A parent recently asked us, “How do I get work done with my young child at home without resorting to media use?” Just in time for summer, here are some tips from parents who have chosen a low-media lifestyle for their kids.*
Expect interruptions. If your child is 5 years old or younger, they will interrupt you, constantly. However, as their attention spans lengthen, they will learn to self-direct their own play for increasingly longer periods of time. The more you resort to media, the less they will be able to work on this. If your child is playing quietly alone, never interrupt them.
Cultivate daily and weekly rhythm. Resist acquiescing to spontaneous requests to watch videos or play video games. If you have older children, let them know how long they will be able to use media, and when, on the weekend. If they don’t expect it at any other time, they will not miss it.
It’s much harder work for a parent during the early years, but your persistence will pay off. As children grow and develop a capacity for self-directed play, it will only be a few years before they will be able occupy themselves for hours — whole days, even — without any help from you. They will also be less anxious, more self-confident, and better at problem-solving. By the time my kids were 5 years old, they were much more independent. But it was a LOT of hard work when they were younger. I remember wondering how we would make it through the next 3 hours, much less the next 3 years! My kids are now 11 and 8 years old and spend their free time reading, drawing, playing outside, building things, and engaging in imaginative play with their friends. They are hard, focused workers. They can wait quietly for long hours at the doctor’s office, in traffic, and whenever life throws them an unexpected curve ball, without needing to be distracted.
Boredom is a good thing! Always cheerfully respond to children’s complaints of boredom. It’s healthy for them, even if it might be uncomfortable in the moment. Being bored helps a child to develop creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Feel free to suggest a few different activities for them, but don’t feel like you must guide them into a certain activity. Of course, there’s always more housework or yard work to be done. It’s funny how quickly my kids occupy themselves when I suggest helping with extra dishes or laundry.
Simplify! Provide simple, basic toys that encourage creative play. Young children can easily get overwhelmed by too many toys. Provide building blocks, bowls, simple dolls, balls, play silks, and cardboard boxes. (My kids STILL play with cardboard boxes.)
• Some simple crafts for little ones that are taught in our Waldorf Kindergarten include hand-felting wool, finger-knitting, and sewing. If your child is enrolled in our Kindergarten program, they probably already know how to do these things, and would love to show you!
• Make “fairy houses” with pebbles, moss, sticks, flowers and nut shells.
• Paint the bathtub with watercolor paints and paintbrushes.
• Make seasonal mobiles using found objects such as sticks, leaves, pinecones, nutshells, or recycled materials.
• Draw roads on a cardboard box and turn it into a city for toy cars.
• Draw an outline of their bodies on a large piece of butcher paper and let them color it in with crayons or paint. (This is also a useful visual tool for teaching personal space.)
Let them cook (or garden, or clean) with you! Preschoolers love to help with work. Engaging in meaningful work gives them confidence and a sense that their efforts matter. At first, their help might seem a hindrance, but if you allow time and patience for it now, they will learn how to actually help down the line. At first, let them pretend to do the tasks alongside you. Cooking: give them some flour, water, a few bowls and a spoon. With adult supervision, kids as young as 3 years old can also help to chop vegetables and fruit, stir batter, measure ingredients, pour water, and set the table. Gardening: let them dig in the dirt beside you, plant seeds, and pull weeds. Cleaning: give them a spray bottle full of water and a rag and let them go to town on those windows, or the baseboards. Other chores for preschool-aged kids: loading dishwasher, carrying things like groceries and books, sweeping the floor, making the bed, scrubbing the bathtub (with non-toxic cleaners, such as water and baking soda), and folding laundry. If these tasks are part of your daily and weekly rhythm, your child will joyfully participate alongside you.
One of our favorite books on the topic! (Helps Daddy, too!)
• More fun “chores” — cut the grass or bushes with safety scissors, “paint” the fence or an outdoor wall with water and a large paintbrush.
• Gather wildflower bouquets for everyone’s room!
• On-the-spot scavenger hunt: ask your kids to find 5 items from the back yard: a triangle, a square, something purple, something that smells good, and something fuzzy.
• A great article on meaningful work for Kindergartners (with a seasonal list of suggested activities).
Ideas for Older Kids
• Draw cartoons.
• Take apart old, broken machines or electronic equipment (and maybe learn how to put it back
• Get a few neighbors and friends together and put on a play or build a puppet theater. Design costumes, theater sets, and puppets.
• Create your own board game.
• Design your own paper dolls.
• Create a scavenger hunt for siblings or friends with handwritten clues.
• Print out photos of relatives and make a family tree poster.
• Make something and sell it in the front yard: slime, lemonade, popcorn, comics.
• If you have an older child, commonsensemedia.org is a good resource for finding age-appropriate video games and films for the weekend.
Why is this issue so important? As a kid, I watched TV every day, and I ended up OK. What’s the harm in letting my child do the same?
The short answer is, media today is more harmful than when you were a kid. The risk of exposure to violent imagery, adult content, consumerism, and disturbing images and concepts, such as pornography, substance abuse, bullying, and self-harm has dramatically increased. If your child ever uses your smart phone, tablet, or smart TV, they have access to all of the above at their fingertips. (You Tube and Instagram are not safe places for them.)
Kids do not have the ability to understand or process these concepts, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and stress. The human prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until around the age of 25. That means kids cannot regulate their own use of media, and are being influenced by what they see while they’re actively developing social and emotional skills. Social media developers have admitted that they craft their technology in order to maximize its addictive quality. Many tech executives limit their children's use of the very devices they produce.
Toddler brain development relies on imaginative play, and media use negatively imprints on the imaginations of young children. Kids ages 6 and younger learn primarily through sensory engagement with the world around them and by imitation. They will act out whatever they see, and often get “stuck” on media-driven ideas, rather than coming up with their own many different characters and storylines, thus hindering brain development. Spending too much time pressing buttons on a plastic screen also hinders the development of fine and gross motor skills (not to mention social skills!). When we offer our kids these artificial experiences instead of authentic ones, at such a keen stage in their development, we risk stunting their social, emotional, and physical growth.
*Our school media policy advises no media use for children under the age of 9, and for older kids, only one hour on the weekends. This includes films, video games, social media, internet browsing, and smart devices. Parents at Alabama Waldorf School sign a community pledge where we agree to protect our kids from consumerism, violent imagery and strive to maintain a low-media lifestyle. Waldorf curriculum emphasizes the group dynamic in the classroom and deep, imaginative engagement with the academic material. Teachers have seen first-hand how students who are less exposed to media do better in the classroom, growing into strong, compassionate, confident learners.
It's never too late to start healthy habits. There are many other families here at AWS who have put this into practice. If you would like to discuss further, or if you need more help and support, let me know. Together, for the sake of our kids, we can do this!