Tag Archives: screen time

Computer Skills and Kindergarten Readiness


There’s lots of information about the benefits and risks of screen time (TV, computers, video games, etc.), lots of opinions on whether young children should or should not be exposed, and advice on making screen time work for your family. Some parents might choose to avoid screen time through their child’s preschool years, and some may not have access to technology at home.*

But, I think it’s important for parents and early childhood educators to know that basic computer skills and tablet skills are becoming a part of kindergarten readiness.

The picture above is from my son’s kindergarten classroom in the Lake Washington School District (eastside suburbs of Seattle). Every morning, during reading stations, one station is using computer-based reading programs, such as HeadSprout. They also use DreamBox for math skills. Computer-based programs are an engaging way to drill kids in some basic math and literacy skills. But only if the child knows how to use a computer.

Today I watched several kids using the software with no problem, easily navigating use of the touchpad mouse, and the touchscreen, and understanding concepts like minimizing and maximizing windows, using their fingers to magnify an image on the screen, and so on. And I watched one child who lacked any basic understanding of how any of that worked. He poked randomly at the screen, getting random results – sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. No real learning was happening during the almost 20 minutes he spent trying to figure out how the computer works. The learning value lost in that 20 minutes only puts him farther behind his classmates.

So, I’m now adding to my list of skills for kindergarten readiness. I would recommend that all kids entering public kindergarten (at least in areas that have computers in the kindergarten classroom) have these basic skills:

  • know how to use both a mouse and a touchpad mouse – they know how to move the arrow around, understand the ideas of both clicking, and double-clicking
  • know how to use a touch screen – again, both how to move the arrow around and how to click; bonus points for understanding gestures like pinch to make an image smaller, swipe to advance to another screen, drag to move an item. (Look here and here for two guides to all the gestures that are typically used on touchscreens.)
  • have played with educational software / apps where they are given verbal instructions that they should follow

So, if you have access to this technology at home, consider adding in some computer skill learning for your child at least 3 – 6 months before they start kindergarten. If you want recommendations and reviews for kids’ games and apps, check out Common Sense Media.

If you don’t have access to this technology at home (In 2012, 72% had access to the internet at home. In 2016, 72% of Americans own a smartphone, which has likely increased the number of households with access to the internet), check whether it’s available at your local library or elsewhere in your community. Here in King County, all the libraries have public computers in their children’s areas that are loaded with lots of educational software, and will allow them to learn mouse skills and headphone use. (They do not have touch screens to my knowledge.)

I don’t think children need a lot of computer time – just enough to gain some basic skills and knowledge. The majority of a preschooler’s time should be spent engaged hands-on with their world, with time spent playing with open-ended toys, outdoor time, and free play time with peers.


A book about balancing screen time and outdoor time

I wanted to write about the book Dot. by Zuckerberg and Berger. It’s an intriguing book that reviewers on Amazon either love or hate, and it inspires debate about the place of screen time in children’s lives.

First, an overview of the book. This is a picture book for 3 – 6 year olds, with appealing illustrations, a charming main character (6 or 7 years old?), and an engaging story line.

It begins with Dot using her laptop and tablet – “She knows how to tap… to touch… to tweet… and to tag.” We also see her using a cell phone and Skype / FaceTime to talk and talk and talk. She is bright, happy, and enjoying her time with her tech. (Though her dog is looking pretty disappointed in this sedentary, indoor lifestyle.)

But then Dot succumbs to a moment of exhausted ennui.

Mom says “Go outside… time to recharge!” Dot sleepwalks out the door.

But then, outside, she smiles. She remembers… “to tap… to touch…. to tweet… to tag… to talk and talk and talk.” (This time the illustrations show her tap dancing, touching a sunflower, tweeting like the birds in the tree, tagging friends in a game, and talking while walking in the fields, always smiling and always accompanied by friends.)

She is bright, happy, and enjoying her time outside with friends.

But she hasn’t completely abandoned technology – on the last page, she uses her phone to snap a photo of a friend, and another friend is using a tablet, as they swing, and paint, and play outside with their dogs.

The negative reviews

Some reviewers are dumb-founded that a child would even use technology in this way (leaving me to wonder whether they’re parents themselves and if so, if their kids are now middle aged adults… My 22 year old was using a mouse and a desktop computer to play games at the age of three – definitely a digital native. My 5 year old learned how to swipe to the next photo on my phone when he was 8 or 9 months old. Not just a digital native – totally immersed in the mobile technology world, like most children his age. (Read here about how much screen time children have in the U.S.)

