful about how you are modeling the use of technology, like not texting during meals or while talking with her. As a prudent step, I think it makes sense to stay at the lower end of the AAP's recommendations for screen time; that is, less than an hour a day for toddlers.

On a side note, some of you may know that Dr. Gerald Lesser died earlier this week. He was an educational psychologist who helped shape much of the content within Sesame Street. Although Dr. Fishel and I come to TV and screen time with a healthy dose of skepticism, we certainly appreciate all that Sesame Street has done to spur the emotional and cognitive development of pre-schoolers. Our condolences go out to his family and his colleagues in children’s television.

Liz writes...

Thank you for this thoughtful and interesting column. My 3 year old and I spend story time reading "books" on my iphone. We snuggle up the same way, and flip through the digital pages together reading and talking about the book. It is much cheaper to download new digital books, and it saves space. There is often a "narrator" feature you can turn on or off, so when I need a quick distraction in the car or at a restaurant, she can flip through the pages herself and listen to the narrator. I feel this is a healthy and imaginative use of "screen time" - isn't it better for her to listen to a story than watch a video? And is there really a difference between cozying up at the end of the day with a "real book" versus a digital book?

Tristan? writes...

Liz gives us all a nice example of one of the best ways to use technology with a pre-schooler. What Liz describes is a warm, nurturing experience between mother and child where the technology facilitates an interaction between the two of them -- who could ask for more? I agree that there certainly are cost and storage advantages to digital books, but I think the question Liz poses, "what is the difference between a 'real book' and a 'digital book’?,” remains to be answered.

Lisa Guernsey writes...

I'm struck by the thoughtfulness of this advice. Thank you to Drs. Fischel and Gorrindo.

There is so much we don't know about how media affects pretend play. I'm a huge proponent of open-ended pretend play -- the kind that can go on for hours. And as a parent, anecdotally, I can see how it appears that media-inspired play may be less "self-generated." Yet I'm also curious about what "self-generated" really means, since children's play must come from somewhere, from something they have seen. Children whose parents are doctors pretend to be doctors. Children who watch their big brother play xBox will pretend to play xBox. I'd love to tease out exactly what the real differences are when a child who sees a character on screen and pretends to do what that character is doing. Are the differences as acute as we might assume?

Anne? writes...

Thank you for this interesting question, Lisa, about the ways that digital play and other play may not be so different from one another. I'm reminded of a recent New Yorker cartoon of two children playing with a box, and the girl says to her curious mother, "We're playing You Tube." As you suggest, digital play can inspire pretend play. So what do we mean by self-generated play? We are honing in on the very examples that you mention. For a little girl who doesn't quite understand what it means for her mommy to be a doctor, she has a chance to act out her fantasies about healing. Similarly, when a little boy copies his bigger brother playing x-box, the boy has a chance to play out what he thinks the game is about. Children at this age don't have the vocabulary or abstract thought processes to explore their feelings through conversation alone, so they they try to understand the world through experimentation and role-playing. Games for the most part don't allow the child a free universe of experimentation, but may limit the child's exploration by the very rules if the game itself. But, digital games, TV shows, and You Tube clips can certainly prompt and enliven imaginative play, as they become the actors in their own play.

Laura writes...

You can use the characters and ideas that kids see on tv/games etc in imaginative play. My three year old is constantly making up adventures involving many of the ideas he sees on tv and in books. The Cat in the Hat may take a trip on Thomas the tank engine and they may use the Map from Dora to find their way. I think that instead of allowing children to tune out when they're watching tv or playing a game the parents should take an active role. I always sit down with my son and watch the game he is playing or video he is watching at least once(if not multiple times lol). I then talk to him about what's going on. I reinforce behaviours that I like such as sharing and good manners and talk about why other behaviours like name calling or tantrums are inappropriate. It sometimes helps for them to see the desired or undesired actions.

Anne? writes...

Thank you, Laura, for your thoughts on how to help your child become an active participant in using the content from digital media to make sense of his own world. You are helping us see the way that parents can have a hand in making digital play inspire a child's own imaginative play.

Julie writes...

I have a 4 year old who will be entering the public school environment, probably in the next year or two. In talking with the prinicipal, he was very proud of being up to date on the latest technology; ie-smart boards, all 4th graders get laptops. Even a statement about when the teachers don't use the smart board, the kids tune out. I sure hope that there's a balance out there in the big big world. I wonder what Maria Montessori would say...

Tristan? writes...

Julie highlights an interesting problem. Child development experts (like the AAP) strongly suggest limiting screen time and exposure to technology, and yet we know that technology is increasingly apart of our kids lives for both learning and play. Kids see their parents on iphones and laptops, students often pull homework assignments from the web, and learners at all levels increasingly are using technology within the school day. For these reasons, it is particularly important for young children to develop good habits around technology use with the hopes that they’ll learn how to unplug and... well... play.

