Screen Time Alternatives to Support Development in Kids

Reduce Screen Time for Kids

Setting screen time limits and finding screen time alternatives are SO important for our children! Help your kids in ALL AREAS OF DEVELOPMENT with these ideas from a pediatric occupational therapist.

Our world is constantly changing due to technological advances.  Digital devices are everywhere providing us with quick communication, convenience, entertainment, and instant information at the tap of the screen. 

Digital devices are in the hands of adults, teenagers, young children, and even very little children now. 

They’re in many environments in our society where they never existed before. Nor were they ever needed before. And they’ve made their way into our schools. 

They’re popular! Many teens and adults probably couldn’t function without them. (Guilty!)

But there is so much to be concerned about regarding the amount of time spent on mobile devices and screens. 

It’s negatively impacting the health of teens and adults. More importantly, we don’t yet know the long term damage to our young children.  And the short term damage is already evident in kids

The increased use of screens in kids is extremely concerning to me as an occupational therapist. Young kids are spending way too much time on screens. 

It’s disheartening when I see children on a phone or tablet in the grocery store, at a restaurant, at a sporting event, during a meal, before bedtime, during a short errand run in the car, or at a walk in the park in a stroller!!  

And now I’m seeing an increased use with them in our schools.

This needs to change.  Quickly!  Before too much damage is done.

Let’s work together to decrease screen use in our kids!  It’s creating a bad habit that’s negatively impacting children’s bodies, brains and nervous systems.  Too much screen use can actually alter brain functioning and impede overall development.

Negative Effects of Excessive Screen Time and Use of Digital Devices

Excessive time spent on digital devices impacts sleep, physical health, and mental health in teens, young adults, and adults. 

Back pain, eye strain, headaches, hand overuse and neck strain are common physical discomforts.

The position of the head looking down at a cell phone impacts posture and can actually reverse the natural curve in the neck.  

This position, termed “text neck syndrome,” also affects the level of alertness in the nervous system and in turn can contribute to or exacerbate depression and anxiety.  

So many studies are showing the negative impacts of screens on young people and adults, so why are we encouraging the use of them in babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and young children?  

Do we want to cause them neck pain, headaches, and eye strain?  Do we want the fast paced input from the screen to impact their attention and mental health when we’re educating them?

A young child’s brain and nervous system are rapidly developing during this critical phase of life.  

The increased screen time in young children and even babies is absolutely terrifying to me as a mother and occupational therapist! 

Many studies have shown how screen use in young children interferes with learning, executive function, sensory integration, sleep, attention, behavior, communication, motor skills, visual skills, creativity, and social-emotional skills.  

Screen alternatives need to be a priority for parents and educators. We need to shift away from these bad habits that are hindering development, growth, and learning in our children. 

Proper non-screen opportunities for children allow for basic skill development in the brain and body.  Following and respecting development is important to lay the foundation for lifelong learning, well-being, and functioning.

Screen Time Alternatives for Children to Improve Development

Excessive screen use in kids is not healthy academically, physically, socially, and mentally.  

It interferes with learning, sensory integration, self-regulation, sleep, attention, and behavior.  There are negative impacts on communication and social skills as well as emotional development and coping skills.

The fast paced input from a screen impacts proper visual development, visual processing, and visual perceptual skills.      

Excessive time on electronic devices interferes with gross motor and fine motor skill development.  It impacts executive function skills and creativity. 

Finding screen alternatives and proper developmental opportunities are extremely important for basic skill development in young children. This will lay the foundation for lifelong learning.  

Below, I list reasons why screen time alternatives are important in 7 different areas of development. 

And I share NON-SCREEN ideas in 7 developmental areas that are essential for learning: 1) cognitive development, 2) sensory processing, 3) attention and behavior, 4) communication and social skills, 5) gross and fine motor skills and creativity, 6) visual perceptual skills, and 7) emotional development and coping skills. 

Improve Development in Kids with Non Screen Activities

1) Strengthen Cognitive Development in Kids with Non-Screen Activities

Young children’s brains develop very rapidly.  The first five years of a child’s life are critical for creating strong learning pathways in the brain.  

