Reducing Screentime in a Family Setting
August 26, 2022 6:09 AM   Subscribe

When I am solo parenting, I rely a lot on screen time to get through 14 hours days. How can we transition away from this?

Solo parenting is hard and the days are long. I usually have one “big” outing plan for my almost-five-year old (like visit a local swimming hole, scooter down a long windy trail, or check out a new-to-us small town nearby). My child is good at playing on their own but there’s only so much of that I can reasonably expect. We do crafts and garden together. We run errands and clean the house together. I am willing to play imaginary games for about an hour a day. And somehow there’s still time/a need for 4-5 hours of screentime a day. What am I missing? Also if you have rules about screen time in your house, what does that look like? (X amount of time per day? Same time everyday? Something else?)

Also: I use screen time to zone out and get focused tasks done OR do my own screen time. It’s like my little dopamine hits time. What can I replace that with so I’m not *so ready* for screen time when my child asks for it?
posted by CMcG to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have a 6yo and an almost-3yo and we rely on a lot of screen time too - more than I would prefer, but pandemics are hard (we’re still trying to avoid crowded indoor spaces, and the weather doesn’t always allow a lot of outdoor time).

Are play dates an option for you? Ideally, you’d find someone who is willing to trade drop-off play dates; one day their kid is at your house, another day your kid goes to theirs. Around five is when my kid started really being able to play independently with friends with minimal adult supervision.

Some of the things that (sometimes) work to keep my kids occupied independently without screens:
- stickers, especially sticker books - this is by far the most reliable independent activity for my 6yo
- coloring books / activity books
- new toys, or if I manage to rotate toys, toys they haven’t seen for a few months
- listening to a podcast while coloring or playing with other toys (maybe legos or blocks

I’d also add that 4-5 hours of screen time is okay! Maybe it’s not the most ideal activity, but it’s not going to hurt your kid. I think screentime is harmful when it prevents kids from engaging in other activities - but your kid is getting outdoor time, social time, independent play time, and imagination time. It’s really okay to rely on screen time to fill in the gaps!
posted by maleficent at 6:27 AM on August 26, 2022 [8 favorites]

Oh, and @busytoddler on Instagram / the Busy Toddler website has tons of activity ideas; some have been great for independent play, some don’t work at all for my kids. My younger is more into most of the activities than my older ever was - your kid may vary!
posted by maleficent at 6:37 AM on August 26, 2022

Toy rotation - hide most of their toys in bins in a closet. Take out about 10 toys and place them attractively on an empty shelf like a boutique toy store. Make sure there’s a clear space on the floor to play. Swap they toys once a week or so. Having fewer things invites deeper play.

Invitation to play - clear the table and make it appealing (good lighting, no clutter) and leave out one thing nicely arranged, like a jar of matching markers and a single page cut out of a colouring book. Or two tubs of play doh and a rolling pin. Don’t say anything, just let kiddo find it and play. Seeing something that’s ready to do is really appealing.

search Montessori and Invitation to Play on Pinterest for more ideas.

At first expect these to only occupy kiddo for 5-10 mins but over time they might work up to an hour!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:37 AM on August 26, 2022

Honestly at that age we did a lot of classes, both parent-and-child, and just child. In the summer we did day camps. (All pre-covid obviously.) My phone time was in the lobbies of pools etc. We also joined a community centre that had family drop-in hours for ball sports and rock climbing.

Please note though - I was not solo parenting.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:41 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

If you have to solo parent for 14 hours a day with a toddler, please just be grateful that screen time is available as one of several tools you can use to get through the day!

As long as what's on the screen is vaguely educational and not harmful, and the screen material is being monitored in some way, you are good. Please don't beat yourself up trying to meet some crazy standard of perfection in modern parenting. We (my cohort of youth) watched plenty of cartoons etc., grew older to be latchkey kids who were *swimming* in screen time, and we all managed to make good grades, go to good colleges, etc.

