elevating child care

A Creative Alternative To Baby TV Time

The last thing you’re going to catch me doing is provoking parental guilt. So, I’m going to assume you’ve heard all about the hazards of TV for infants and toddlers: potential language delays, obesity, ADHD, and aggression are all things we’d like to prevent in our children if we can. But it doesn’t surprise me that parents ignore the research (and the American Academy of Pediatrics advisory) and turn on the TV for children under 2 anyway.  How can we blame a mom or dad for wanting to read a whole sentence in the newspaper, cook dinner, talk on the phone uninterrupted, have a few minutes of privacy in the bathroom, or just get a few well-deserved moments of peace? 

It baffles me that the experts give warnings and criticisms, but nobody offers parents viable alternatives to using TV as a babysitter. Thank you very much American Academy of Pediatrics, ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing-Association) and many others, but telling us it’s wiser to spend time talking to our babies, reading, singing and playing peek-a-boo isn’t addressing our issue. Most of us are well aware that we need to spend lots of time and energy interacting with our babies physically and socially. We also need a BREAK once in awhile. It’s a little insulting to me when experts say, “no, no, NO!” and then give advice that ignores the reason most parents use TV in the first place.

The good news is that there is another option, and it addresses the needs of both parent and child. Babies thrive, parents can take breaks, and when we are with our child we get to “do less and enjoy more.”  It is simple enough that I was able to do it with three children (and I’m no martyr or genius), and I will never understand (apart from the fact there’s no money to be made) why it is such a well guarded secret.

The answer: instilling in our babies the joyful habit of self-directed play, adopting the lifestyle recommended by pediatrician Emmi Pikler and infant specialist Magda Gerber.

The trap parents fall into is the vicious cycle of using screen time to occupy a baby. That creates the very same problem we are using TV to solve — a child who does not entertain himself. Babies who spend time ‘watching’ unlearn what they are born ready and eager to do — what parents need them to do — daydream, explore, experiment, create play independently.

Although initiating thoughts and activities comes naturally to infants, extended periods of independent playtime don’t happen unless we cultivate them. This means establishing one or two safe, enclosed play areas for a baby (outdoors is wonderful if possible), and then encouraging him to routinely spend his “alert time” (between sleep, feedings and diaper changes) in these soon familiar environments.  We can watch and enjoy our baby, “floor sit” and eventually leave him to work or relax nearby, while he spends time learning from the safe objects and toys he chooses. In my experience, these rooms (or sections of rooms) are treasured by children way beyond the age they need them for safety. A child’s play space becomes the comfortable, therapeutic, and imaginative place where dreams are born.

Eventually, most of us will introduce our children to movies and TV. My advice: wait as long as you can, and then use it sparingly. Personally, I couldn’t bear the option of TV time because of the added pressure of trying to control it (to the already long list of toddler power struggles). It worked better for me to avoid it entirely until after the age of 3.

Exhaust the use of crayons, blocks, dolls and dollhouses, puzzles, shape sorters, play-doh, balls, books, wheel toys, sidewalk chalk (one of the best inventions ever), Legos, etc., before resorting to movies and TV. When children who are adept at occupying themselves seem bored, they are often on the verge of an idea for a new activity. Sometimes they need more of our attention, or a nap.

If you need entertainment for an afternoon lull and music isn’t engaging enough, try books on tape (or CD) before considering TV or videos. There is usually a good selection at the library. They don’t interfere with a child’s listening and learning skills the way TV does. They stimulate imagination rather than zoning a child out, and they aren’t as disturbing or scary as movies. The ones that come with books are great, too, and you can show your child how to turn the page when they hear the “ding”.

If we can postpone the use of TV (or break the habit in the early years), our child has opportunities to develop the neural pathways needed to be a good listener and learner, gross and fine motor skills, problem solving abilities, creativity and a strong sense of self.

We are all bound to make many parenting mistakes, but the love of inner-directed play, creative thought and solitude will be lifelong gifts that neither you nor your child will ever regret.

Please enjoy this inspirational video of 15 month old Joey demonstrating self-reliance, persistance, focus, ingenuity, inner-directedness and much more — SELF-DIRECTED, INDEPENDENT PLAY AT ITS BEST.


I share much more about fostering creative, independent play in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and I share my gift ideas for encouraging self-directed play HERE. 

Dr. Jane Healy’s books Endangered Minds and Your Child’s Growing Mind:  Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence examine in detail the effects of TV and video use on brain development.

Please feel free to share your frustrations and successes with the TV issue!

(Photo by texasgurl.)

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96 Responses to “A Creative Alternative To Baby TV Time”

  1. avatar Wendy says:

    All sounds good. Best TV alternative I have ever found is a little more simple. It’s called a big cardboard box and a fistful of crayons! Open box, insert child, insert crayons, unleash at least a good 10-20 minutes of unsupervised imaginative play.

  2. avatar Erin says:

    While i appreciate this suggestion, i submit that it doesn’t work with all kids. My son would not play on his own until he was about 2.5. And he was so grabby in the kitchen with me that at 18 months i felt i had to give up and turn on the TV. Or not eat dinner. I don’t like the idea, but “just let them play independently” is not as easy as it sounds. My daughter on the other hand…loves to play without me. Score!

