Category Archives: Parenting Skills

Can Online Preschool Work?

pexels-photo-3975663

Lots of early childhood programs are moving online for fall of 2020. When parents hear that toddler classes or preschools are meeting online, they may have questions about whether it could be an effective method for learning. It is definitely not the same as in-person learning, and we would rather be in-person, hands-on, with lots of happy children interacting in the same room. However, there are lots of great benefits still to be gained in an online preschool or toddler program.

  • Routines: having a predictable activity in your weekly schedule helps to keep them (and you) oriented to external schedules even in coronavirus haze. It provides an event to look forward to and reflect on.
  • Other Faces and Voices: seeing other children and a teacher can be delightful, your child will learn by observing their peers, class can also expose them to diversity and broaden their world, plus we know that children learn language better when they hear a wide variety of adult speakers.
  • A Listening Ear: for classes where they offer sharing time, children will have someone else to share their exciting ideas with, and will have a chance to practice their expressive language skills
  • A Chance to Practice Manners and Classroom Skills: one of the important aspects of an early childhood experience, whether that’s story time at the library, Sunday school at church, or preschool is that children get to practice sitting still, listening to someone else, participating in a group activity, and taking turns – they can practice all these things in an interactive call on Zoom.
  • Learning New Things: whatever the content of the class – music, stories, dance, art, or science, your child can easily learn new ideas from an online teacher, and if you’re listening in, you can reinforce the learning much more effectively than you could have reinforced what they were taught at a drop-off preschool.
  • New Inspiration: your child will get new ideas and you will get new ideas for things to try out at home and explore and learn from – you don’t have to feel responsible for coming up with all the learning ideas on your own.

Here is a handout where I offer lots of tips on help child succeed on Zoom and get the most benefit from an online program.

Parent Ed Programs Fall 2020

In the Seattle / King County area, one of the best resources for families is the parent education programs offered by our community colleges. They serve families with children from birth to age 5 or beyond. With parent-baby classes, parent-toddler classes, cooperative preschools and enrichment classes, they offer great hands-on, play-based, developmentally appropriate programs that enhance child development in all areas: large motor, fine motor, music, art, social-emotional, language, and problem-solving skills. They offer research-based parent education on child development and parenting skills. They offer a community of connected, caring, supportive families and staff. (Learn more about parent ed programs here.)

In Fall 2020, these programs will continue to serve our community. Some are going completely online for fall; some will offer outdoor-only programs; or indoor programs with small cohorts and hygiene protocols; or a hybrid of these options.

If you’re wondering about whether online classes can work for little ones, check out this post on Benefits of Online Preschool. And if you want to help your young child get the most out of an online class, check out Help Your Child Succeed on Zoom.

With coronavirus stay-at-home measures, many parents are feeling isolated, and feeling pressured to be all things to their child: parent, teacher, and playmate. They may worry that their child will miss out on developmental experiences and learning opportunities. Parent education programs can help!! We are all working hard to create the best possible support for parents and for their children’s learning and I encourage all parents to seek out a class.

Plans for Fall 2020

Here’s what I was able to learn about each programs’ plans.

Note: I work for Bellevue College, so am in the loop on plans there. For all other programs, I only know what they put on their websites. If I write “no info”, that means that on August 19, when I did a quick look at their website (home page and 1 – 2 other pages), I saw no information related to coronavirus or how that would affect their schedule for fall 2020. Check their websites for  the most current data.

Note: if you have updates for any of these programs, contact me at janelled at live.com.

Young Children and Zoom

a child looking at a mobile device

I don’t think the developers at Zoom (or Skype or Microsoft Teams) realized that their software would become a platform for parent-toddler classes and online preschool!

And all the parents who used to try to minimize screen time for their young children now find they need to utilize it as their child’s primary way to connect to people outside their household. How do we make the experience as rich and as developmentally appropriate as we can?

These tips can be helpful whether you’re a parent planning a call between your child and their grandparent, or you’re a preschool teacher planning a class for a dozen kids.

Before the Call

Choose a good time of day when the child is relaxed and attentive.

It doesn’t have to be a long call and a big deal – it’s fine to do short calls. A few minutes here and there is great for some kids. On the other hand, it’s also fine to have long calls. I know one family in Seattle where the grandmother in China “comes for breakfast” every day (before grandma turns in for the night.) She “sits at the table” with them, and chats as the parents get ready for the day.