Multiple negative reviews talk about the unlimited screen time and the lack of parental supervision in the book. “I don’t know any 6 year old who has such free reign with so many tech devices and, even worse, goes unsupervised. Is this really what our world has come to? I think not, and the idea of suggesting something so absurd is upsetting to me.” It is true that we don’t SEE a parent in the book. But this is OFTEN the case with children’s books: as one commenter said “Where are Harold’s parents, for that matter, and why does the poor child have only a purple crayon? How could those Seuss children’s mother have left them home alone for the whole day, and didn’t she teach them NOT to open the door to strangers?” But it is the mother who intervenes and sends the child outdoors to play. So, clearly there is supervision and there are screen time limits.

And of course, other reviewers were appalled that the child was allowed any screen time, citing concerns about the harms of radiation from cell phones, obesity, online stalking, adult websites, and more. (You can read my summary about benefits and risks of screen time here.)  “As parents, our job is to shield young children from information technology in the early years of life, not encourage it. Just where does Dot get her tech devices? She cannot afford them on her own, so her parent must be purchasing them for her. This sets the wrong precedent about our role as parents of young children: Parents as addiction enablers, not protectors.”

Other reviewers note that the character tweets and shares (presumably on Facebook) which are not typically activities that a 6 year old girl (like our protagonist) would do, and certainly not what a 3 – 5 year old (like our audience) would do. I was willing to let this slide, because of how they play with the words “tweet” and “share” later on in a different context.

There’s others who feel like it’s an advertisement for technology – the author, Randi Zuckerberg is the sister of Facebook founder Mark Z.

Positive Reviews:

My 3 year-old is enjoying this book. Tonight she says “Go outside Dot!” and that’s the message that she’s getting. Technology is fun but after a while you need to go outside.

“The “Dot.” character is extremely loveable and its easy to relate to her journey as she struggles with the differing forces in today’s society — the pull of technology versus being outside in nature and developing a sense of community.”

“I ordered this book to read as the technology facilitator for a k-5 school. Kids love it…Opens the floor for good conversation.”

I bought this book for my three-year-old son and he absolutely loves it. He knew how to ‘swipe’ on an iPad shortly after turning one. I love the overall message of the story, as technology is a big part of our culture and it is not going away. This book reminds us while technology is exciting and beneficial to our daily lives, so is enjoying friends, family and the outdoors. As we move into the future I want my son to always remember the importance of this balance, and I think this story represents that message well.

“I am a pediatrician in practice for 20yrs and really like that it brings up the importance of getting outside & playing. Since it is a reality that children are on electronics starting from a young age, the idea that what they learn on the computer can be made fun & relate to the outside world is a great concept. Its an easy way for parents & kids to have a simple conversation about the importance of balance in their life starting from a young age.”

My thoughts

This is a cute little book. I’m not saying “wow, one of the best books I’ve ever read.” But it is a nice read, and a good basic summary of the need to find a balance between technology and outdoor / active / social play. It’s a good discussion starter.

Some parents choose to strictly limit their children’s exposure to screens. If you’re a screen-free family (or very limited screen use), this is not the book for you.

But if you are a family who uses a lot of technology, and tries to balance it with other opportunities, this could be a good book to share with your children about the joys of other types of play.

You can check out my collection of Tips for Making Screen Time Work for Your Family.


Check out this helpful resource on Screen Sense – Research-Based Guidelines for Screen Use for Children Under Three Years Old.

They make some familiar recommendations, such as

  • Avoid having the TV on in the background. Turn the TV off when no one is watching.
  • Avoid using screens as part of the bedtime routine
  • Be mindful of and limit your own screen media use when children are present.

However, they also say:

“Although children learn best through hands-on exploration… they can learn from [screens]. What is most important is that 1) content is age appropriate, 2) viewing time is limited, and 3) parents are involved, and help children make the connection between what they see on the screen and the real world.”

And, they offer great tips on how to choose content and how to extend your child’s learning. Some examples:

“Help your child make the connection between what she sees on a screen and the real world.Play games with her afterward using objects similar to what she has seen on the device, such as blocks or a ball. Point out and label objects in real life that she has seen on TV or on touchscreens, such as animals and flowers.”