If you're already doing all those other things you describe, screen time isn't going to hurt your child. And you need a break for YOU ... you can't be an engaged parent for 14 hours in a row without some of those dopamine moments.
posted by mccxxiii at 7:53 AM on August 26, 2022 [3 favorites]

Book time. Your kid is at about the age I got hooked on books. Now I know why.
posted by aniola at 8:06 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

Having been a stay at home parent for two young kids who both dropped napping earlier than their peers, I firmly believe in screen time and I don't even think 4-5 hours is that bad considering you are providing engagement, outings, etc the rest of the time. But as a practical tip my kids both love listening to music and podcasts and that seems to scratch the same itch as screen time for them. That is often downtime for fact I am writing this from the couch while they dance to Beyonce's latest album.

If you are at all into video games I have found that to be really positive for my older kid, both "educational" tablet apps and stuff like Animal Crossing or Minecraft in creative mode.
posted by cpatterson at 8:33 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

My kids did not get any regular screen time until they were around 10. I think that not having access to screens kinda forced both them and me to be more creative and more tolerant of boredom. They started reading really early and that took a lot of time, as did audiobooks and reading out loud together.

(Note that I'm not necessarily RECOMMENDING that route; parenting seriously burned me out. But I think that not having any screen time can fundamentally change expectations in a way that makes not using screens both easier and harder in different ways.)
posted by metasarah at 8:50 AM on August 26, 2022

Building toys--wooden blocks, Lego, tinker toys, pillows and blankets, whatever the hot thing is. Building toys are your friend here.

Building toys should be used in concert with your together play time.

Want to play with toy cars together? Kid needs to build a race track or parking garage or something first. Want to play with people figures together? Kid needs to build a house or a vehicle or etc etc. Want to just do imagination play together? Kid needs to build a fort or classroom etc.

Basically task the kid with making the coolest possible version of a thing for the two of you to play together in/with.

Kid gets to spend time in creative solo play, then you can ask to be walked through it--tell me about this room, what does your tiger stuffy use this tool for, what can we see outside this window, etc. Prompt kid to explain their creation to you, then they can build more and more on it for the next time.

Using big sheets of paper for drawing backgrounds or maps to drive cars on is also a great way to do the same thing if you're tight on space.

This is how my brother and I spent hours and hours playing together as children. We had so many creative/building toys. Generally it would be me doing the building and my brother with the ideas to do the playing, but it really sucks a lot of time and forces you to cultivate new skills and dexterity. I free built more "jeeps" out of basic Lego blocks in my youth than probably anything else I've made in my life to date.
posted by phunniemee at 9:04 AM on August 26, 2022 [3 favorites]

The solution in our house for this is audiobooks and an activity (art, stickerbook, legos, lying in the hammock, looking at a picture book), and now that they are a bit older also podcasts. You can get them from the library, etc. but I've also regretted very few of the ones we've purchased, most have been played multiple times. Big hits around that age/little older were the Beverley Cleary collections and Laurie Berkner song and story kitchen. If you have a spare device, hook up a bluetooth speaker and they can listen w/out having access to the device. At the beginning of the pandemic we ended up buying the kids they own 'kid kindles' they use them a bit for reading but most for audiobooks (caveats: requires a bluetooth speaker, and I never figured out how to load non audible content on them).

When screen time is over in our house the routine now is for everyone to gravitate towards their book/podcast/quiet play. Or we flip the schedule if we're doing screen time later in the day. For my son, he won't feel that he's hungry if he's in front of a screen, so he frequently will listen to something and eat. It especially helps us with a transition out of screen time and onto whatever else is planned for the day.
posted by snowymorninblues at 9:12 AM on August 26, 2022

My kid is older than the Web. Screen time was tv, so I taped stuff that was lthe best quality I could get. My grandson gets a steady diet of Disney, and I feel bad that Disney is the primary teacher of values for a lot of kids, so just assess what's on that screen. Go to the library together, get books, but also audiobooks and videos, and go to story times. Some libraries have great stuff for kids, and it doesn't have to be your library. We visited as many different playgrounds as possible. Got a friend with a dog who can be walked? We always had lots of drawing, painting, coloring supplies, and did easy science stuff (put baking soda in a bottle, add vinegar) and various crafts, mostly involving getting glue all over the table, building stuff, action figures, cars, etc. Go to museums, esp. in winter, they're great spaces for kids to hang out, maybe after the playground when they're not as energetic. Everything phunniemee said. Get an old mobile phone with no connection so your kid can take pictures. Screen time can be enriching; there are cool apps, including digital photo editing and music. It doesn't have to be directly educational to be enriching. Plant ID, etc.

