“Go play!” Who hasn’t heard this from their parents? This phrase meant spending time outside, with friends, or playing with traditional toys for generations of kids. And then there was a pandemic. But even before that, today’s pop culture, entices young children away from conventional play (blocks, puzzles, books, trucks, dolls, and pretend) by the lure of screen time on electronic devices.
According to the Pew Research Center, 26% of US parents surveyed reported that their children aged 11 or younger spend too much time on smartphones or playing video games. Pew Research also noted that a whopping 60 percent of children “began engaging with a smartphone before the age of 5.”
The Case for Reading
These statistics cause alarm, as child development experts from the Michigan Health Lab have found that kids spend more time on electronic devices instead of participating in traditional childhood play. The American Academy of Pediatrics proposes that children between the ages of two and five have no more than one hour of screen time per day, a recommendation some disagree with.
“I don’t advise giving young children access to electronic devices or screens at all during early childhood,” said Dr. Errol Baptist, MD, FAAP Baptist, who maintains a thriving practice and teaches medical students as a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford. “What I tell parents from the beginning is that children should learn how to read. Reading to children starts during pregnancy. From that point onward, parents should encourage children to read, first with picture books and then with books containing prose. The important thing is to emphasize reading, learning, and acquiring knowledge; not learning how to kill someone in a video game.”
The benefits of hands-on childhood play, Baptist says, are numerous. “Traditional toy play makes kids think; it allows them to develop critical-thinking skills, construct things and use their imaginations. Kids understand relationships when they can take stuffed animals or dolls and put them in real-life situations.”
“When kids come in for an office visit, I will first ‘check up’ their stuffed animal and then do a check up on the child. Traditional play gives kids the opportunity to develop their ideas instead of having a screen tell them what to do,” he said.
Baptist advocates screen time for kids on an age-dependent basis only, which he feels should start later in childhood. However, he acknowledges that educational television shows and computer learning games supplement traditional play and reading.
“In my 45 years of my pediatric practice, based on experience and evidence, it is obvious that children exposed to reading do well later in life. If parents start with a habit of reading, this teaches children the importance of life-long learning. Children who learn to read at an early age have that practice ingrained in them.”
The Developmental Divide
Another compelling reason to severely limit screen time for kids relates to brain development in young children. Elaine Sharpe, Associate Professor of Psychology at Rockford University, explains why. “Children aged three and younger cannot determine the real world from the fantasy world. Watching a screen confuses some of their reasoning and presents the world in two dimensions. Young children are tactile, hands-on learners, and that is not how things present on a screen.”
Sharpe said traditional play also helps children develop skills they will utilize throughout their lives. “Traditional play helps foster creativity. The situations children act out with their toys mimic what they are going through in real life. They’re trying to integrate their own lives into their imaginative play.”
“Interactive make-believe play, especially with peers, siblings, or family members, also develops a young child’s ability to read faces, understand social skills and learn empathy,” she said.
Sharpe says that relying on electronic devices to entertain children poses developmental risks. “Increased screen time over creative play can lead to sleep issues, behavior problems, and obesity. Because a screen can change rapidly, it’s harder for children to process what they see, possibly contributing to attention deficit disorders.”
“When kids play with traditional toys, they are in charge of the action; it moves at their pace. Children have time to process the scene because they are orchestrating it,” she said. “Traditional play sets the foundation for decision making, problem solving and fine motor skills.”
Engaging young children in traditional play is the basis for Rockford Public Schools (RPS) 205’s early childhood curriculum. Vicki Sherman, an RPS preschool teacher for 21 years, has her classroom set up to facilitate hands-on interaction among her students.
“I have various play-based centers which the kids rotate through each day. They plan and review what centers they visit. My students can choose dramatic play, block building, science, reading, manipulatives, art, and sensory centers,” she said. “I also have the Cozy Cube, which is an area where kids can retreat and have some quiet time.”
Since beginning her career, Sherman said that electronic device usage among her students has become more commonplace.
“I have seen a change in my students’ behaviors through the years as technology has evolved. Nowadays, kids start engaging with electronic devices when they’re practically babies; they struggle to pay attention and have shorter attention spans.”
“When I first started teaching preschool, there were no smartphones or tablets, so there were fewer ways small children could engage in screen time,” she said. “Kids just had TV or educational computer games.”
Sherman advocates reading and play, encouraging young children to use their fine motor skills. “Writing skills seem to be more difficult for young children to master. Kids are playing on electronic devices instead of using crayons or coloring books. Any toy that helps children build fine motor skills can be very beneficial.”