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Positive Ways to Reduce Your Child’s Screen Time (without losing your mind)

It’s been raining outside all day, and now your 3-year-old is running around the house, chasing the cat, yelling at the top of her lungs, while your 15-month-old is in tears and inconsolable unless you’re holding him, and you have company coming for dinner in an hour, and the bathroom looks like a herd of angry monkeys was let loose in it. The TV beckons to you like a bright ray of hope — how bad would it be to let the kids watch a video for just a little while?

We’ve all read the latest research, the hundreds of articles and dire warnings about how screen-time will ruin your kid’s brain. Here at Alabama Waldorf School, we strongly encourage no media at all for kids 9 and younger. For older kids, less than an hour on the weekends during the school year. So what to do? If you’re new to Waldorf or if you have young children, you may be feeling overwhelmed, or thinking: easier said than done.

Take heart! It is easier to accomplish than it may seem — especially if you start while they’re young.

1. Start small, and don’t guilt-trip yourself. Like any other healthy lifestyle, it’s more about choosing to do what’s good for your child, rather than falling into the guilt/shame cycle. Focus on taking small, positive steps. If your family is used to watching TV or playing video games every day, try cutting back by one hour, every day. Then, after a week or two, cut back by another hour. If you gradually cut back, you will be doing better and feeling more healthy no matter what. When you have a bad day and turn on the TV out of sheer desperation, give yourself grace. Let the kids watch TV for a little while! But instead of totally giving up, set a time limit. Make a cup of tea, take time to gather yourself, take a deep breath, and then turn off the TV.

2. Remember that media can actually be counter-productive as a means of child care. Using TV or the iPad as a babysitter is a no-win situation, for child or parents. Media stimulates a child’s brain but does not stimulate her senses. So after watching TV for a while, she will actually be more hyperactive and craving any kind of physical sensory stimulation — and if she is very young, she won’t be able to manage these cravings. She will be more likely to misbehave, seek out trouble, destroy things, throw a tantrum, and feel cranky and irritable. So recognize that your hours of “peace” come at a cost.

3. Turning off the tube does not mean that you have to play with your child. Take a cue from Waldorf teachers — you won’t see them sitting on the floor playing Legos with their students! Children learn by imitation. If you are engaging them in play every minute of the day, you’re not only wearing yourself out, you are also teaching them to expect that sort of interaction. Instead, do your own work, such as housework, alongside your child while he is playing. If he is bored, don’t let it distress you. Instead, act like that’s natural and good (and soon he will come to realize that it’s not a bad thing, either). Feel free to give him suggestions, but let him engage himself in play. My favorite practical tip: if you find your child playing quietly by himself, never, ever interrupt him. As the mother of a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old, I can tell you that this will pay off for years down the road. My boys can now happily occupy themselves for hours. They are also capable of sitting quietly in waiting rooms or lines for long periods of time — without devices — without falling apart.

If you have very young children, or if your family is used to a steady media diet, you can’t expect that to happen for a while. But you can start building your child’s tolerance for self-directed play, 5 minutes at a time.

Has your child ever surprised you by spending hours playing quietly alone? What was he or she doing? What are some of your child’s favorite self-directed activities?

4. Cultivate daily and weekly rhythm. Kids often act out or misbehave if they don’t know what to expect. I’ve noticed that my son will most often complain “I’m bored, Mom!” when our schedule has been disrupted. A basic rhythm for each day will help him know what to expect, and also helps him better occupy himself during free play (if he knows at a certain time he will have to stop and do lunch, or stop and do chores, or a family activity). This rhythm does not have to be a strict schedule, but more of an ebb and flow of activity. One aspect of daily rhythm that has worked best for our family is to take a daily rest time after lunch, or after school. During this time, my kids know that they will be playing quietly, alone. Over the years, this has given them better resilience to handle playing quietly by themselves when unexpected circumstances arise (delays at the doctor’s office, stuck in traffic).

When does your family watch TV? Play video games? At what time of day are you most likely to turn to media out of sheer desperation? The answers to these questions can help you figure out alternative solutions.

5. Be OK with some level of mess and chaos. Free play means lots of messes. Getting messy is good for kids. It gives them tactile, sensory input that engages all of their senses, and actually helps to develop their sense of self-control. Establishing a rhythm will help with this — if you and your child know that everything must be cleaned up before bedtime, then the ensuing chaos of painting, playing in the mud, or turning the living room into a giant blanket fort is a little more bearable for you in the meantime. Also, depending on your child’s personality, she may love to make messes, or she may prefer the orderly process of cleaning up messes (I have one of each type), and so establishing a time for both activities will serve both children well.


For a PDF list of suggested activities that will light up your child’s senses and provide long hours of free play, click here.


From another Waldorf mom, Kristin Trowbridge, about balancing media use during football season:

Our Saturdays are filled with soccer, hikes, gardening in the backyard, playing with the kids, etc., and by evening, we are just too tired to stay up for the late games. We’ve realized that for the same price we pay for cable, we could take that money and afford a babysitter and a date at a sports bar, where we could gorge ourselves on wings and beer and have a blast rather than watching snippets of games as we pass through the living room. So, that said, we just decided last night to cancel cable again and apply this game plan instead. Plus, on days at home with the kids, I’m having fun turning on the radio and listening to the games the old-fashioned way where they are played out verbally, enjoying the nostalgia of childhood when I listened to the familiar voice of Eli Gold on air give me the play-by-play on Alabama games as I simultaneously spent time playing, cooking or eating with my family rather than staring at a screen the whole time.

happy playing outside

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