    • avatar Nat says:

      I’m a granny of a 23 mo boy brought up from birth by parents using Janets techniques. The child is never allowed in the kitchen and was told it is too dangerous for little people. His dad built him a tower he can stand in that brings him comfortably to counter height so he helps mummu or daddy cook dinner. He loves food, eats just about everything and can tell you the ingredients by name and smell. He will not enter my kitchen when he visits but if he wants to come into it to see something he will ask to be picked up and shown. He also made his mother “smoked salmon scrambled eggs” for breakfast the other day with his play kitchen gear!!!! I can’t tell you what a pleasure this child is as he honors us back as much as we honor him.

      • avatar Y says:

        There is another side of the coin. My little one was in the kitchen with us all the time and handled knife by two years of age. She is three now and helps me with cooking and cleaning up. With having a 3 month old, it’s a huge help for me that she is able to cut up veggies. I don’t see a benefit of not allowing child in the kitchen.

  3. avatar Aleece says:

    What I need are some ideas on how to change some already (unfortunately) developed habits. My now 22 month old son likes to play on his own but he usually insists on an audience and when I would attempt to leave him to his play and go do the dishes it usually triggered a meltdown which is when I started resorting to a few minutes of baby genius nursery rhyme videos. Since then the Screen time has increased (Daddy likes to turn on certain shows for him in the morning.) So I guess I need to re-direct both of them now.

  4. avatar Sara says:

    Despite my intent, we did start watching *some* cartoons very early, in the car as LO would scream her head off for the entirety of the journey and nothing seemed to distract her, or at mealtime, and we generally comment on what she’s watching (mostly Peppa Pig and very gentle cartoons) and explaining. While not an ideal solution, it’s actually helped her language A LOT (she’s bilingual and she had a slight delay). Her attention span is much longer than most kids her age or older and I have noticed the same in other kids whose mothers had a same approach. So this really makes me think whether this subject, like most, could be highly individual.

  5. avatar Amrita says:

    A question I have is, how do we manage a situation where we are out with our child, perhaps at an in-home gathering, where the TV is turned on and other children are watching TV? Is there a risk of children getting hooked from situations like these, or can this quickly be undone once we are home and revert back to our RIE lifestyle? As guests, it’s tricky to control the behaviour of our hosts without coming off the wrong way!

    • avatar cari says:

      Of course there is a risk of them getting hooked, but it’s all about maintaining your own boundaries.

      Example: Husband had knee surgery. In-laws watched the kids (1 and 3) for a few hours when I took him too physical therapy two or three time. One time, they watched some movie the in-laws gave us for Christmas (I think, I have no idea, we’ve never watched them). For DAYS, my daughter asked to watch the Elmo movie and for DAYS I said no. It took less than a week and she doesn’t ask anymore.

      We do basically ZERO screen time in our house, on any kind of screen, for the kids. The only thing is if I already happen to be watching something and 3 year old comes down after rest time or is sick and is up late. This is usually a one-time thing and I continue to maintain no screen time. I also watch boring things like nature documentaries and they don’t hold her attention. Win!!

      You can do it. Just maintain your boundaries. The kids will fall back into the regular routine of no screens.

  6. avatar lauren bench says:

    I love when you share videos! It really brings the message home. And this was heartwarming!!

  7. avatar Sarah says:

    I have read the Jane Healy books above. Could you recommend any further reading or talks please? Maybe anything more recent? Thank you

  8. avatar Sarah says:

    All in moderation.
    I started letting my son watch videos while we waited for his sister at dance class. Then we started watching videos together on YouTube and PBS kids. By two he can name all letters, numbers, colors, and shapes without me even pushing it!
    We go to the library, story time, and parenting group. He does have a minor speech delay but his therapist says that he has the longest attention span of any tot that she’s ever worked with. He’s extremely curious, expressive and social. He could also ride his tricycle before age two.
    I really dislike scare tactics and strict “rules”. I will always follow my child’s lead and my own.

    Didn’t the American Academy of Pediatrics (very recently) retract the No screen time before 2 guideline, anyway?

  9. avatar Denisse says:

    This is great. But what do you do if your child just won’t do self-directed play? My 16month old doesn’t get screen time. However he also won’t play on his own. Unless he’s “reading” his books, which lasts, at best, for a couple of minutes. If he was in that video he would’ve pulled every single thing off the shelves and climbed onto the furniture. I don’t mind mess at all but hard to get anything done let alone have a bathroom break with a kamikaze throwing himself off the couch! If I try and do anything he clings and whines. How do I encourage him to do his own thing?!

  10. avatar diana says:

    Hi i agree with all your saying. But please be awarenof the recent change from AAP about screen time that has evidence based guideline changes about the screen time. Used sparingly but in educational purposes children 18mos and older may even benefit. While screen time should not be the norm, it also can be used as a tool to enhance a childs learning experience. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/10/the_american_academy_of_pediatrics_new_screen_time_guidelines.html

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