Before the call, gather anything you’ll want to use during the call: books, instruments, and show & tell items so that no one has to step away from the computer during the call – that might cause the child to lose interest.

Prepare the child. Talk about what will happen and how long the visit will be. Remind them who they will be speaking to and what they talked about last time.

Consider staying nearby. Young children may be best able to engage with a zoom call if they’re sitting on their parent’s lap or the parent is sitting beside them. (Note, some organizations, like Outschool, require that adults be off camera, but when I teach preschool age children on Outschool, I find that the children who do best in class often have an adult right next to them. Once children have done several classes, they no longer need that active support, and you may be able to step away and get things done while they’re on a call.)

Teach them to un-mute. The host can mute the child, but the child has to know how to un-mute. There are a few choices: if you have a touch screen, the easiest may be to teach them to tap the bottom corner of the screen to bring up the command bar, then tap on the mic icon. Or: moving the mouse cursor to the bottom of the screen and clicking on the microphone (this can be hard for little ones), pressing alt-a, or holding down the space bar (note: as soon as they let go of the space bar they return to muted.)

Over time, help your child learn Zoom skills to be more independent in the call: how to mute, how to chat, how to use the reactions like clapping, how to share screen. How to place a call. Help them understand what’s happening when their screen buddy “freezes.”

During the Call

Have familiar rituals – perhaps the same greeting each time, or the same song each time – these cues help a young child to remember who they’re speaking to and reconnect.

The remote person should speak slowly and clearly. The person in the room with the child can repeat questions and comments from either side, as needed.

The remote person should look directly at the camera – this will feel like eye contact to the child. Don’t be tempted to look at other distractions while talking. Use a lot of gestures, body language, and big facial expressions – it’s much more engaging.

Stay unmuted as much as possible so everyone in the call can hear each other and feel as though they’re in the same room.

Consider using a mobile device like a tablet or laptop so you can move around and show each other new things.

Some children focus better if eating a snack while talking – for others, that is distracting. Some children focus better if they have some simple toys nearby to hold in their hands and play with during the call. Others may find that distracting.

Let the child know when the call is nearing its end, and make a clear ending. (Maybe a song, or a story, or something to signal the ending.) Talk about when you’ll “meet” again.

Making Video Chats Interactive

Here are ideas for interactive activities to try out:

  • Play Peek a Boo. Normal style, or by covering the camera and uncovering it.
  • Read Stories. If you have a physical copy of a book, you can hold it up and read it, or scan in pictures and share those, or find a YouTube of a read aloud book, but mute their video, and read it with your voice.
  • Sing Songs. With audio lag you can’t sing in unison or it sounds awful. But you CAN take turns singing.
  • Silly Faces. Take turns – who can make the silliest face? (Spotlight them.)
  • Pretend to Be – Take turns pretending to be different animals, or whatever.
  • What is My Stick? Hold up a stick. Demonstrate how it could be a fishing pole, or a baseball bat. Try a few more and ask them to guess what it is.
  • Use Props. Puppet shows can be fun!
  • Make Art Together. Get out art supplies on each end, and draw pictures together. Hold them up to the camera from time to time to share your work.
  • Show and Tell – each person brings an item to show to people and to talk about.
  • Play Guessing Games.
  • Share a travelogue – each person takes pictures of their day, and shares it with the other on the next call.
  • Dance Party. Put on some music and dance!! (Learn how to make music work well on Zoom.)
  • Talent Show – Take turns demonstrating special talents you have: telling jokes, crazy dances, singing songs, patting your head and rubbing your belly…
  • Progressive Stories. One person starts a story: “Once upon a time, a polka-dotted elephant…” then the next person continues “… boarded a spaceship headed for… “
  • Would you Rather? “would you rather ______ or _______”
  • I Spy: Do a google search for “I spy pictures.” Choose one, then share your screen and play I Spy together.
  • Play Simon Says.
  • Play Tic Tac Toe, Hangman, and other pencil and paper games on the Zoom whiteboard.
  • Guess How Many. Person A fills a container with objects (20 pennies? 30 mini marshallows?) and shows it to Person B. They have to guess how many objects there are, then they count them together. On the next call it’s B’s turn.
  • Scavenger Hunt. Name an object – they run and find it in the house and bring it back.
  • Find the Hidden Object. The remote adult can conspire with the in-house adult. The in-house adult hides an object before the call. During the call, the remote adult can give clues to help the child find the treasure.
  • Pretend to Share Snacks. Plan ahead and have both of you have the same food to eat together. Make it a fancy tea party if you’d like.
  • Go on a walktogether”. Share what you see.
  • Go on a field trip “together.” Lots of zoos, aquariums, and museums have created virtual field trips or have “panda-cams” and such. Go on one together by sharing your screen and talking about what you see. You could also do virtual tourism together. My mother-in-law has found a whole world of “virtual walking tours” and goes for walks all over the world every day in her living room.
  • Watch movies together. Share a screen and talk as you watch.
  • For older children (elementary on up), there’s lots more ideas here: https://janelledurham.com/games-interaction-on-zoom/.

