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Promoting a balanced media diet

In my struggle to avoid relying too much on screen time as a parenting crutch, I have a few overarching goals that I try to keep in mind. One is that I want to do what’s best for my kids, promoting their healthy development and fostering their natural curiosity. I want them to love reading, but I recognize that I can’t force this so I try to give them lots of positive exposure to books and reading. To the degree that it is age and developmentally appropriate, I want to foster their independence and ability to make good choices and to entertain themselves without constant input from mom and dad (and yes, this has the added benefit of giving mom and dad a little break once in awhile, too).

When I first started letting my older son use my iPhone, we kept the time and the apps very limited. We started with simple word and letter games, and Elmo’s Monster Maker to help acquaint him with the touch screen. I introduced ebooks a little hesitantly, because I was afraid that reading books on the iPad could make him lose interest in print books. Boy, was I ever wrong.

We have a handful of ebooks for which we don’t have a corresponding print version, but of the books where we have both formats I’ve found that reading the digital version increases my son’s interest in the print version every time. He interacts with them differently and has never seemed confused by the different formats, but moves back and forth between them with ease. This is one of the clearest and simplest connections you can make for your child, and when you want to limit screen time sometimes the easiest thing to do is to pull out the print version of a favorite digital book.

But there are quite a few other activities we’ve found that tie in well to what my son is interested in doing on the iPad, and I try to pay attention so I can capitalize on those. For example, he showed a lot of interest in the word and letter game apps that we started him with, and it was easy to connect those with printed alphabet books. I recommend having a variety of alphabet books, with different objects or animals tied to each letter, upper and lower cases (not always in the same book) and a variety of fonts. Fonts can be a little confusing to children when they’re first learning the alphabet, so exposing them to the different ways that an “a” or a “g” can look is helpful.

If a child is a kinesthetic learner, there are lots of great ways to encourage letter awareness – give them magnetic letters they can move around. Give them materials they can manipulate to make letters, or show them how to make letters with their bodies. As they develop skills in other areas, you can incorporate more activities. When I noticed my son drawing letters in the air with his fingers, I picked up a couple of dry-erase activity books that let him trace letters, numbers and words. This has become one of our go-to choices when we need to cook or do dishes. My son sits at the dining table and writes letters and numbers while we do our work. And if you don’t have an activity book, you can just write some words or letters on paper for a child to trace and copy.

Games and puzzles are also activities that have strong ties between digital and analog versions. Some are very direct, like concentration or memory matching apps. If a child responds well to those games on the tablet, look for analog versions with the paper cards that they flip over. My son has older cousins who play a variety of different types of games on the iPad, and he is always checking out what they do (and we monitor that carefully). When he was about 3 I noticed that he seemed especially interested in games that required some analytical skills, but couldn’t quite manage the complex tasks involved in games that were designed for older children. So we pulled out some jigsaw puzzles and he really took to them. As his skill developed he achieved a level of independence with the puzzles that allows us to focus on other things while he works (and as a bonus they are a great calming activity before bedtime).

Another activity my son enjoys is looking at family photos on the iPad. That’s another one that’s really easy to connect to a non-digital activity. Pull out old photo albums, have the child look for people he knows and tell stories about what’s going on in the photos. It’s another way to build narrative skills and engage a child in non-screen-time activities.

As my son gets older and develops more independence, it gets easier to find a balance between sitting right next to him whenever he’s engaged in media activities or play, and using media as a babysitter. It’s valuable and still often necessary to sit with him as he does certain types of things – paying attention pays dividends in more ways than one. But now we have a tool kit of activities that he can do while we accomplish other things. If we stay in the same room, I can carry on a conversation with him and ask him questions about what he’s doing while I fold and put away laundry, for example.

Boundaries and transitions are important, too. We don’t have hard and fast rules about “x minutes of screen time a day.” We’re a little flexible depending on the schedule for the whole family. So it’s crucial that my husband and I stay in communication about what we’ve done during the day.  Some days there will be screen time, and some days there will be none, but we need to keep track to make sure we’re not inadvertently allowing too much. If we notice that our son is getting resistant to putting the iPad down when it’s time, we put it away for a couple of days. But we’ve found that we can often help him transition to another related activity and that really cuts down on the fuss. If he’s playing with an art app on the tablet when it’s time to turn off the screen, we might offer to get out markers and paper so he can keep drawing.