If you are in the same area as Other parent, get names and phone numbers of kid friends and have play dates. Ask among your friends and co-workers, try to meet some other kids your kid's age. Full-time parents takes their kids to the grocery and on errands and stuff; it's actually kind of a good opportunity to talk in the car. It sounds like you share the things you love and are doing nice things together. it gets a little easier when you can share your favorite movies, definitely share your favorite music. Have friends over, kids are social, even if they're building a car racing set while you drink coffee. You kid wants to be part of your life, most of the time.

My son has always loved being outdoors. By 6 or 7, he played in the back yard by himself, and was somewhat free-range. I was cautious because we lived near busy roads with a fair number of transients. My kid had a strong sense of caution about strangers and physical dangers so that helped.

Talk to your kid about what they watch and do with screens. It would have been a blast to play animal crossing with my son, and I will with my grandson. Your kid will learn from your example, so use your time well, too. It sounds like you're doing a really, really good job.
posted by theora55 at 9:36 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

Is your child in preschool? How often are you doing 14 hours of solo parenting?

I just want to echo that this is very hard and I think you're doing a good job! My experience is that you do have to expect that the time a 4 year old can self-entertain tends be limited and tends to be extra messy - for me I have to get over that hump, that it will be filled with tape and ribbons and paper cut into tiny pieces and all the craft stuff all over everywhere. I also think what you are already doing: including your child in errands, cleaning, gardening (cooking? if you're not cooking with your kid, that would be good to start) will pay off dividends in the future. As they get older, your child will be more inclined to work with you around the house and will be more able to self-entertain than a lot of other children are.

I do think that at this age you might want to partner with other families to see if you can get more time to socialize. Also, consider outschool classes, or look at resources aimed at homeschooling? You might extend your outings somewhat and look into activities in your community.

In terms of establishing boundaries around screen time, we generally set a time that we don't use screens before. For us, I reserve screens for late afternoons, 'never' in the mornings (I mean, not really "never" but never habitually) and then I will usually set a limit of how much time at a time and set a timer. I also manage the quality of television or ipad time fairly closely.
posted by vunder at 9:50 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh and in terms of the last question: I think it's pretty normal to use your child's screen time to zone out, do focused tasks, or have your own screen time!

If you want to explore other ways to recharge during the day or during your child's downtime, maybe consider bringing out a magazine, book, crossword, or small craft during that time and/or incorporating small amounts of yoga into your parenting day? But I also do thing those dopamine hits you get from looking at your phone or whatever are often part of feeling connected to other people and information during a lonely time of parenting - so if you're adding a little more social or intellectual time to your outings with your child, you might find that those are stimulating to you. Don't beat yourself up about it though!
posted by vunder at 10:21 AM on August 26, 2022

I would try to get out of the house twice a day. Even if it’s just a park or a nature walk at one of those times. You can run errands if COVID cases are low.

If you have a good library system with multiple branches there’s something age appropriate almost every day somewhere. And you can get books either to read to them or for them to practice early reading.

Early in the pandemic we tried to have a loose schedule with table time or science time or art time. Doing activity books or those Brain Quest cards can be a fun way to teach basics for school.

Our 5 year old doesn’t nap at home or school but will fall asleep in the car. They probably would fall asleep at home in bed with mommy rubbing their back if the 3 year old wouldn’t wind them up. So maybe there’s a possibility of naptime or at least a lay down quiet time for a half an hour like day cares do.

Classes like for soccer, baseball or gymnastics etc might be a good option once or twice a week. It could also be something to practice every day. Like doing 20 t-ball swings or trying to catch a bounced ball or have them learn hand eye coordination by stopping a rolling ball. Trying to gamify this might help.

Have you tried Cosmic Kids Yoga? It’s screen time but doing a yoga routine to follow along to various stories.
posted by cali59 at 9:56 PM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

I wanted to add that Geocaching might be a good way to turn a nature walk into a treasure hunt. Just try to emphasize it’s more about the hunt than the treasure.

I’ve never done Pokémon Go, is that still a thing? Might be a way to turn neighborhood walks into a fun activity they look forward to
posted by cali59 at 7:28 AM on August 27, 2022

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