Patti writes...

Thank you Dr. Fishel and Dr. Gorrindo, for the supporting comments of this article regarding preschoolers and screen time. You've validated my way of thinking. As the mother of a three year old son, I wish I could convince others (AKA his grandparents and other caregivers who fight me on this point). Thank you again. Patti

Angie writes...

As I am sitting here reading this article, I look over to see my almost 2 year old feeding his "lambo" and "monkey" stuffed animals the cheese and crackers I gave him as a snack. I take a minute to watch him pretend play and am amazed with his creativity as he makes sure they are sitting correctly, takes turns feeding each one, gets a kleenex to wipe their face and hands when they are done "eating." I must admit we are guilty of the technology interference as we just used the Ipad for a five hour flight to keep our little guy quiet and entertained. It worked, but the whole time I felt that worry you discuss in the article. It makes me wonder what else we could do to better keep his attention without the interference of so much technology? I had a bag full of toys but they aren't nearly as affective at keeping his attention for a long period of time. Are we too worried about bothering others around us with his fussying that we just turn on Toy story? Are we as parents too worried about a clean house and perfect dinner, that we use technology to help us achieve these things? This article made me evaluate how we use technology and I am going to be diligent about leaving it off and giving him a chance to play make believe, even if he is pulling on my legs while I try to make him lunch.

Another concern is that our toddler asks for Sesame Street right before bed. We have a VERY VERY active little man who doesn't want to sit and read books. We read while he is bouncing around the bed, hoping that he is absorbing something but when it comes to calming him down nothing works better than 10 minutes of Elmo. Any other ideas?

Tristan? writes...

Angie very eloquently shares with us the dilemma that many parents feel. In fact, some (now older) data suggests that one of the main reasons that parents allow their child to watch television is so that they can get other things done, like make dinner or clean the house.

You may want to think about a different way to structure bedtime. We know that the rituals and routines set around sleep are particularly important for toddlers. There have been some studies to suggest, in adults, that exposure to TV just before bed actually increases alertness and makes it more difficult to sleep. You might try decreasing the number of minutes of TV he watches just before bed and replace it with reading time. This can be hard to do with an active child, but it might serve you in the long run. We would also recommend against having a TV in the bedroom.

jodi writes...

our family is all for kids and technology. i feel that as long as my extremely active son gets a good balance of socialization with peers, pretend play or reading by himself (he LOVES books), etc... there's no harm whatsoever in screen time. good article.

Greg writes...

We have recently welcomed a new baby to the family, and which has left my 3 1/2 year old watching way more TV. We were very strict with TV in the beginning - we did not let him watch any TV at all before the age of two, for example. Now my wife and I are worried because he is watching about 3 hours per day (divided throughout the day). When one of us is at home alone with the two kids, we give in because we are desperate for the time to care for the baby. We hope to cut it back down once things have settled down, but in the meantime are we doing any lasting damage to our son? I appreciate any advice.

Tristan? writes...

Congratulations on the new addition to your family. Greg raises concerns shared by many parents here. The fact is, we don’t have clear data about what the longterm risks of TV exposure for toddlers and pre-schoolers. I think the critical element really boils down to the central issues of play and development. Spending some time thinking about the amount of play and richness of play that your son has access to, will help you answer the question about TV.

Abbey writes...

I have a 3 1/2 yr old girl. We are raising her in Paris, so she is already in school. Getting her to school on time makes our mornings "action-packed" -- the current solution is to let her watch some video while I prepare her breakfast, etc. She doesn't ask to watch video every morning, but it does seem to provide a calm transition for her into an active day. Abbey

Kristi writes...

Thank you for this article.
I have a 6 year old girl and a 3 1/2 year old boy. As other moms on here have mentioned, our days are usually "go go go!" Sometimes leaving the house at 7:30am and not returning home until 7:30pm.
The kids love our reading time, snuggled up in bed each night; however, when we do have some down time, it does seem nice for us AND the kids to just be able to relax and watch TV.
I do have to admit, though, that our days run much smoother regarding my kids attitudes and demeanor when they don't watch any TV at all. Once that TV goes on they don't want to do ANYTHING else at all.
We do not have a computer in our home, so that doesn't seem to be an issue....yet!

patsie writes...


Anne? writes...

Patsie, I think you point out the very things we hope for when young kids are using digital play. I feel reassured when I hear about young kids who want to play outside, love to read, don't mind turning off the TV to engage in other activities, and even prefer to watch TV with a parent. There are all signs that a parents has help to create a balance between play and screens.

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