Another big key to this whole picture is modeling the behavior we want to see. Children are natural imitators. Every parent knows that the plastic toy cell phone has no appeal to their child. They know that’s not the one mom or dad actually uses. They want to get their hands on our devices BECAUSE that’s what they see us using. So sometimes the best way to encourage kids to engage in non-screen-related activities is to put away your own devices and let them see you doing other things.

I fully acknowledge that children are individuals, and that what works for one child or family doesn’t always work in other circumstances. But I think children are naturally voracious consumers of the world around them, and they are also naturally format agnostic. If we foster those qualities, they will last, and our kids will have skills that help them maintain a balanced media diet into the future.

Thanks for asking. No, I do not advocate wormholing babies.

A wise and funny colleague of mine once used the word “wormholing” to refer to the blank, zombie-like expression on his baby’s face when the child was exposed to a television show. That face is a really good indicator that the child’s brain is not learning anything. That face is what the good doctors Frederick J. Zimmerman, Dimitri A. Christakis, and Andrew N. Meltzoff took issue with in the Baby Einstein debacle. That’s passive screen time face.

That’s not what we’re doing here.

Wormholing generally doesn’t happen in any of my programs, and I hope it doesn’t happen in yours either. The reason wormholing doesn’t happen in storytimes, even if digital tools are involved, is because storytime is an interactive, wiggly, musical, multi-sensory literacy-supporting extravaganza. Adding a flannel board that happens to be digital does not change that, nor does showcasing a great new book app for which the library also has circulating paper copies. That said, it is very important to take into account current recommendations about screen time for very young children, and to make parents aware of those recommendations.

My son didn’t see a lit screen until after his 2nd birthday, and I don’t just use technology in my programs for technology’s sake. If there are under 2s in the crowd I tell parents about the position statements of the AAP and NAEYC and remind them that the program is geared for preschoolers (or whatever age group I’m aiming for.) I model healthy media behavior and tell parents that the interaction they can have with their children and an iPad is a co-reading experience, or Joint Media Engagement, and is NOT an electronic babysitter. I tell them that I’m showing them some of the really high quality stuff that is available to them through the devices they already use (a service similar to book recommendations). I use digital felt boards, books, apps and presentation software and gear my content to my crowd. I make them wiggle when they need to wiggle, and I read or tell stories in whatever format works best for that program. Storytimes that incorporate digital media are still interactions with caring, knowledgeable adults; they still foster the love of reading; and they still support the development of early literacy skills.

It occurred to me that there really are two different uses for the “digital storytelling” tools that I’ve been proselytizing: A) high quality digital content (appvisory!), and B)  presentation tools. The former is age specific and requires the evaluation skills of a librarian (or educator) to decide what content is appropriate for what program in what community. The latter is just professional presentation skills. Often a digital storytelling program is a combination of the two, but in the case of 2s and under, sometimes all you’re going to do is use your mirrored iPad as a presentation tool to facilitate learning for the parents (who, as we all repeat extensively, are their child’s first teachers). This does not mean you’re exposing babies to more screen time by showing them how to “pop” the blackberries in Peter Rabbit; it means you can be displaying lyrics, resources or other material for sleep deprived caretakers and helping them learn skills to support their babies’ development. You can be providing visual cues in addition to aural so parents and babies know when it’s time to get up and dance. I used to use whiteboards, flip charts and PowerPoint presentations for that.  Now it’s much easier to use my ipad.

As with anything else in life, I try to use the best tool for the job. To teach new songs, I use my voice, my flute, and lyrics and pictures on a screen so parents can sing along right away. To ensure that everyone in the room can see a book (The Going To Bed Book, for example) I use the app mirrored on a large screen.  To learn new nursery rhymes I use Rosemary Wells’ My Very First Mother Goose (paper!) and to re-focus energy I use finger and body movements.

Digital tools are just that; tools. Use them when they’re appropriate, don’t use them when they’re not, and for goodness sake, don’t wormhole any babies!