Sensory and motor systems continue to develop after the first five years that support learning, behaving, and attending.

Children of all ages learn best through play, exploration, using all of the senses, and interacting with the world around them.  

Active learning, play and project based learning are great ways for children to develop problem-solving skills, executive function skills, and independence through self-initiated activities.  These are so important for cognitive development!

Kids brain gain so much more input when using more parts of the body. They experience textures, shapes, movement, weight, and position in space. And they gain motor feedback for learning.

Screen Alternatives to Support Cognitive Development and Learning 

Preschool and kindergarten classrooms should be developmentally based and NOT academically driven. 

And they definitely should NOT be using iPads or tablets as learning modalities.  I’m seeing this increase in some schools and it really concerns me. It is not the environment to add more screen time.   

Learning and cognitive development should occur  through play-based learning, project-based learning, arts and crafts, and other non-screen activities. Active participation should be a natural part of a child’s school day.  

Preschool and school age children benefit cognitively from frequent opportunities for movement and brain breaks in order to keep them engaged and improve attention and focus.  

Classroom learning centers should offer a variety of activities for the whole body and nervous system.  Hands on activities such as math manipulatives help to improve retention of concepts.  

Auditory activities help with listening skills, following directions and to strengthen skills needed for reading. Plenty of hands-on visual activities support skills needed for reading and math.   

Please encourage all parents and educators to use screen alternatives to support cognitive development.  Keep kids playing and learning through multiple senses to maximize their learning potential – without screen use!  

JAMA pediatrics shared a study that showed screen time being linked to reduced brain development in children.  MRI’s revealed that learning and development SLOWED down when children use screens excessively. 

Sounds pretty counterproductive, right?

Help your children learn best by using more of their body.

2) Improve Sensory Processing, Self-Regulation and Sleep in Kids by Decreasing Screen Time

Our brains constantly take in and process information inside and outside of our bodies at rapid speeds.  In order to self-regulate our bodies and emotions, we need to sleep well and process sensory input well. 

Studies show that screens are impacting sleep cycles.  If our kids in schools aren’t sleeping well at night, they’re not able to process sensory input efficiently, which impacts learning. 

Additionally, many studies have mentioned the effects of radiation on humans.  One particular study discussed the thickness of an adult’s skull and how it can block and filter some of the radiation around us from screens. 

Babies, toddlers, and children up to age 7 have thinner skulls and their ear canals are smaller.  Children can’t filter the Radio Frequency Electro Magnetic Fields (RF-EMF) to protect their RAPIDLY developing brain. 

This can significantly interfere with the function of the central nervous system and many studies are indicating the risk of cancer with RF-EMF exposure. 

Screen Alternatives to Support Sensory Processing

Easy ways to improve sensory processing and sleep are through sensory play, physical activity, movement, and outdoor play.  

At home or in schools, proprioceptive heavy work activities have powerful effects on the nervous system.  Giving input to the muscles and joints improves focus and attention and helps with self-regulation. 

Simple changes in position, such as working at a vertical surface or on the floor, also helps kids’ bodies and nervous systems.  

Core strength exercises help with good sitting posture and balance.  

Vestibular input from balance and movement activities helps direct the nervous system, which also supports visual development. 

Deep pressure activities are calming and organizing for the nervous system.  When provided throughout the day, they help kids improve self-regulation and sleep. 

Oral sensory activities are also important for a child’s ability to self-regulate.  

Finally, providing flexible seating options at home or in the classroom also supports sensory processing and self-regulation.        

3) Find Screen Time Alternatives to Increase Attention and Improve Behavior in Kids

Studies have discussed the impact of screen use on attention and even the ability to think clearly.

If a child gets too dependent on screens and too used to the fast-paced input, real world learning and play becomes boring for them.  

Reality becomes too slow for these kids and lacks excitement when they’re used to a screen.

Children tend to hyper-focus on shows or video games.  They lose total awareness of what’s happening around them. 

