Play-based learning - screen time and modelling

I recently came across this article in The Guardian from a couple of years ago about the importance of play based learning. I loved it of course because it confirms so many of my biases! But it also compliments the direction I'm planning to take SBKM in this year, producing toy sets to encourage play-based learning, creative play, reading and storytelling.

When I shared the article on social media I got into a conversation on Twitter about how important toys were versus screen time. So I'd like to challenge people to rethink their attitude to screen time, both to avoid tech-shaming and because, like any other tool, screen time can be useful in encouraging play based learning.

Lets get specific

When I tell folks that I generally give my kids unrestricted access to screen time the usual reaction from them is one of horror. But first of all, let's define exactly what we are talking about here:

  • Television. We don't have cable or satellite and our tv is off 99% of the time. I think passively consuming entertainment isn't an optimal way for children to spend their time (although growing up our TV was on all the time and I think I turned out ok?)
  • Computers. My kids use computers at school but don't have access to computers at home. How do your children use computers? My partner Jim, has a desktop set up at home for his son but it's something he uses in the dining room so it's not unmonitored use.
  • Phones. My kids don't have cell phones yet. Do yours?
  • Games. Jim has an X-Box One (allegedly for his children) and Oliver very occasionally plays with the Disney Infinity. Owen has so far shown no interest in games.
  • iPads. When I talk about my children having "unrestricted access" what I'm really saying is that I don't set limits on them using their iPads at home. When we are out in the community Owen always has a dedicated iPad with him as a communication device. Oliver sometimes has an iPad for long journeys or situations like doctor's appointments where there can be a lot of waiting and not much to do.

Teach them critical thinking skills

My kids love watching YouTube. I recognize that YouTube is in many respects a wasteland where right-wing extremism is being mainstreamed and toxic masculinity is celebrated. I don't want to cut the boys off from all the amazing content YouTube has to offer though, so we manage what they watch together. If I see them watching problematic content then we talk about why it's problematic and why I'd like them to choose not to watch it. If they find a great channel then we subscribe to it. I periodically check their watch history and talk about any videos or channels that I have issues with and we mark them as content we are not interested in.

There's nothing I love more than when I see my kids use what they have learned in order to be smart consumers of media content. Owen will generally watch a video for less than 10 seconds before deciding it sucks and move onto something else. I will often hear Oliver mutter, "ugh, this is not a good video" and last week my heart almost burst when his step brother Daniel was watching a particularly bizarre, loud video and Oliver said, "Daniel, I'm not sure if that's a good video to watch, I find it kinda scary."

Leverage your kids' screen time

For me, one of the key rationales for play based learning is that it's child-centred. Kids choose the toys they are going to play with and play with them in different ways. So instead of fighting with children about screen time, why don't we use it as a way of connecting with them? It's such a great way of finding out (without having to quiz them) what things they are interested in, what motivates and entertains them.

Last summer Owen was really into "Five Green and Speckled Frogs" - he would watch mostly videos of people singing the song and doing the actions. His classmates love to sing songs with him so his teacher would find a video he liked and put it up on the white board so the whole class could sing it. Owen got a huge kick out of all this so I thought, why not use it to reinforce some core vocabulary and how it's used in sentences? (Owen has a huge single-word vocabulary but needs a lot of support to put words together, as well as use phrases and sentences). I got his EA to video Owen and I doing this:


AAC experts have a fancy name for this: "aided language input" but in my world it's in essence an extension of play based learning. When I use Owen's language (his AAC) to communicate with him I'm waiting to see what he will do independently, watching to see and learn what motivates him and if I think he needs a prompt, I will find the word using his AAC app, either on his device or mine. Modelling is intensely powerful and the most effective way for children to learn. Here's Owen again, one month later:

And this applies for typically developing children too! So when it comes to modelling behaviours and screen time, consider:

  • how do you positively model for your children? For example, if you watch a movie together, do you talk about it? I recently read that a couple of Hollywood actresses had made the choice not to let their kids watch Disney movies. An example given was the movie Snow White and the fact that the Prince kisses her without consent. My approach would be not to ban it but to watch the film with my kids and to talk about what aspects make the film problematic (evil Stepmother trope anyone?).
  • how do you inadvertently model for your kids? Do you have strict rules about screen time consumption for your children but then spend all day on social media? If you want your children to choose to read books, play with toys, do arts and crafts, explore outside, instead of screen time are you making those same choices for yourself? Do your kids see you read, play, make and be active?

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