I also like this suggestion from Zero to Three: “Be the “hands and heart” of the the person on-screen. When the screen partner “tickles” your baby’s tummy, give your child’s tummy a tickle, too. When a grandparent leans toward the screen to “kiss” your toddler, you can give him a kiss on the cheek. By taking this role, you help nurture the relationship between the child and their on-screen friend.”

Long Distance Babysitters

During the coronavirus stay-at-home time, many parents have been with their children 24/7 for a long time with few breaks. You can use a video chat as a “babysitter” to get you a break. Have your child talk with grandpa, or an aunt, or a friend while you rest. If you have a very young child, you may need to be in the same room but at least the child’s attention is captured by someone else. For older children, you may be able to be elsewhere in the house, and let your child know where to find you. I know some parents of elementary age kids who will go for a walk in the neighborhood while their child is online and the remote person has their cell phone number and can reach them immediately if needed.

Internet Safety

This blog is primarily aimed at parents of kids age 1 to 6, so I assume the parents are nearby during video calls, and keeping their eyes and ears on what is happening. If you have an older child who may be making video calls independently to friends, here are some helpful safety tips: https://www.protectyoungminds.org/2019/02/19/11-safe-video-chat-rules-you-probably-havent-taught-your-kids/.

Audio Quality

If the person on the other end seems to have a hard time hearing you: Figure out whether you need to add an external microphone to make your child audible (especially if they’re speaking with an older person whose hearing isn’t what it used to be). Children tend to have quiet voices and may be hard to hear over a video chat if the internal mic on your device isn’t great. Plus they wiggle around a lot and don’t always stay near the mic. You can test your mic – use the “voice recorder” app on your computer and record your child talking, then play it back. If you can hear it with your speakers at any setting, it’s fine. But if you can only hear the recording if you crank your speakers up to 80 or 90 out of 100, then consider buying a mic. (I wish I had a great recommendation – I love my Samson Meteor but it’s an old model and pricier than it should be. The Samson Go might be a good alternative. FYI, that’s an affiliate link – I do get a small referral bonus if you click on it and then buy something from Amazon.)

Resources

Here are some of the sources I used when writing this.

What the research tells us about developmental impacts of video chat vs. other screen time for kids: https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/10/03/496362094/could-video-chats-be-good-for-your-infant

More about managing screen time during coronavirus time: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2020/05/22/screen-time-in-coronavirus-time/

If you need a tutorial to the basics of how to use Zoom, or any of the advanced features of Zoom, check out my Guide to Zoom.

And, to get a break from the screen: https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2020/03/26/connecting-to-outdoors-during-coronavirus/ 

 

Encouraging Prevention

The TL; DR summary – If you are hoping to encourage those around you to take more steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus: don’t shame them, do listen with empathy to their concerns, support their efforts at risk reduction, understand that people may make different trade-offs than you would, be intentional about who you interact with, help give other people the tools to have conversations about risk reduction, and model the behavior you would like to see.

Where do we start?

As a parent and a parent educator, I talk a lot to other parents. Many are angry when they see people not wearing masks – they may think “because of people like you, my kid can’t go to school!” They may shake their heads in dismay when they see unmasked teens hanging out in close-knit huddles, inches apart, saying “if that were my kid….”. They express frustration at in-laws who talk about having a lovely time at a party with friends (unmasked) and then want the grandkids to come to their house for a visit. They read social media posts from friends who believe coronavirus is a left-wing conspiracy, and ask me: do you sometimes feel like you want to shake people and say “what the h*%$ is wrong with you?”