Sadly, I’ve had teachers say that they think their students would pay more attention to them during instruction if they recorded themselves and played it back on the Smart Board.  Why have we gotten to this point with our children? 

Excessive screen use makes it difficult for kids to fully attend to people. And, it makes them have difficulty following directions.  

This makes school extremely challenging for the students and the teachers! And it adds an extra challenge to parents. 

Screen dependency also impacts behavior.  

Some children don’t know how to behave in public or at a restaurant without a screen.  They’ve become addicted at an early age!

Furthermore, kids become all wound up after watching a fast paced screen.

Too much screen time impacts a child’s mood because of the lack of movement.  It’s sedentary and mindless time that does not give the child’s body and nervous system the sensory input it needs to function properly. 

Moreover, screens give young children  instant gratification.  Children get to watch a show, video or hear a song the second they want it.  It’s immediately available.  

Instant gratification impacts kids’ ability to wait and be patient.  These are important life skills that need to be practiced at home, in the community and in schools.

Screen Alternatives to Support Improved Attention, Behavior, (and Creativity)

Good behavior and improved attention and focus in kids results from a variety of movement and independent play activities throughout the day.  

Outdoor activities, gross motor play, and indoor physical activities provide children with sensory input that helps with behavior and attention. 

Taking walks, going to the playground or park, sand box play and riding a bike or scooter are a great way to give movement and physical activity. Yard games, ball activities, or scavenger hunts are fun ways for kids to play outdoors as well. 

Using alerting sensory strategies during daily routines improves attention and focus in kids.  (As well as the brain breaks and other sensory activities listed in the previous two sections.)

Calming sensory activities can be used as well to give children proprioceptive input. 

Indoor activities that improve attention and focus are arts and crafts, building toys and structures, card games, and board games. Creativity in the kitchen can be encouraged by baking, preparing a snack or making a small simple dish.  

When playing cards or games, coping skills can be practiced to help with behaviors in small and large groups. Taking turns, waiting, being patient, and learning to lose well are important behavioral skills for children. 

The post educational toys and games contains great examples of kid toys and games that improve focus and build other important developmental skills.

4) Improve Communication and Social Skills with Non-Screen Activities

Studies are showing an increase in language delays in children who spend more time in front of a screen.  

Children may learn some language concepts via an app, but language is, can be, and SHOULD BE naturally embedded into a child’s entire day! 

A language-rich environment will support communication skills in children of all ages.   A newborn will look at a caregiver and “talk” back and forth through cooing and smiling. 

With face to face and serve and return interactions, babies learn non-verbal communication. They tune into the people around them and pick up on social cues such as facial expressions and body language.

Making eye contact and having conversations with children builds a strong foundation for communication skills.  Children watch, hear, listen, and learn language. Language develops through conversations, books, rhymes, singing, reading, and playing music.

This continues to be important for preschool and school age children. 

However, I often see many early childhood programs play an increasing amount of videos throughout the day.  

Additionally, I’ve seen many kindergarten and school-age classes continue to use videos for learning lessons (well after the pandemic when the teacher is sitting off to the side and not fully engaging and interacting with the students.) 

Or as I previously mentioned, the kids each have their own device as part of their school programming. This doesn’t allow for social interaction and communication at all!  

Screen Alternative Activities to Improve Communication and Social Interaction 

Preschool classrooms and school age classrooms have multiple opportunities for building communication and social skills.  

Songs, rhymes, physical books, and audio books continue to build language skills for children. 

Games, finger-plays and songs during circle time build so many language skills. (More effective if led by an adult in front of them, not one on a screen!)

Our children will develop important communication and social skills through small group activities, board games, and hands-on learning projects. 

Another simple and great way to build communication skills is adding sharing time to the day.  Kids can turn to a peer or group of peers at a table and share a topic or question presented by the teacher. 

At home, make sure the family has frequent screen free time for conversation. The dinner table is the best place to communicate and improve social skills. 