“Create ways to extend your child’s learning from media.If a program focuses on animals—such as an armadillo—when it’s over, make up a pretend story about armadillos that you and your child can act out. Apply the colors your child has learned from an app by labeling the colors of the family’s clothes as you sort laundry together.”

Passive Toys = Active Kids

passiveThought for the day, from a workshop based on the principles of RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers.): the more active the toy, the more passive the child.

An active toy that does something entertains – all a child needs to do is press a button and sit back and watch passively. A passive toy that doesn’t do anything engages – a child needs to be active to enjoy it.

Or as Magda Gerber says about her recommended play objects – all passive toys: What do [they] have in common? None do anything. They will only respond when the infant activates them. In other words our active infant manipulates passive objects. In contrast, entertaining kinds of toys, such as mobiles or later on, windup toys, cause a passive infant to watch an active toy. This trains the child to expect to be amused and entertained, and sets the scene for later TV watching.

Active Toys

Active toys also include: LeapPads, stuffed animals or dolls where when you squeeze their hands they sing a song… most things with batteries.

The ultimate in active toys is a touch screen device – I-Phone, tablet, etc. I’ve written before on the benefits and downsides of screen time, but the truly amazing things about these devices is their pacifying effect. My son can do an amazing transformation from Squirmy Whiny Disturbing-the-whole-restaurant Boy to Silent Child in less time than it would take to duck into a phone booth – all I need to do is hand him my Kindle or phone. And in moments he’s thoroughly entertained by a video or app. (Here’s thoughts on how to choose well-designed age appropriate materials.)

But, I think the corollary to the statement of “the more active the toy the more passive the child” should be something like: “the more effectively a toy pacifies the child, the more actively they will protest when you try to take it away.” Silent Child turns into Wild Screaming Misery Lad when I then try to take the Kindle away, or when, god forbid, the battery dies in a public place.

I do still use active toys (including the Kindle) at times, but I also try to balance them with a lot of “passive” toys – a lot of open-ended toys that encourage exploration and engagement. And I try to give him time – plenty of uninterrupted time – to explore them.

Some fabulous open-ended materials for toddlers and preschoolers:

Magda Gerber recommends (in The Best Toys for Babies Don’t Do Anything): balls, scarves, plastic bottle, containers (cups, bowls, baskets in many sizes and shapes). Or check out Geek Dad’s list: sticks, boxes, string, cardboard tubes, and dirt. And, of course, my favorite open-ended toy: nature.

Read more about open-ended toys: Here are a couple posts from Mamas in the Making, which are about toys for the 3 – 6 month old crowd, but most of their thoughts apply through the toddler years: Our Thoughts on Open-Ended Toys and Age Appropriate Toys. Check out this video, or many of the videos on Janet Lansbury’s YouTube channel for examples of babies at play with simple open-ended items.

Have enough toys… but not too many…

It’s easy to get excited about open-ended toys. Don’t go overboard though, filling the house or classroom with stuff…

Both at home and at work, I want to be sure there aren’t too many options for kids to explore. It’s great for kids to have some choices, but too many choices are stressful and overwhelming. When faced with too many choices, instead of engaging with one, kids may run from one to the next, never settling. Or, as someone said at my in-service yesterday: “If your child spends their playtime dumping all the toys out of the bucket, that means there’s too many toys in the bucket. Put at least half of them away for now, and the child will play more with what’s left.” Often, less is more. When we give kids the chance to really engage and explore open-ended toys, it’s amazing what they can come up with.


Just for fun: Check out this blog post on Being the Cool Kids on the Block, which talks about saying yes to your kids’ play ideas (within reasonable limits) and open-ended materials.
photo credit: ianus via photopin cc
photo credit: peterme via photopin

Screen Time: Making it Work for your Family


Screen time no longer means just TV in the living room. We now have DVD players, computers and video games at home, and tablets and smart phones we carry all day everywhere we go. And kids get lots of screen time.