But let’s be honest: Do you think that scolding anyone for the choices they make will make them change their ways? No. You know that will just make them dig in their heels more. But what approaches might work to encourage more people to take more steps to prevent coronavirus spread?

We can learn a lot from previous approaches to public health messaging, and approaches to education in general.

Shaming Doesn’t Work

Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, has been doing some great writing and interviews on this subject. (In The Atlantic, Teen Vogue, and the Harvard Health Blog.) Many of the ideas in this post come from her.

She talks about what we learned from AIDS: “When you shame people as a way to try to get them to avoid risky health behaviors, it doesn’t generally make the behaviors stop — it just makes people want to hide the behaviors…” It’s hard to hide not wearing a mask, so some people may decide to have indoor parties with friends, and then later won’t disclose that to contract tracers. “So rather than shaming, what we can do is try to meet people where they are, understand what is getting in the way of them adopting the protective health behaviors that we want to support, and then try to mitigate those barriers.” (Source)

I teach about positive discipline techniques – when we’re connected to someone, how do we shape their behavior. Although shaming someone doesn’t tend to be effective in the long run, the attention principle does. Pay attention to whatever behavior (no matter how small) that you want to see more of. I have family in Kansas that worries that few people are wearing masks although they do put one on when they talk to her – just saying “I appreciate you brought your mask today” or “what a lovely mask” will do more to encourage them to wear it than saying “why aren’t you wearing it all the time?” Another idea from parenting / education that I find helpful is Ross Greene’s idea of “people do well if they can” – if they’re not doing well, what skills, tools, or support do they need to do better? This post will cover lots of those ideas.

Try Empathy

If you try to start a conversation by sharing all the information you have on why they SHOULD wear a mask, they can get defensive and push back harder. Or if they tell you about a party they went to, and you pull out your data sets, they’ll walk away.

“Instead of telling someone what to do right away, you want to explore why they’re doing it, and what is the reasoning behind their behaviors, in a very unbiased and nonjudgmental way,” says Dr. Michael Richardson. (Source)

70% of Americans believe people should wear masks. (Source) “But just like the well-intended condom on the nightstand that never makes it out of its wrapper, some masks don’t make it onto someone’s face—often for relatable reasons.” (source)

In one neighborhood in Seattle, here’s what people report about their actual behavior. Always wear a mask – 67%; Frequently – 18%, Sometimes – 9%. Rarely – 1%. Never wear a mask: 5%.

So, try asking people what their reasons are – what are their barriers?

Empathize with their experience. Listen to their concerns. Share your own frustrations, and the solutions you have found that work for you, being careful to make I statements not you commands. “I know – I hate how they fog up my glasses! I’ve had better luck with my new mask with the wire, but it is frustrating.” “I know, it’s weird to me to not see people smiling at me and not be able to smile back. I’m trying to figure out body language ways to communicate, like waving or nodding.” “I’m also so overwhelmed by the news that part of me wants to think this is a conspiracy and it can’t really be as bad as they say. But I still wear my mask, because what if I did have it and went out before symptoms developed, and someone I love gets sick because of me.” “I get so hot in the grocery store – I hurry along, reminding myself that the sooner I’m done in the store, the sooner I can get to my car and take my mask off.”

“Acknowledging what people dislike about a public-health strategy enables a connection with them rather than alienating them further. And when the barriers are understood, they become addressable.” (Source)

Risk Reduction Approach

It’s hard for all of us to abstain from social contact. It may be especially hard for young people and extroverts of all ages. Instead of demanding that they abstain from seeing their friends, maybe we need to take lessons from what we’ve learned in a comprehensive review of abstinence only sex education: “Many adolescents who intend to be abstinent fail to do so, and when abstainers do initiate intercourse, many fail to use condoms and contraception to protect themselves.”

“Comprehensive risk reduction (CRR) interventions promote behaviors that prevent or reduce the risks… These interventions may: Suggest a hierarchy of recommended behaviors that identifies abstinence as the best, or preferred method but also provides information about sexual risk reduction strategies.” (Source)

Instead of just talking about what someone can’t do, we could talk about what they can do and how to make that as safe as possible. Instead of saying “you can’t see your friends”, you start with “I get that you want to see your friends.”