Please don’t ever allow screens for children during meals. This is important family time to bond and communicate.  Kids will also learn to sit and attend, use patience, manners and take turns talking during meals.  

Additionally, they will eat more mindfully to help support feeling full and moderating their intake. 

Screen Alternative Activities for Kids

5) Improve Gross Motor Development, Fine Motor Skills and Creativity With These Screen Time Alternatives 

A child’s brain gains much more from coordinating various parts of the body at the same time.  This activates more parts of the brain. 

Cells that fire together, wire together! When kids play and participate in multi-sensory learning activities, they strengthen pathways in the brain needed for learning. 

Screen use is often sedentary and does not require much movement or use from the body. Pediatricians are concerned regarding screen time use and its correlation to obesity.  

Another negative about screen time use and physical development, is that it’s not good for children’s posture. Kids are often slumped in a rounded posture with their eyes very close to the screen.  This negatively affects their alertness and attentiveness when the screen is removed. 

Screen Time Alternatives to Improve Gross Motor Skills and Fine Motor Skills 

Core strength, sensory development, and basic gross motor skills are gained through movement and physical play.  Additionally, proper seated posture  during fine motor activities supports the proper developmental sequence that kids need for success in school with basic motor activities.

Encourage participation in hand-eye coordination activities, physical outdoor games, gross motor coordination activities, as well as indoor gross motor games.  

For example, gross motor games can include throwing or rolling a ball to a target, kicking a ball, climbing a structure, jumping on a target, balancing on a curb, or riding a bike on a path.  

Gross and fine motor play activities help children develop bilateral coordination and crossing midline skills.

Crossing the midline should naturally and developmentally happen around age two but I see numerous school age kindergarten through third grade students who don’t automatically cross the midline.  

Midline crossing activities help improve the communication of both sides of the brain for learning.  

Many kids lack hand strength in preschool and kindergarten.  Play opportunities should focus on hand strength and hand dexterity in order to support grasp development and pre-writing skills.   

Find toys and games that support fine motor development as well as simple craft activities that improve fine motor skills and creativity.   

Screen Time Alternatives to Improve Creativity

Creativity is so important for brain development.  I see many children who have difficulty in elementary schools with independent thinking and creativity.  Too many kids expect to be told and shown exactly what to do without leaving any room for their own thoughts and ideas.  

Encourage kids to use their own hands and thoughts to build structures with blocks, Legos, or other STEAM toys.  Offer fingerpaint, playdoh, painting, drawing, and crafts as part of the learning process.  

In addition, children can use creativity to build a scene out of a book, build a fort, make a house out of an old box, set up a dollhouse, make up a card game, create a small garden, make and decorate a snack or dessert.  

Embed opportunities for pretend play or role playing.  Examples include activities such as dressing up for a theme day, using figurines to act out parts of a book, or role playing parts of books and stories.

6) Support Visual Development and Visual-Perceptual Skills Through Non-Screen Play Activities

Our visual systems are very complex.  A child’s eyes need to take in information near and far, at different speeds and in various locations. 

Our brains and nervous systems function on a use it or lose it basis.

Excessive screen time can cause the visual system to become overstimulated. It’s constant input for the eyes at rapid speeds.  Too much input for one area of the brain can create imbalances. 

Additionally, blue light naturally comes from the sun and is alerting for our nervous systems.  But blue light from screens causes digital eye strain, headaches, and watery, dry, or blurry eyes.  We don’t yet know the long term damage to the eyes.

I’ve had some parents and teachers share puzzle apps that they love and think build skills.  But take these examples and consider the differences that are happening:

Puzzle App vs. a Wooden Puzzle

Scenario One: A child is playing a visual perceptual puzzle game on a small screen, gently sliding a finger across the screen to approximately match a shape to its outline.  The app is built for child success, so accuracy does not have to be perfect.  The child slides the shape around the screen and when it gets close to the proper outline, it magically slides in. Immediate feedback is given.  