Most parents have heard expert advice that warns of risks of screen use. But we also find there are benefits to using them, so we use them – maybe with a twinge of guilt each time…

So, rather than taking a “just say no” approach, many parents are trying to find a way to make screen time work well for their family. Here’s a wide variety of suggestions from parents and experts:

  • Plan what your child views; preview what they use: Choose developmentally appropriate programs and tools that teach skills you want your child to learn and demonstrate values that align with your family’s values.
    • For babies and toddlers especially, choose slow-paced shows and games, with calm backgrounds and without loud, jarring sounds and actions. Choose shows where the characters do everyday things that children do, like go to the park, take a bath, or spend time with friends at preschool. These shows may seem boring or goofy to you, but they engage young children without overwhelming them.
      • Shows that focus on fantasy / unrealistic experiences (a trip to the moon or a superhero battle) do not engage the brain as well as those that involve everyday experiences familiar to your child.
      • Fast-paced TV grabs the attention of the sensory / motor parts of the brain, but doesn’t engage the pre-frontal lobes which relate to attention, and decision-making. In an experiment, children were assigned to a 9 minute activity: drawing, watching a slow-paced educational TV show, or watching a fast-paced entertainment show. Afterwards, children were given four tests that looked at executive function. Kids who had been drawing performed the best on these tasks, those who watched educational TV performed less well; those who watched fast-paced TV performed poorly on all four tasks. (Source: The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function – Lillard and Peterson – http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/09/08/peds.2010-1919.full.pdf.)
      • Children this age also respond well to shows where the television characters occasionally speak directly to the child, or ask the child to participate in some way – “can you help me find Blue’s paw print?”
    • Pay attention to the way social / emotional issues are presented in the stories. Research found that some shows that aim to teach good behavior instead model negative interaction. They may spend the first 20 minutes setting up the conflict by showing kids behaving badly, then resolve it in the last ten minutes by kids behaving well (apologizing, confessing to a lie, etc.) Young children remember the emotionally-charged content at the beginning of the show more than they remember the pleasant resolution at the end. They may then practice bad behavior for the next few days…
    • Pay attention to what academic skills and life skills are being taught and whether they are taught effectively.  “Educational programming” ranges a great deal in how educational it really is. Use independent reviews and ratings such as Common Sense media to learn more before letting your child use a product.
    • Choose the right tools: infants may respond best to touchscreen devices that let them learn hands-on. School age children may learn hand-eye coordination and decision making through video games, and can learn important school/work skills by using a computer. Tweens can practice communication skills with a cell phone. Facebook and other social networking are appropriate for teens, with guidance.
    • It’s important to know what sites our children are using online, and what they’re doing there. Limit access to the Internet, use systems to block inappropriate content, know how to check the browser history (but don’t tell your child how to clear it!). Consider limiting internet use to public spaces of house, where parents can see / listen in.
      • You may need to learn new tech skills to keep up with your child’s abilities.
    • Use technology to your benefit: use DVR, on-demand or streaming TV to choose the best programming (rather than just watching what’s on at the moment), to skip over commercials, mute parts you don’t want your child to hear, or pause things to discuss.
      • Watch out for apps with in-game purchasing! Some devices have systems which can block your child from spending money at least. But these games tend to cause addictive behavior and can lead to children who are very upset when you won’t let them purchase the next level.
  • Watch/ Play with your child and Discuss
    • Although 40% of parents say they always watch TV with their child, many others report that they do not, because the whole reason they’re letting their child use media is so they can get other things done while the child watches! (AAP) But, when possible, watch with your child, play games with your child, or watch while they use an app.
    • Co-watching enables us to maximize the educational benefit of the media. Examples:
      • Point out and name things they see on the screen
      • Answer questions as they come up – children often don’t understand everything they see on the screen
      • Quiz them about what they saw: “What’s the closest planet to the sun?”
      • Practice skills they used with the media – if they were practicing tracing letters on a touchscreen, give them fingerpaints or a pencil and let them practice more
      • Act out a show together, or use puppets to re-tell the story you just viewed, or make up new stories with the same characters
      • Talk about real-life tie-ins to media: “in the show, they went to the grocery store and bought apples – would you like to go to the store with me now?”
    • Co-watching give you opportunities to share your values with them.
      • Talk about programs. Ask them what it was about, what characters they liked or disliked, how it made them feel, what choices the characters made, what they would have done in the same situation.