Then, we can acknowledge that, from the coronavirus perspective, the safest option is just to stay home and talk on Zoom. But, if they feel they need to see people: then, talk about how to do that with less risk: such as using masks, social distancing, where to do that: meeting people outside, going for walks outdoors with someone, what to do – a bring your own picnic where you sit several feet apart; when to do it (when you’ve had minimal exposures recently) and who to do it with.

As Mark Levine, chair of the NYC Health Council, says: “If we don’t give people the information to choose low-risk activities, they will choose high-risk ones–like house parties, large gatherings in front of bars… So let’s give people the tools to understand that risk is a spectrum. * Outdoors is less risky than indoors. * Small groups are less risky than large groups. * Simply passing by someone is less risky than sustained contact.” He shared this graphic, which shows staying home with your children has the least coronavirus risk, then going out in the community, then meeting friends outside, and then playdates at a friend’s house, which you might only want to do after very careful consideration.

Image

Vox took this idea and adapted it. Helping people understand the different levels of risk and what precautions need to be taken at each level can help them make decisions about the risk reduction methods they think they can follow reliably.

spectrum of risk

Trade-Offs

When we see teens and  young adults hanging out at the park with friends, it’s easy to think they’re foolish and careless: “Young partygoers have become the latest scapegoat for America’s pandemic woes… Risk taking typically peaks during young adulthood, when people are most responsive to the rewards of a risky choice.” However, that may not be the whole story: “The issue isn’t that young people are universally unconcerned about the pandemic; it’s that they realize it’s not the only—or even the greatest—risk they face… [young people are at] lower risk of complications from coronavirus infection than older people—but at far greater risk of psychiatric disorders that can be triggered or worsened by social isolation…” (Source)

For sake of reducing coronavirus risk, the safest thing would be for all of us to stay at home. However, many of us can’t, due to work or other requirements, or lack of a safe home environment. And there are many other reasons we might not want to stay at home. How do we balance the demands and desires to get out of the house with reducing risk of transmission?

I’ve worked with pregnant clients for over 20 years now. When I talk about healthy nutrition, avoiding substances and medications and so on, I have always tried to take the approach of offering the best information we have about what is best for a developing baby, while also acknowledging that babies are surprisingly resilient. I encourage making the healthiest choices, but also say – “if you’re making an unhealthy choice in one area, can you try extra hard in the other areas to balance it out?”

If I tell a smoker about all the evils of smoking and that they should never ever smoke, they might rebel against that – “my friends all smoke and their babies are fine!”, or they might give up – thinking – if I can’t do anything right, why try at all. Instead, I say “we know smoking is harmful, so it’s best to avoid it or reduce it as much as you can – in the meantime, here are some other healthy choices you can focus on.” And typically, they make these other healthy choices and significantly reduce their tobacco use.

We can take some of the same approaches to coronavirus. Balance the risky choices with low risk choices.

We have mostly had our son at home for 4 months now. He’s barely been in other buildings or with other kids. But, next week, he’ll go to an in-person summer camp. We’ve decided that he needs that brief respite from quarantine life at home and that brief chance to engage with other kids and build his social skills (our son is autistic, so this is especially challenging for him). But, in making that decision, we also looked at risk reduction – making sure the camp had good protocols, and at other trade-offs. This week we’ve had minimal contacts to ensure he’s healthy and not bringing something to camp that will affect others, and for ten days after camp, we will be extra careful not to expose others to him (or us) just in case he picks something up. And of course, there will be masks and lots of hand-washing.

So, different people may have different degrees of comfort with exposure risks and how they’re managing them. But each of us can be making our own decisions, and figuring out our own trade-offs.

“Instead of moralizing, harm reduction comes from a place of pragmatism and compassion. It accepts that compromises will happen— for perfectly understandable reasons—and aims to reduce any associated harms as much as possible.” (source)

It helps to have a tool for comparing risks. I really appreciate this risk index infographic from Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, Dr. Saskia Popescu, and Dr. James P. Phillips, which looks at the risk of various activities, assessing based on 4 factors that increase risk of transmission: Enclosed space, longer duration of interactions, crowds, and forceful exhalation (e.g. singing, shouting, breathing fast while exercising.)

covid-19 risk index

Bubbles and Pods

Many people have chosen to “expand their bubbles” or “create a pod” where a small number of people choose to socialize exclusively with each other as a “quaranteam” without the need for physical distancing. I know of many parents of young children who have made this choice so their kids get a chance to practice and develop social skills (and so the parents get an occasional break from 24/7 child care.) Check out this article on the Dos and Don’ts of Quarantine Pods and CNN’s Guide to Creating a Pandemic Bubble. This article in Slate does a nice job of talking through one person’s experience with this. The point of a pod is to be intentional – rather than having random encounters, you really think through what type of contact you most need, and with whom, and be sure that the people in your pod have a similar risk tolerance and exposure level to you.