Scenario Two: A child is holding a wooden shape with the tips of the fingers. The arm is suspended against gravity in the air as the eyes scan the large puzzle board to find the match.  The match is located visually.  The child’s shoulder remains stable as the forearm, wrist and fingertips turn and rotate and work together in order to get the shape to fit accurately.  The child carefully uses precise movements, motor feedback and problem solving to properly place the puzzle piece. 

What a big difference!  You can see which scenario is firing more parts of the brain.  (Without the damaging blue light, radiation, and excess stimulation from the screen.)

Add this to scenario two: the child finds an incorrect puzzle match at first.  The child has to figure out that the shape won’t fit after multiple trials and has to scan the puzzle for another match. 

The added movements and work for the brain will strengthen memory when the correct match is found.  The child will be rewarded with success internally.  Not from an app that quickly rewarded an approximate match. 

Improve Visual Skills with Screen Time Alternative Activities 

Children’s far vision develops through outdoor play experiences or play in large open spaces.  It’s important for children to see near and far during daily routines and activities.  

Specific balance and movement activities improve visual skills.

Movement play and independent exploration helps depth perception develop in children.  In addition, playing with moving objects such as a ball, cars, balloons, bubbles, or bean bags, helps with visual tracking skills

Development of visual-perceptual skills occurs during hands on play.  Building with structures, completing puzzles, playing card games and playing board games support visual perceptual skills that kids need for learning.    

Gross motor play, fine motor play and manipulating toys and objects teaches children about an object’s form, size, shape, and position. It also teaches them about distance and depth perception. 

These are important building blocks for pre-reading and pre-math skills.

7) Enhance Emotional Development and Coping Skills Without Screen Time

We are all human beings.  We’re meant to connect with other people.  

Children, especially, need the emotional connection with a caregiver or an adult or a teacher.  They need to know they are important, loved and valued.

This helps with feelings of self-worth and security. Parenting and teaching face to face with less screen time allows us to give genuine and quality feedback to our children.  

Several studies in pediatric journals around the globe have discussed correlations of screen use with depression and anxiety in children (as well as sleep problems and obesity.) 

As adults, we need to be good role models at home and in school.  

Make sure you limit your own screen time and social media use so that you can be emotionally connected to your children!  They need you the most.

Kids develop coping skills when they learn to work through problems, learn to wait and learn to be patient.  

Frequent pacifying from screens interferes with this.  Social and emotional skills develop through group cooperation games, play-based learning, games, and mindful activities such as art projects

Screen Time Alternative Activities for Kids

Assessing Children’s Screen Time Use at Home and in Educational Settings

Screens and digital devices are no longer just at home.  I’ve been so worried about excessive use with digital devices in homes and communities, but now they’re also in growing numbers of preschools and schools. This digital world that’s evolving scares me.  

Child development and the natural developmental sequence has not changed, and it won’t.  But WE are allowing interference and disruption to this natural process.  

Adding too much technology too soon is not setting kids up for proper growth, development, and success.

Babies, toddlers and young children stare at screens everywhere.  Preschoolers and kindergarten students are completing “learning” activities and lessons on them.  I see second grade students and older children hunched over laptops with their faces inches from the screens for increased portions of their day.  

They complete morning work, reading, math, science and social studies lessons, or they take quizzes or tests.  I’ve even seen younger school-age kids on them during lunch or outdoor recess!!  

The occupational therapist in me wants to shout out to the world! We need to cut back on screen use at home and in schools before we cause more damage. 

It’s really important to look at the reasons why screens are frequently placed in front of our young children.  

Let’s work together to decrease screen time in our children. The first step is assessing how much your kids are spending time on screens. 

Assessing Screen Time at Home and Tips for Parents

From a parent perspective, offering a screen turns into a convenient and easy way to entertain, pacify, avoid a meltdown, or to get your child to eat.  

As a mother of 3, I get it!

However, it’s important to step back and ask: Does your child really NEED the screen, or are they just getting used to having it all the time during their routines? 

Stop and think about who is training who?!  Are you really teaching, guiding and training your child if they get to call the shots all the time?  

Are there more important skills that you can be building in your child during your daily routines?

