In light of COVID-19, daycares and schools have been indefinitely shut down, leaving many parents who remain working to juggle young children and work. I am fortunate enough to have a very close circle of families that all have children under 6 who were in need of childcare when the pandemic shut everything down. I began caring for two families in March and have watched their children (ages 1,3, 6 and 4 and 6) during the regular work day.
Just like my peers in high school, the children in preschool and kindergarten are still expected to keep up with their online schoolwork as if they were in class everyday, and, just like in high school, it is extremely difficult. Not only do they miss their friends who make doing schoolwork more enjoyable and less stressful, but the amount of time kids are expected to be on a computer screen is almost unreasonable. Between online school work and fun electronic time, they are spending a large portion of the day watching screens. I personally spend a lot of time on a computer or phone screen, as I know many people have recently, and I find it can be both overstimulating and understimulating simultaneously. I often get bored watching a show for a while but am also easily overwhelmed by the constant stream of YouTube, Netflix, and Google Classroom, notifications that flood my electronics. I’m sure this will have long term effects on my attention span and mental health, but I know my limits, and I’m able to step away from devices and go for a walk or paint to find more creative outlets.
As a preschooler and kindergartener, I found screen time to be a special weekly privilege that was balanced with playdates and lessons. But it becomes less special when all you have to do all day is school, surfing the Internet and maybe some projects here and there. The danger of screens is that they limit children’s ability to find other activities as exciting. They can become so enthralled with their electronics that they lose interest in any independent activities such as painting or drawing where there is no instant gratification. The effects of screen time can be offset or limited if children are having more time playing with their friends and less time on devices, as they find playdates more engaging and stimulating than playing alone.
Having all social and physical communication cut off from these kids not only increases the amount of time they have to preoccupy themselves with screens, but it also decreases the amount of time they’re spending playing and imagining new worlds with their friends. One of the most exciting parts of the school day is getting to see your friends, and, as a kindergartener, that excitement is carried throughout the whole day, as recess with friends becomes playdates which become sleepovers. Without any of that social interaction to get kids through the school week, doing math equations or spelling games becomes a bore and is compensated by being able to watch a show, movie, video. The normal school day is broken down into chunks to be more engaging for younger kids with craft time, lunch, recess, reading time. But, with online school, the children I watch are expected to get between 5-6 activities, read 1-2 books, play their math games and alternate between doing PE or Health activities. It is a constant battle to get through all the activities. The initial excitement of watching the morning messages quickly fades, and they’re left sitting in front of the computer screen, trying to stay focused while their younger siblings are playing and the sun is shining brightly on the swingset.
Unfortunately, young children don’t understand how spending so much time on a screen, whether doing schoolwork or watching TV, affects their ability to think critically. A study by the National Institute of Health in 2018 found that children spending more than 2 hours a day on screens scored lower on critical thinking and language tests, and children spending more than 7 hours a day on screens had thinning in their brains’ cortexes, responsible for reasoning and thinking critically. This is frightening, since we aren’t always aware of just how much time we spend on our devices— I’m sure we’ve all been startled by an unexpectedly high number on our daily screen time report..When you factor in the time not only spent on phones but also on computers to do schoolwork, the hours looking at screens becomes detrimentally high. In this day and age, there are so many different devices—iPads, computers, iPods, TV’s, and more—all of which have multiple versions and applications that can be tailored to the user. There are devices that are designed specifically for kids, which can be very enticing to give to children to entertain them while parents are cleaning or working in the house. In the houses I babysit for, each child has their own iPad, the older kids have Chromebooks, and there are at least two TV’s in each house, making it very easy for a kid to find entertainment on a screen rather than play by themselves. The increase of downloadable apps and how adaptable kids are to learning new technology tricks doesn’t help limit their screen time as they can find so much to do on an iPad.
Although so much screen time can be harmful to kids, it’s completely justifiable why they do have so much. Watching three kids at once while maintaining a clean-ish house and making meals is tiring; having some peace and quiet while they entertain themselves is much needed at times. However, as we continue to quarantine and do online school for the remainder of the school year, it is important to find new activities that are fun and entertaining to do with younger kids. First, doing collages, either with magazines or photos or pieces of homemade artwork, is super engaging, and the finished product is always really satisfying. I have also found that making cards for the people I miss is a nice way to connect without spending too much time on a phone or computer, and it is exciting for kids to write little messages and drawings for their friends. Tie-dye is also super fun, especially when the sun is out, and using different techniques such as rubber bands creates amazing pieces of clothes. If you’re looking to spice up your closet, finding old clothes that you can paint or sew new designs over is a great way to experiment with new looks. Flower pressing is a good way to create new home decorations to hang on the wall or decorate a notebook with. Using extra seeds and honey, you can fill pine cones as little bird feeders that can be hung outside your home. Trying new hairstyles or nail patterns is also a good way to stay off screens and experiment with new styles that you feel comfortable in. Creating paint or chalk murals in your front yard for the rest of the neighborhood can be a good way to spend time expressing creative images. My sister and I have spent a lot of time during quarantine finding unused or cluttering objects and turning them into new room decorations; for instance, I found a bunch of old pendants and turned them into jewelry which I hung up on my wall. Of course, this is an extremely challenging time, and wanting to spend some time doing nothing while letting your feelings sit with you is one hundred percent valid and needed. I personally have been struggling to balance all my emotions and responsibilities, and it does help to have no pressures to be creative or productive during this time. But, if you are stuck at home with children and are looking for ways to keep them engaged and stimulated away from a screen, these are some great ways to do so.