Navigate Social Barriers

Bubbles require a lot of awkward conversations and negotiations. When gathering with others, it can be hard to be the one to start the conversation about how to reduce the risk of gathering. Some people, especially teens and younger adults, may find themselves going along with risky behavior because they don’t want to be seen as the wimpy, over-cautious person. They may need somewhere to practice limit setting. We learned with the “Just Say No” approach to substance abuse education that it wasn’t enough.

Just Say No was “essentially a failure at dissuading young people from doing drugs. … teenagers enrolled in the program were just as likely to use drugs as those who did not receive this training. Programs that did make a difference acknowledged the difficulty of just saying no, coaching kids on how to handle social expectation and peer pressure.” (Source)

“[Effective programs] teach students the social skills they need to refuse drugs and give them opportunities to practice these skills with other students — for example, by asking students to play roles on both sides of a conversation about drugs, while instructors coach them about what to say and do. [They] take into account the importance of behavioral norms: they emphasize to students that substance use is not especially common and thereby attempt to counteract the misconception that abstaining from drugs makes a person an oddball.” (Source)

Starting to have conversations about reducing coronavirus risk while still interacting with others can help reduce the overall risks.

Role Modeling

Sometimes the most effective way to make change is to be the change you want to see.

If parents want their kids to wear bike helmets, they should too. If one tween in a group puts on a bike helmet, the others will too.

We started wearing masks to the grocery store before it became common, and once I noticed that someone we passed by then took her mask out of her purse and put it on. She wasn’t quite bold enough to be the “only one” but seeing other people make that choice made it more comfortable for her.

I have also found that if I can talk about my decision-making in a calm, reasoned way, rather than with fear-mongering and scolding, it can create more openness in others for making their own thought-out decisions rather than knee-jerk reactions.

“Unlike abstinence-only messaging, which simply instructs people to stay home, a harm-reduction approach acknowledges that people will take risks for a variety of reasons, including a basic need for pleasure….The abstinence-only and harm-reduction approaches share the same goal of reducing the cumulative burden of severe illness and death. But harm reduction is more likely to achieve that goal by supporting lower-risk—but not zero-risk—activities that can be sustained over time.” (Source)

Vox has a very helpful collection of coronavirus risk reduction tips: 8 ways to go out and stay safe.

Screen Time in Coronavirus Time

sciemcenews

So, you’ve all heard the cautions about too much screen time. For example, the 2016 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which talks of risks like obesity, sleep challenges, exposure to inappropriate content and more. We’ve worried about how much screen time was too much.

And then… covid-19 came. And for most kids, screen time began to fill way more hours than in life before coronavirus.

We have a 9 year old and he spends so many hours on screen now: 2 – 3 hours a day on school work; teleconferences for school, for Sunday school, for appointments with his psychologist; Skype calls with his siblings and grandparents who we can’t see in person; playdates on Zoom; Wii sports on rainy days; ebooks since the library is closed, and a couple family movie nights a week. Plus, his reward for completing his day’s school work is… yep, you guessed it… a little screen time playing Pokemon or Minecraft.

It’s more screen time than we could have previously imagined. It’s certainly not optimal for development. But it is the current reality for many of us. So, rather than talking about “just say no to screen time”, I think we need to take more of a harm-reduction approach.

So, we’ll look first at how to keep young eyes and young bodies healthy while using screens, then we’ll take pointers from this approach, from the Media Policy Project:

We argue that this long-held focus on the quantity of digital media use is now obsolete, and that parents should instead ask themselves and their children questions about screen context (where, when and how digital media are accessed), content (what is being watched or used), and connections (whether and how relationships are facilitated or impeded).