It must be remembered that children were raised for centuries without screens!  They learned to be patient, listen, behave, eat, and occupy their time with independent and creative play.  Their foundational academic skills were built through play and everyday interactions and conversations.

Kids do not need all this extra screen time.  They’ll actually learn to behave better without it!  And young children will gain important developmental and lifelong skills.  

Additionally, in order to help them even more, make sure you’re setting a good example for them with your screen use.  

When you play, interact and spend quality time with your child, put your phone away and take off your watch!  

Unplug and give yourself needed tech breaks as well.  

Enjoy being present and mindful!

Assessing Screen Time in Schools

Technology is a part of our world, so schools are trying to keep up.  But is it money well spent with our young children? Does it really invest in the learning process and does it improve test scores?  

Did the pandemic cause us all to slip into some bad habits with increased use of screens?   

Teachers continue to press play and sit to the side of the room, completely removing themselves from the learning process.  They have not gone back to their effective in-person lessons.

Have we forgotten how to properly support our children‘s development and learning?  Are we forgetting how to be role models in the learning environment and with the learning process?

When we remove the teacher, remove the hands-on learning, remove the listening and following directions, remove the waiting, and take away the peer interaction, does it help our young children’s developing brains and bodies? 

In educational settings, I strongly encourage preschool, kindergarten and first and second grade teachers to avoid screens for learning.  Kids get enough screen time elsewhere.  

Administrators in some schools have placed devices in the hands of EVERY student.  

So the teachers who once taught kids using multi-sensory learning opportunities are now forced to use iPads or tablets as part of learning. The difference is obvious to them. They’re frustrated. Because they know the damage that is being done to the children. 

In short, development has not changed and it won’t.  Our educational programs need to provide developmentally appropriate opportunities for learning.  

Tips for Teachers Regarding Screen Use in Schools

Teachers, please check your lesson plans and look at the amount of time you have screens as part of your daily schedule.  Please remove all or as much of the scheduled time as you can remove.

If you are stuck using them, please limit the time to the best of your ability.  Pick certain days of the week to use them, and gradually reduce it if you can.  

My biggest tip as an occupational therapist, IF you are asked to have your kids use devices, have them lie on their bellies on the floor with the screen propped in front of them. 

This at least keeps their necks in a better position and it builds neck, upper back, and shoulder strength and stability needed for good posture.  Plus, they receive calming pressure input from the floor.  

Talk to your administrators about child development and how screens are negatively affecting learning.

Whether at home, or at school, young children’s bodies need to move, play, explore, and interact with the world around them!  Learning occurs in everyday experiences during everyday routines for children. 

Multi-sensory learning opportunities significantly improve brain functioning. They create a strong foundation for a child’s brain and nervous system. In the critical early years of development, it’s important to create strong pathways in the brain. This gives a proper foundation for development and best supports lifelong learning and growth.

Screen Time Recommendations and Limits for Children

Part of assessing too much screen time is also knowing the recommendations so that you can limit use or schedule specific times for tech use.  New rules for your classroom and homes will create good habits that highly benefit children.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics have similar recommendations regarding screen time and digital media use: 

  • No screen time (or limited amounts of time) until the age of two (NO screen time is BEST!)  
  • Video chatting with family members after 18 months is permitted; this can encourage back and forth communication
  • Between 2 and 4/5: one hour at a time of screen time per day with other periods of sedentary play (without a screen)
  • During screen time, add interactive time with your child (watch a show with them, talk about it)
  • Read books and/or tell stories with a caregiver (once daily for a one year old)
  • Encourage specific amounts of active play and physical activity
  • Adequate amounts of sleep

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a family media plan and guide to help create media rules for the home for various age groups.  

Additionally, use parental controls to set a daily limit of screen time.  You can also set app limits on your child’s device.     

Please do your part in reducing screen use in young children! Share this post with your family, friends, educators, and/or colleagues. 

Related Blog Posts

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Editor’s Note: This post has been modified, updated, and revamped from it’s original content.

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School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 22 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

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