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Adding Screens to the Home Learning Tool Box

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

When my first child was a toddler I was venting during a rare mom’s night out about “the witching hour”—that time in the day when toddlers become impossibly clingy and older children are more likely to slam a door, whine constantly or pick a fight with a sibling for seemingly no reason. For me this was also coinciding with the time I was trying to get dinner on the table. Most of the other moms at the table had children older than mine and they all said, “Have you tried turning on TV?” In true new mom fashion I respond by saying I tried to only turn on the TV when I could watch WITH my son so we could discuss and he could be learning and growing. My friends gently asked if I ever liked to just veg out to a screen, especially after a long day, reminding me that children had that same need. They also asked which was worse; me losing it because I couldn’t get dinner done, or my son watching Sesame Street for an hour while I cooked peacefully with nice music and possibly a cocktail.

Screens can definitely be one of the tools in our at-home learning toolbox. So how can we use screens to our advantage to complete our own work AND ensure that even in the summer learning is the priority?

Firstly, not all screen time is created equal as is discussed in this NPR piece on the “Bright Side of Screen Time.” Screens can be used in ways that are engaging and promote academic development. One of our favorite guilt free screen time options is Khan Academy Kids. This free app without advertisements has so many fun games and activities for learners aged 2-7. If it’s not possible for me to engage with my children, I know their brains will be activated by using this app, and they gladly read the books, sing the songs, and complete mathematical tasks. You can also find apps which target specific subjects. Here is a list of high quality math apps and a list of reading apps put out by Common Sense Media. Selecting a few of these apps and helping our kids learn to use them when we don’t need to do our own work will mean that they can use them independently in times when we DO need them to be occupied and learning independently.

But what about screens that aren’t high quality? How can you use TV or gaming systems to get the floor mopped, answer those urgent emails, schedule that conference call or just take a much needed nap? One way to do this is to have a list of activities that must be done before the TV can be turned on. In our house during the summer this list is: 1. Play outside. 2. Practice Piano (or do something creative) 3. Do something that makes you think. Because it is summer vacation, that third requirement is intentionally vague. This can be anything from building with LEGOs, to reading a magazine, to listening to a podcast, to writing letters to a friend or grandparent. The list in your family might be totally different based on your values, resources available to you, and the skills you want your kid to accomplish.

The Osodipe family's current before electronics list

Perhaps your fourth grader is struggling with his times tables and needs to practice them daily—add it to the list. Or maybe your Kindergartener is struggling with her sight words and needs to review them more regularly—add it to the list. The key here is to be intentional about what gets added to the list and keep it concise. Once one skill is mastered, it can be removed and another added. If sight word practice can be done by using chalk on the driveway, or dry erase markers on the window, or by completing a sight word scavenger hunt—the practice will be more meaningful, your child will be more willing to do it; and you will feel better about the TV time. Whatever the TV requirements are in your home, they will not only reduce fights about TV time, but will also help you feel less guilty when your children do need to watch TV so you can accomplish something else.

Another strategy is to plan the daily screen time schedule together. Using a large table calendar, start with times when you need the children to be fully occupied so you can work uninterrupted. If this is much of the day, brainstorm with your children about what they will do during those times. Let them choose when they would like to watch TV, play an educational app, complete school work, read books or play outside. Knowing the schedule, and contributing to its creation will make it more likely your kids will adhere to it. We used to actually mark the calendar each time a show was watched, so we all knew how much TV had been consumed.

Finally, it helps to always keep your relationship with your child at the forefront of any decision. When I was a classroom teacher, I sometimes made the decision to extend recess or wrap up a lesson early because I could see they needed it. As parents helping our children learn at home, we have the advantage of being able to make adjustment to our agenda based on the needs of our own children who we know so well, or *gasp* based on our own needs. When trying to teach our kids and balance other responsibilities, sometimes the best thing we can say is, “Kids, I’m exhausted and impatient and have a lot of work to do today. I declare today is Movie Monday.”

As my friends kindly reminded me when my son was just a toddler, this will be better in the long run than yelling at my kids. Learning and working from home is hard. But we parents know our children better than anyone. With a few tweaks to our approach we can improve their learning and mastery of academics AND improve our relationships simultaneously. And when used strategically, screen time can be one of the tools in our large parenting and teaching tool box.

If you’d like help in exploring how to more strategically use screen time to enhance at-home learning our Co-Teachers would love to help.

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