    • Co-watching or playing games together helps us to connect with our kids. It’s another way to have fun playing together with something that captures their interest.
  • Don’t feel like media is an essential tool in the education of your child.
    • The best preparation for school and life involves you spending time with them, reading, talking, exploring things hands-on, and exposing them to diverse experiences.
    • Children who live in households with heavy media use are read to less, and read less. Make a conscious commitment to read to your children more often. Even after they can read themselves, you can continue to read to them – choosing books that are a little above their reading level – or you can read a book together.
    • When you are using media, tie it into real life. For example, if they see a TV show about an animal, go to the zoo to see that animal in person, paint a mask of the animal at home, go on the internet to learn more, and then pretend to be that animal.
  • Eliminate background TV – or be conscious about your use. In addition to the times that children are actively using media (cited above), they are also exposed to background television – when the TV is on but no one is really watching it, or when a parent is watching TV while the child is theoretically engaged in other activities. Children between 8 months and 8 years are exposed to an average of 232 minutes a day of background TV. (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/5/839.full) This media distracts the parent’s attention and significantly reduces how much time the parent spends talking to the child (and since a child’s vocabulary growth depends on interaction, this can cause language delays). It also distracts the child: 1 – 3 year old children have shorter attention spans when the TV is on, moving from one task to another quickly.
  • Avoid couch potato behavior:
    • Don’t eat in front of the TV. This unconscious eating may well lead to obesity increases seen in those with heavy media use.
    • Do activities that you see on the screen: dance to the music, jump on the floor like the monkeys jumping on the bed, and so on.
    • Do other physical activities while watching TV. Exercise? Stretch? Fold laundry?
  • Keep screens out of the bedroom.
    • Internet access in the bedroom increases the chances of children accessing inappropriate content of all sorts.
    • The presence of a TV in a child’s bedroom has been linked to obesity, poor performance in school, difficulty with sleep, and substance use.
    • 30% of parents report using TV to help their child fall asleep, but TV actually increases resistance to bedtime, causes anxiety, delays sleep, and shortens sleep duration. (AAP)
  • Set limits: Some experts recommend against having an outright ban on screen use – saying it can become the forbidden fruit your child craves – but it is fair to set limits. Some examples:
    • Establish routines – when in the day are screens an option and when are they not? If your child knows they can never use a screen in the morning before school, then they know not to bother asking in the morning. But, if one day you change that rule…
    • Teach that some times and places are OK for mobile device use, and others are not.
      • Note: your children pay very close attention to what you do! If you tell them that they’re not allowed to use screens during dinner, but then you check your email or take a phone call during a meal, they won’t take your limit seriously.
    • Teach your children to ask you whether it’s OK to turn on media.
    • Privilege? Some parents find it works well to have media be a privilege that a child has to earn. For example, if they read for 30 minutes, they earn 10 minutes of screen time. Other parents are against this, fearing that then we’re setting up a value judgment that says reading is the boring thing you have to do so you can do the fun thing.
    • Place limits on screen time. AAP recommends <1 – 2 hours daily for kids 2 – 8, less than that for kids under 2
      • Count total screen time: TV + DVD + video games + computer time + mobile device. Make sure that tablet time is replacing TV or other screen time, not displacing physical play, reading or other essential activities.
      • Consider a screen curfew for the whole family – a time at night when the screens go off. We know that screen use (especially blue light from screens) too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep (see above).
  • Encourage balanced activities
    • Environment: Set up you house so that the screens are off in a corner, or in rarely used rooms, versus lots of other options in plain view, easily accessible and ready to use. Have available: board games, art supplies, books, sports equipment, etc. Spend time outdoors with no screens in sight!
    • Activities: Build into your routine plenty of other activities: sports and exercise, creative projects, household chores, social time with friends, and so on. Spend more time in unstructured play, which helps children learn to problem-solve and think creatively.
    • Model good behavior. Turn off your screens or set them aside for a portion of each day. Model a balanced life of social time, physical activity, time outdoors, reading, etc.
    • Ask yourself: “if I didn’t have my [device] with me right now, how would my behavior be different?” If your answer is that you’d be talking to your child, or singing to avoid boredom, or coming up with other ways to distract them in a meeting (like say, reading to them) then you may want to consider setting aside the device for now…
    • Have unplugged time. One author advocates setting aside “one hour per day, one day per week, and one week per year” when the whole family sets aside their screens.

Reviews of kid’s media and other tips at: www.commonsensemedia.org

Design Tips: If you (or someone you know) designs apps for kids, check out Sesame Street’s great tips on how to build the best kids apps possible.

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