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. 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 babies (outdoors is wonderful if possible), and then encouraging them to routinely spend their “alert time” (between sleep, feedings and diaper changes) in these soon familiar environments.  We can watch and enjoy our babies, “floor sit” and eventually leave them to work or relax nearby, while they spend time learning from the safe objects and toys they choose. 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, one reason I avoided the option of TV time was 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 audio books or children’s podcasts before considering TV or videos. There is usually a good selection of audio CDs 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.)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. 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. 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!

    1. 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.

    2. Dido for me. It’s yhe same thing in my house. All three always are grabbing my legs…my only solice for a 15-20 minute episode of Bubble Guppies works. Even after that TV doesn’t keep them preoccupied. I haven’t made a proper dinner for over 4 years

    3. I try desperately to leave my 2 boys age 1 and 3 to entertain themselves with Lego, cars etc rather than turn on the TV BUT this does not normally lead to creative play but instead my 3yr old becomes destructive, throws things and hurts his brother. Any ideas on how to stop this? At some point I have to the household chores. Playing with them every moment is a wonderful thought but it doesn’t get the washing done or dinner cooked. Please help this tired mommy.

  3. 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. 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.

    1. I don’t know how old this comment is but if you would like ideas for better shows Daniel Tiger and Puffin Rock give much better behavior examples than Peppa Pig does.

      1. avatar Tinkama motha says:

        My baby live for Daniel tiger… Thee only cartoon she smile at….

  5. 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!

  6. In my experience (we are totally screen-free with a nearly 4 year old and 8 month old) this is all good and works well for us – though I am always available during periods of independent play because they need me to see them, even if they don’t have my full attention. Also our house is too small to have a fully safe space so I always have an eye out for them. Music CDs and stories are what we use if we really need to ‘get something done’ – and I’m talking for 10-20 minute periods, not more, otherwise you pay later with a crotchety, attention-deprived child. However, I would add that at times independent play doesn’t work. This is usually because one or other child is in a developmental leap, or becoming ill. They are asking for more attention from us to help them overcome this hurdle. Janet does mention this, but the way these times feel as a parent can be so overwhelming that I think they need a little more attention in the article. On those difficult days (weeks), I really have to give up my desire to do very much at all by myself. This is hard. But it is SO SO WORTHWHILE because the minute the leap or sickness is done the rewards in terms of independent play, confidence and mutual respect are unbelievable.

  7. Says: “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.”
    Then: “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. ”
    Only viable option given: books on tape.

    1. With respect, I’m not understanding what you’re saying. Perhaps you think crayons, blocks, etc., are yet more ways we must actively entertain our children? For me, they are about children self-directing their own independent play, while we sometimes observe and other times do our own thing, take breaks from parenting, etc.

      1. As a mother of a child who will put anything in his mouth due to sensory issues I agree with tiredmum that these are not safe items for individual play for my 2 year old. Wooden blocks and toy trucks yes but nothing like play doh or sidewalk chalk. Puzzles and shap sorters he will not play with independently as he requires me to be there with him or he loses interest. He will not stay entertained long enough on anything for me to get anything done as he has a short attention span. Even when I do put videos on my phone for him he will constantly be changing the songs/videos and needs me to be sitting next to him and will cry or yell for me if I get up to do anything or follow me and want to know what I’m doing and try to help. One great solution to some things is to get him to help me with certain things. He loves to help with laundry and taking the trash out and washing the tables. He wants to help with everything but there are some things he can’t help with such as dishes and cooking and those are the times that are most difficult for me.

  8. Thank you for the alternatives, I agree if you’re going to say “don’t do it” we need to replace it with something else (that works)!! I’m expecting my first baby soon and your articles give me confidence that I can do this 🙂 PS I am a sewer and my plan is to make a “TV cover” for our large TV in our living room.. I am hoping out of sight, out of mind!

  9. avatar Analice Floriani says:

    I agree with this article. Our daughter is now 26 mo and watches TV only once a week. She wakes up really early ever day and on Sundays I do not have the energy to get crayons out or play entusiastically or be creative lol I think TV does damage our children. At the same time, Emília doesn’t show interest to the tele for more than half an hour. She enjoys playing and I feel really content about it.

  10. avatar Rosamumd LEINBERGER says:

    We don’t have any screens and I’ve been with my daughter since birth, but she cannot play without me for longer than 5 minutes. We have a wonderful garden full of magic nooks, sandpit, swing, lovely blocks, scarves, duplo, tiny dolls, big dolls, bears, crayons and magnet toys. So not too many toys. But she insists on playing WITH me. Her games are incredibly elaborate and thoughtful – can go on for hours on end. But at 2.5 I’d expected to have half an hour here or there to do a few things. She also can’t sleep without touching me – so I have incredibly little time to do stuff. I won’t resort to screens ever, but I must say that justthe absence of screens doesn’t mean a child will play by themselves. I think it has allowed her imagination to develop fully, but she still seems to need participants in her play. Any ideas to encourage play on her OWN?

  11. Spotify even has some children’s story podcasts which are quite good, any age appropriate and good for listening on trips, when doing chores around the house.

  12. We found that our 2 year old loves to be involved, so if you need to fold laundry maybe them give a basket of stuff to fold or dress baby with, or even the empty laundry basket which becomes a boat etc, if cleaning up given them a small broom or or duster to join in.

  13. In total agreement about holding off on screen time as long as possible. Our older son didn’t get started until after 3. Now the challenge is we have a 5 month old and for the moment I can mostly keep him away from the screen while my older one watches but I have no idea what to do about it in the coming months as he gets more mobile and independent.

  14. avatar Makingitupaswegoalong says:

    Thanks for the post. Our son is adopted and came to us as 18 months being used to watching TV almost all day as one of his foster brothers had severe autism and need constant background noise. We have reduced the TV time hugely but not entirely restricted it because of trying to balance his need for continuity against the negative impact of screen time. He is now nearly three and happy and thriving and is great at making up games and creative play. But he wants us to be involved in his play at almost all times. Again, this could be due to the trauma he has experienced but from your post I am now also wondering if it is because he has had screen time. Any tips for how we can encourage independent play and reduce his screen time even further? Thanks (from the U.K.)

  15. I am looking for as many creative ideas as possible to keep my 6 month old off of TV. Originally i felt Dave and Ava nursery songs were ok for her until i noticed she was glued. She would ignore me and look at the tv laugh and pretend shes talking to her friends .. substituted ideas are what im looking for but for a 5-6 month old. She turned 6 months 4 days ago

  16. avatar christina says:

    I feel you guys on the need for our kiddos to have us sit in the peanut gallery. Parenting is hard.. 2 year olds who cry at every drop of the hat can make momma miserable.

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