Melissa and Dr. Jenny, hosts of the Living Playfully podcast, answer your most pressing parenting questions about life, play, technology, and emotional wellness. Send your questions to podcast@MelissaAndDoug.com
It’s that time of year when many parents and grandparents are wondering whether to get a young child their own digital device or electronic toy for the holidays. Before you make that big purchase, you may want to stop and consider just what you’re hoping to accomplish with your gift.
Ask Yourself: What Is the End Goal?
Here are some questions every parent should answer before giving their child a digital device:
- Is your goal to give your child an educational experience?
If your reason for buying a tablet or digital device is to give your toddler an educational experience, there are better ways to do that, since young minds can’t yet digest the many symbolic and attention-directing features of interactive media. In fact, these bells, whistles, and rewards distract preschoolers from actual learning since the majority of “educational” apps are simplistic and don’t teach kids the way they learn best: through open-ended exploration, letting their brain take the lead, and working through problems with loved ones. Download a few free kids’ apps and see how full they are of in-app purchases and ads! Also remember that the best digital content for young kids — PBS Kids and Sesame Street — are easily accessed through TV and streaming platforms or a parent’s phone when needed.
Try this: Look for hands-on toys that enable kids to manipulate and move pieces, think up their own stories, or spark their imagination. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, traditional toys such as blocks, puzzles, vehicles, dolls, and arts and crafts, are a better choice than digital toys for their ability to facilitate cognitive development and foster engaging caregiver interactions that build language skills.
- Is your goal to make your child tech-savvy?
If you are hoping that giving your child a digital device will help make them tech-savvy, you should know that being able to tap, swipe, and download are not critical “digital literacy” skills. To understand technology, it’s more important that kids develop visual-spatial skills (in other words, understanding of concepts in time and space) — which come from hands-on and 3-dimensional activities. Last year, 60 Minutes reported on a study that showed toddlers don’t transfer the knowledge they get from playing with virtual building blocks on a tablet to actual building blocks in the real world.
Try this: A simple set of building blocks can help preschoolers develop some of the skills they may later need for computer coding (setting up chain reactions to understand cause-and-effect, “de-bugging” a design when a tower collapses, etc.). Lay out blocks on the floor in a maze. Take turns wearing a blindfold while another person (the “programmer”) gives you (“the computer”) instructions (“the algorithm”) for navigating through the maze. (“Take 3 big steps forward. Take 1 step to the left . . .”)
- Is your goal to prevent boredom?
If you are looking to give your child an activity that will occupy them during times when they may feel a sense of boredom, such as car rides — then also consider that this will set a strong precedent for turning to an electronic buddy every time they feel bored or distressed. They may not go through the effort of developing the more challenging, internal methods of “filling the blank canvas” and managing boredom or distress. It’s when we have to face our boredom and work our way out of it that we develop agency, resilience, and learn to think creatively. We parents may need to set an example of how to “fill the void” ourselves . . . we can be the change we wish to see and show our children how to make downtime magical!
Try this: Before you immediately swoop in to help alleviate a child’s boredom, just pause and take a deep breath. Keep in mind that it’s only when we’re bored and feel impelled to create form from nothingness that imagination is born. Let your child sit with the boredom feeling for a bit and see if they are able to manage it on their own. If you find they need a little spark, encourage kids to make concrete lists of screen-free ways to have fun — cooking, putting on a “show,” playing a card game, and having a scavenger hunt can keep kids engaged for hours! Read more about Melissa’s take on boredom and her 5 ways to beat it here.
- Is your goal to make your child happy?
If your goal is to make the child happy, technology may superficially provide the answer. But also consider that marketers know how vulnerable and tired parents of young children are, and they may have successfully convinced you a tablet will make your child happy. Watching entertaining videos and playing games is frivolous fun, but it doesn’t forge meaningful relations and interactions or develop emotional bonds. True joy comes from spending quality time and sharing experiences together as a family.
Try this: Do a thought exercise thinking back on your most memorable childhood moments. Chances are they didn’t involve a tablet or a toy or any kind of physical object. It’s the experiences and the together-time that count the most. In our pilot Living Playfully podcast, we talk about giving children experiential gifts that don’t have to cost a lot (or really anything!) to be meaningful and provide lasting memories. Baking, nature walks, DIY spa days in your home — these are the memories that will stay with kids long after that tablet or device is obsolete.
- Is your goal to prevent a meltdown?
Look, we’ve all been there. Your child is throwing a tantrum, you’re on edge, and it’s quite tempting to toss them a phone as a pacifier. But like real pacifiers, it can soon become a crutch when kids don’t develop the ability to self-soothe and manage their feelings. Learning to understand and handle big feelings is one of the hardest, but most important jobs of childhood. If children get used to settling down with a device when they feel sad, angry, or anxious, they will never cultivate agency over their emotions, and that could hamper them for life.
Try this: First, don’t beat yourself up. Occasionally using an “electronic babysitter” doesn’t make you a bad parent. In fact, there are instances (long airplane flights, anyone?) when digital devices can be lifesavers. But like most things in life, it’s all about balance. And about advance planning so alternatives to digital media are available to engage children in more enriching ways. Just as you’d stock your pantry with nutritious food options for your child, read up on easy, engaging, screen-free activity ideas that can distract a child from going into a full meltdown. This list of Melissa’s favorite play ideas for when you don’t have an abundance of time, money, or space is one to keep handy! And bonus: engaging with your child in these playful ways is likely to remove some of your stress, as well!
Whether you ultimately decide to buy a tablet, the consequences of doing so aren’t entirely clear. Some children may naturally be able to use the tablet in moderation and not have it become detrimental, where others may start preferring it over other more hands-on experiences and one-on-one connections. We must therefore remain alert and mindful to take it away or change it up if it’s not a good fit for our children. Good luck and happy holidays!
Have a question for Melissa and Dr. Jenny? Send it to podcast@MelissaAndDoug.com