Summer is around the corner and with it comes an abundance of free time – a blessing and a curse! Some kids are great at filling that time with activities, games, and play – and some kids are, well, not!

And those phone, iPad, and computer screens start beaming their beautiful blue light – tempting us to just give in and give that kid some screentime (and ourselves a moment of peace).

By now, most people know about the dreaded consequences of excessive screen usage: lower attention spans, social-emotional deficiencies, and higher rates of depression and anxiety just to name a few symptoms. Though an occasional movie or YouTube video likely will not hurt, the temptation to rely on them can be overwhelming! And when we give in and lose our boundaries around screens, we start to see those effects.

Play, on the other hand, has a whole host of benefits! In fact, it is widely accepted that play is the way kids learn best and is crucial for child development. According to Dee Ray, a professor of early childhood education and director of the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas College of Education, “The brain is structured to learn from experience first, then learn through all the other means that we use to teach.” Play is not only essential to education – “Play IS education for children.” Play is the ultimate way to fill one’s time in childhood.

Though this is well-known, it doesn’t make the temptation for the peace and quiet of screen time any less attractive. When you feel tempted to loosen that boundary you set for one hour per day (or whatever your limit is) – take a moment to look at your other options. Consider low demanding activities while you are working, exercising, cooking, cleaning, taking a well-deserved break, etc.

From the classics like chalk drawing on the sidewalk, puzzles, and fort building to the lesser-known games like inventor’s box, alphabet playdough, build-a-book, etc. kids can learn to play independently, exercise their critical thinking skills, and stay off those pesky screens!

So how do we move from screen junkies to play fanatics and still preserve parental sanity? Re-introduce kids to engaging independent play time. I have a short list of go-to activities for low-maintenance, highly engaging, enriching activities that don’t break the bank:

1. Inventor’s Box – boost problem-solving, critical thinking, and a STEAM mindset by setting aside a box of miscellaneous items from around the house – TP rolls, fabric scrapes, LOADS of tape, magazines, etc. Add some goggles to complete the “inventor” look. And watch their ingenuity sparks fly. If your kid falls in love with inventor’s box but needs some inspiration – print out a list of science problems to solve for your inventor-to-be!

2. Alphabet Playdough – improve fine motor skills, creative thinking, and imagination by encouraging kids to think of every animal of the alphabet they can come up with and make them out of playdough. Take it a step further by having a letter of the day for them to learn about or print out pictures of animals and objects for kids to duplicate with their playdough creations.

3. Build-A-Book – encourage early literacy, social skills, creativity, and making associations to the world around them by building a story page by page with their toys. Use stuffed animals, toys, dolls, etc. and teach them to look at each page and act it out. If they need an audience while you are prepping dinner or sweeping up – set up dolls or stuffed animals to cheer them on!

4. Time Machine – set out a kid size box and some tinfoil for kids to make their very own time machine. There are tons of history books with pictures waiting to be found– I had some good finds at a garage sale that have been a life-saver! Teach them to pick a page and recreate going back in time! Where to next?

These are just a few ideas to get the ball rolling. There are plenty of brain boosting activities that you can rely on when you are in a pinch – save the screen time for a fun movie night of connection instead.

Emily Tatum
Prevention Coordinator
Lakes Center for Youth & Families