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David Baxter PhD

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Encouraging Self-Entertainment
How Limiting TV and Stimulating Imaginative Play Benefits Children
June 23, 2004
by Lisa B. Samalonis,

The benefits of exploring creative alternatives to your kids' fixation with the television!

Recent studies have shown that too much early television exposure may lead to attention problems in children. Finding alternatives to television and video games may take a little more time and effort in the beginning, but all family members will appreciate the rewards in the long run.
"Early television exposure is associated with attention problems at age seven," explains Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a researcher at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, and lead author of a recent study on the topic.

He explains that efforts to limit television viewing in early childhood are important and additional research is needed in this area. Dr. Christakis conducted a research study to determine if early television exposure (at ages one and three) is indeed associated with attention problems. The study, which appeared in the April issue of Pediatrics, included data on 1278 one-year-old children and 1345 three-year-old children.

By age seven, 10 percent of children who participated in the study had attention problems, such as difficulty concentrating, acting restless and impulsive, and being easily confused.

Although the researchers did not evaluate what shows the children watched, Dr. Christakis points out that content wasn't likely to be the culprit. "Instead," he says, "fast-paced visual images typical of most TV programming may alter normal brain development."

"The newborn brain develops very rapidly during the first two to three years of life. It's really being "wired" during that time," Christakis explains. Too much stimulation during this critical period "can create habits of the mind that are ultimately deleterious," Christakis says, noting that if this theory is true, the brain changes could be permanent, but children with attention problems can be taught to compensate.

Limiting TV
"It all begins with the parents," says Christine D'Amico, a life transition coach who works with people around issues such as career change, pregnancy, and parenting challenges.

"TV time will be reduced if you stick to your plan and don't cave in when the going gets tough and put on the TV. Parents need to be committed and in a week or two the children will be completely in alignment with this new set of limits around TV. If you waffle in even the smallest way, your children will pick it up and push hard to get what they want—more time in front of the screen!" says D'Amico, who is also the author of Pregnant Woman's Companion.

Instead, she recommends starting to limit TV time once both parents are really ready to hold tightly to their new set of limits. "Be sure both parents are on the same page with this. It won't work if both are not on board," she says.

Parents can explain to the children what is changing so they understand the new rules around screen time at home. "Then give them lots of options besides watching a screen. This will most likely involve your participation at some level depending upon the age of your child," D'Amico adds.

"No matter what age one turns off the TV, parents will be surprised how much spontaneous and creative play develops. TV has an anesthetizing effect, and afterwards children can seem irritable, but play is soothing," says Susan Isaacs Kohl, child development college instructor, parent consultant, and the author of The Best Things Parents Do.

Self-Entertaining Ideas
"Young children aren't usually spontaneously interested in TV because discerning the two dimensional characters he is watching takes time to understand. The things a child would naturally be doing have such different characteristics," says Kohl.

Exploring the sensory world is the "work" of the young child, so setting up situations that allow a child to do that in a contained way provide self-entertainment.

For example, parents can place a toddler in a cardboard box filled with uncooked rice or oatmeal with cups, spoons, and sieves to play with. Parents can also offer a child a bag or box full of novel items, such as a colander, a turkey baster, or a scarf, that he can remove then discover their properties. "Toddlers love to pull things out of other things," she says.

A few other ideas include:
o Place ping-pong balls in a coffee can where a hole has been cut in the lid.
o Put stuffed animals with plain wooden blocks or the balls in the holes of an ice cube tray.
o Set up a contained pouring activity using large beans, a bowl, and plastic measuring cups.

"The way to keep kids self-entertained hasn't changed over the years, instead parenting and technology have," says Elaine Fantle Shimberg, author of Blending Families.

Shimberg recommends parents set a limit of one hour for TV/video time and be firm. She also suggests parents buy non-battery operated toys such as toy dishes and pots and pans, building blocks and LEGOs, dolls and doll furniture, crayons and paper, modeling clay, and toy trucks, trains, and cars. "These types of toys offer opportunity for creativity," she says.

Simple, low-tech methods for play can still be fun. "Encourage imagination such as making a doll's house by stapling shoe boxes together (high rise or one story ranch), making a race track or highway from construction paper, writing and illustrating a story book, or invading the "dress up box" and putting on a play," she says.

D'Amico also offers some options for self-entertaining:
o Let children play at the sink with the water and plastic dishes while you are supervising and getting some other project or phone calls done. "It is only water, so let them get a bit messy—it gives you time to get your work done and they will have a blast," she says.
o Challenge them to do a puzzle that is within their abilities all by themselves. Then offer some help if needed.
o Have them help you with simple cooking chores, such as prepping stringbeans or shucking corn.
o Make your chores fun for them too and you may be surprised by how much you can actually get done.

Parents can ask the child what they want to do and then help them get set up to do it. "Parents can also watch for activities the child is really interested in, and work to get toys and materials that further that interest for them," D'Amico says.

Reducing or eliminating television time can bring a sense of peace to a family. Katrina Kenison, noted in her book Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry, that eliminating television cleared a space for things they really cared about.

"I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that turning off the TV was the greatest single thing my husband and I have done to foster creativity, imaginative play, and independent thinking in our children," says Kenison. "What's more, we realized that we suddenly felt more connected to each other and more in touch with ourselves. Somehow we got far more than we gave up."

While eliminating the television might not be right for your family, reducing TV time is sure to reap benefits for all.

About the Author
Lisa B. Samalonis writes from Gloucester Township, NJ, where she lives with her husband and two sons. She frequently writes on health and parenting topics. Lisa also writes family-oriented essays for regional and national magazines.
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