This is a guest post from the amazing and talented Mindy Wood from Purposefully Simple.


We all know that screen time in excess can be harmful to infants and toddlers, and that it isn’t great for older children either. And I would guess that there aren’t too many parents out there that want their children to struggle with things like obesity, ADHD or cognitive and language development.

So why are so many young children still getting so much screen time? Well, because parents are tired!

Caregiving—especially quality caregiving—requires a ridiculous amount of attention, patience and energy. It’s totally understandable to want a few moments of peace every day to (gasp!) use the bathroom alone.

So, are a few minutes of television going to irrevocably damage your child? Of course not. But what if you could have a break without using the TV or your iPhone to entertain your little one?

Luckily there IS a way to have a low media (or media free) child without losing your mind. The answer is…

Self-directed play!

Self-directed or independent play is play chosen, initiated and directed by the child. When your child is able to engage in independent play, being with your child becomes less demanding. You are no longer the entertainment. You can sit back and just observe what your child is exploring. You may be able to read, check your email, work, eat chocolate—whatever—and all while he plays and explores. What a relief!

Cultivating intrinsically motivated, independent exploration does more than just give parents a break though. Self-directed play builds social and emotional health, confidence, creativity, self-discipline and problem solving skills. TV can’t even touch those awesome benefits!

In fact, TV damages a child’s instinct for discovery and self-directed play. Not only is increased TV viewing linked to shorter attention spans, but TV viewing encourages the need and desire to be entertained over interest in discovery and exploration. So the more TV they watch, the less they are able to engage in self-directed play and the more they “need” TV. (Same goes for tablets, phones, and all other screens.) What a bummer, right?

Luckily, self-directed play can take care of your need for a break as well as encourage your child to engage in more self-directed play!

So, the 10 million dollar question is: how do you get your child to play independently?

Turn Off the TV

As I said, watching TV can actually decrease children’s ability to engage in self-directed play so stopping TV viewing is an obvious first step. Some families will find that going cold turkey works best while others gradually wean TV watching out of their child’s daily schedule. It will also depend on your child’s age. The AAP recommends no TV for children under 2, and no more than 1-2 hours a day for older children. If you need some help breaking a TV habit this article written by Janet Lansbury is very useful.

Create a Safe and Engaging Environment

The way you design your environment will depend on many factors but here are some guidelines to get you started. Don’t be overwhelmed; there are many inexpensive ways to create an appealing environment for your child. Be creative!

Safety is the number one concern. If you want to be able to leave the room or focus your attention elsewhere, the environment must be 100% safe. This might mean gating off unsafe rooms or gating an area of your living room for the child to enjoy.

If you can, an outdoor space is wonderful! If you have an open floor plan, a wood stove or lots of stairs it can be challenging but gates, outlet covers and drawer locks are your friends!

Organize your child’s play space so that it is engaging and orderly. Children are especially sensitive to disorder. Keeping things neat, tidy and uncluttered (as best you can!) helps your child to stay focused.

  • Instead of putting toys into large toy boxes, place materials in smaller baskets, on trays or on shelves. This makes viewing and choosing materials easy (learning to put them away is much easier too).
  • Make sure all materials are accessible to your child (they don’t have to ask you to get something down) but remember that if they are not using a material appropriately you can always put it away for another day.

Find a balance between enough toys to offer choices but not too many so that your child feels overwhelmed or overstimulated. When there are too many toys children tend to play with each one for a shorter time. You can store excess toys and rotate them out depending on what she is most interested in. When you rotate these toys back in it’s like having brand new toys!

Child sized tables and chairs are a great addition to the play space. When a child sits in a chair that is just his size he is more confident and able to focus on his activities. Child size furniture can be expensive but you can save a lot by finding them used or you can get creative and use what you have available (we used a file folder as a mini table for the longest time!).

Stools are great for cultivating independence as they help your child to do a lot for themselves that they would otherwise need help with (reaching the sink, removing clothing, helping with cooking).

Young Boy Playing at Montessori/Pre-School

Choose Toys Wisely

When selecting or deciding whether to keep a toy, remember that simple is good.

Choose toys that will foster imagination and discovery rather than toys that move or make noise. In fact, get rid of (or take the batteries out of) all battery-powered toys. As infant expert Magda Gerber said “Active toys make passive children; passive toys make active children.” And active children are wonderful at discovering fun and entertaining activities that will keep them engaged!

Here are some ideas for toys and stations that you can incorporate into your child’s play space.

  • Montessori style grasping toys
  • Montessori (rolling cylinder)
  • Textures basket
  • Containers to be opened and closed. Recycled food containers are great for this.
  • Art table. Add crayons, paper, stickers, and scissors in neat containers. You can opt for washable crayons, for easier cleanup.
  • Dress up basket. Collect old clothes, costumes, scarves etc.
  • Nature tray. Go outside and pick up a few leaves, pinecones, rocks etc.
  • Blocks
  • Cars or trains
  • Books
  • Musical instruments
  • Kitchen with play food, pots and pans, broom and dust pan, and dust rag.
  • Puzzles
  • Sensory materials that your child can put her hands in. Offer different spoons, cups or other tools for her to manipulate the materials with. Some ideas: sand, rice, water, beans, play dough, ooblek.
  • Sorting or matching trays.

How to Cultivate Self-Directed Play

Observe and follow your child as they explore their surroundings. You will learn more about which materials she enjoys and which ones she ignores (those can be put away).

  • Resist the urge to help. Allow your child to struggle a bit. It’s all part of learning. Don’t show them the “right way” to use a material. Let them explore! If you choose materials that are age appropriate then your child will be able to use them without your help anyway. There will be times when you may need to offer some support and that’s ok too.
  • Don’t interrupt. Children are doing very important work when they are playing. When you let them explore their environment on their own terms they are learning that what they are interested in is worth being interested in.
  • Trust him. Let him decide what to play with, how to play with it, and for how long. Some days he may focus on one toy for a long time, others he may jump from one toy to another. Both are ok. The important thing is that he learns to follow his inner compass and develop the ability to direct his own play for long periods of time. It will take time and effort but soon you will find that your child is so focused on what she’s doing that you can read a few lines of the newspaper, get dinner started, or just relax… Phew!

What about you?

How do you limit screen time and encourage actual play in your home?