Here are some tips, collated from lots of sources:

Improve “Screen Hygiene” During Use

For their eyes:

  • Screens should be 18 – 24 inches from eyes
  • Use screens in locations with good lighting without a lot of glare (or consider a matte screen filter)
  • Adjust brightness and contrast for comfort
  • Consider night mode or blue shade mode on devices after about 7 pm to shut out the blue light which can disrupt sleep
  • Remind your child to blink now and then to avoid dry eyes and eye strain
  • 20-20-20 breaks: Set a timer – every 20 minutes, they should look at something 20’ away for 20 seconds (plus spend some time outdoors every day, looking at a far distance)

For their body:

  • Use good posture – typical advice is to sit so there’s a 90 degree angle at your ankles, your knees, and your hips, and that your elbows are at a 90 degree angle as your hands rest on the keyboard. Start with that advice, but then adjust as needed for your child’s personal comfort.
  • Choose good furniture – if you don’t have furniture that fits your child for their screen use, perhaps look for inexpensive options to help their posture
  • Vary seating choices – if possible, have multiple work stations so they’re not putting weight on exactly the same parts of their body all day long every day, or have an exercise ball to sit on, or a standing-desk station
  • Stretch breaks – encourage your child to take breaks between activities… at the end of a chapter, after finishing a school assignment, every 20 minutes, whatever “signposts” make sense; dance breaks are also great (try gonoodle.com)

Context Matters

Think about when, where and how screens are being used. Establish daily routines. Make sure you’re clear on when and where screens can be used, and when and where they’re limited or off-limits.

Take Breaks from Screens

Try to create some screen-free times in your day and in your week.

  • No screens at mealtimes? Many families declare the table to be a screen free zone so you have a chance to connect as a family and practice social skills and casual conversation. (Also, screen use during meals is strongly associated with obesity.)
  • Screen free days? I know several families who declare one day a week (often a Saturday or Sunday) to be screen-free.
  • Consider screen curfews: the light from screen media and the high stimulation caused by screens can delay sleep onset, and shorten sleep duration (source). Avoid screens right before bedtime.
  • Consider no screens in the bedroom: even if they’re “just charging”, they can buzz or light up as notifications come in, and this can disrupt sleep, and tempt your child to return to the screen at any hour of the night.
  • Be sure to balance screen time with physical activity, and with social interaction between members of the household.
  • Be sure to include some time every day outdoors – even if the weather is dreadful. Do choose outdoor areas that are less populated, rather than crowded parks, so it’s easy to maintain social distancing.
    • When we are indoors and using screens, we’re triggering our sympathetic nervous system – adrenaline responses keep us intensely focused, which is helpful for work, but exhausting to our bodies.
    • When we are outdoors, we shift to our parasympathetic nervous system, which is about conserving energy while the body is at rest, so the body and mind can heal itself. After spending just a few minutes in nature, we have lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure, lower cortisol levels.
    • Read more about the benefits of outdoor time.

Content Matters

Not all screen time is created equal. Some is helpful and beneficial, especially in this time of social isolation. Screens offer opportunities for learning, connection, adventure, and entertainment.

Some screen time is less helpful. Let’s think about some categories of screen use, and for each, figure out how to increase the benefits, and reduce the downsides.

  • Social time with friends and family on screens – Skype, Facetime, etc.
    • Connection Matters. I believe that when we are physically distant, having interactive conversations with others, even if it’s on a screen, is truly essential for our mental health and for a child’s developing social skills.
    • If you as a parent need a break during your time home 24-7 with a child, this social screen time with someone else can offer that to you. Our 26 year old son “babysits” our 9 year old over a Skype call while my husband and I have a date night at home.
    • For young children, think about how to make it as interactive as you can. For little ones, it helps to add a physical component – have your child show grandma a favorite toy – grandma can show your child the steps they’re doing as they cook a meal. It may be easier for your child to pay attention if someone is reading them a book rather than trying to engage them in a conversation. (Note for those who might not have kid books at home: on YouTube, you can find LOTS of great kid book read-alouds – I share my screen on Zoom and show the video to a child with the sound muted and I read the words.)
    • For older kids, try playing games together online: charades? hangman? There’s lots of online gaming platforms, like Jackbox games, kahoot.it, Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles, and more.
    • If you want a break away from the screen, consider also trying phone calls while going for a walk.
  • School work on screens – lots of school work is now online
    • Think about whether any of it can be physical work. For example, is there anywhere you can print a worksheet and have your child write on it with a pencil rather than using a stylus on a screen? If the math book is showing pictures of blocks, can you pull out real blocks? Instead of writing a paper on the computer, can they hand-write it, scan it, and email it in?
    • For younger children, kindergarten through second grade, you may want to ask their teacher if you can opt out of some of the online learning and instead do hands-on learning at home.
    • Have your child talk to you (or a family member or friend) about the work they’ve done – that helps move it off the screen and into their interactive brain.
  • Online extra-curriculars and summer camps
    • As summer arrives, many parents (especially working parents) are wondering how to keep their kids occupied and engaged. And while I’d encourage lots of outdoor time, and art, and free play, if you turn to screens, consider something like Outschool, which offers interactive online classes with a teacher and a small group of kids.
  • TV, Movies, Videos
    • Ask yourself: Could you find books or audio books or podcasts that engage them as much in stories? (My son listens to story podcasts as he builds Lego.)
    • Can you watch together and make it a social activity instead of them watching alone? Or could they watch with a friend or family member using Zoom or Skype and sharing a screen, or using Amazon watch parties on Twitch?
    • Choose quality TV or video that teaches something, shows diverse people and experiences and reflects your family values. I really love Common Sense Media for researching our options.
    • Choose things that take you on an adventure outside your home. This is a great time for nature documentaries, or shows about foreign lands – anything with a touch of the exotic can be a welcome break!
    • Have your child watch where you can keep eyes and ears on what they’re watching.
    • If your child is using YouTube or other similar platforms, check their history now and then to make sure they’re making appropriate choices, and have conversations with them about what they’re consuming.
    • Set limits on what’s appropriate in your family and what’s not. If your child violates those limits, then impose consequences – take away entertainment screen time.
  • Video games – I’ve got a kid whose deepest passions are video games, so I get that they’re an easy motivator to get kids to do another thing they don’t want to do (i.e. if you finish your school work you can play Pokemon…). Just try not to over-use them.
    • Ask yourself: Is there something else they could do? Is there some other reward that would motivate them?
    • Can you play together and make it a social activity instead of them playing alone?
    • Choose games with challenges – instead of just mindless Candy Crush games or platforming games that only teach hand-eye coordination, look for games with some cognitive challenges too – perhaps puzzles to solve, or building challenges to pursue.
    • Minimize games with lots of violence or age-inappropriate language, sexuality, and situations. Again, check out reviews on Common Sense Media or elsewhere.
  • Escape / Zoning Out – Realistically, in our current quarantined life, sometimes we just want to escape into something, and screens offer an easy escape. If you catch yourself or your child doing this, think:
    • What else could we do – could we just go for a walk? Or exercise? Put on music and dance? Do some crafts, play some games? Choose things that emphasize social connections and emphasize physical movement as a balance for all that screen time.
    • Try to minimize background TV and mindless clicking through social media. If you need the occasional zoning out time, consider setting a timer to remind yourself to look up and ask yourself if you want to continue or if you’re ready to move on to another activity.

What Else?

Several of my points above were “ask  yourself what else you could do.” I think that’s a key thing. If you consider what all your options are in the moment, and the screen solution is the best answer, then use the screen without feeling guilty. But, if you can think of other satisfying options, then choose those more often.

Now might be the time to try something new: Yes, you can be one of those folks who is telling everyone on social media about your families’ new hobbies – new musical instruments, your family’s first garden, your sourdough starter projects, roller blading adventures, art work, your new puppy, or the domino chain Rube Goldberg your child built!

As much as we love Lego in our family, I’ve previously resisted just having a bin out all the time. The clutter bugs me. But, in the midst of this quarantine-time, we’ve surrendered half of our dining table to a free-build Lego zone to encourage that hands-on play whenever possible. And this weekend, I think we’ll set up a tent in the living room, and toss a pile of books inside.

Read More:

I’ve written previously about the Benefits and Risks of Screen Time, and Making Screen Time Work for Your Family. It has a lot more tips about how to choose appropriate content, especially for toddlers and preschoolers.

The most helpful article I have found on the topic of coronavirus screen time is “Screen Time Recommendations For Parents: How Much Is Too Much For Kids?” from Child Development Institute https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/screen-time/screen-time-recommendations-for-parents-how-much-is-too-much-for-kids

My final piece of advice is be gentle on yourself – don’t feel guilty for using screens! We’re parenting in a situation unlike any other before us, and we’ll just have to do the best we can to make it through each day.