Fantasy play and Screen Time

I am a mom of contradictions.

After a 6 am whining session that ended with L. throwing my TV remote at me, I decided we needed a screen time detox. No cartoons before 9 am. No cartoons for longer than an hour. Only ones that aren’t just bright colours and noise.

And then at nap time G. got her tablet and watched YouTube for 3 hours. C’est la vie.

It’s important though, to have balance. I hear it all the time in the discussion around food. Try not to give junk food power. Don’t make it forbidden, that makes it more enticing. No one food is inherently “bad” or “good”. It’s all just food, the important part is finding the balance. Some food feeds your body, some food feeds your soul, and both should be acknowledged.

In my work, I’m a play advocate. I’m 100% play focused. I don’t do “crafts” unless the kids want to. I don’t do circle time. I don’t have any academically inclined activities like letters and numbers unless the kids are interested in it. My classroom plays and plays hard. I talk a good game about the negative effects of too much screen time on young children. I know how it affects eye muscle development. I know how it affects neural development. I know how it affects speech and language development.

At home, I know that if I don’t get a break, I will lose what little progress I’ve made. Quiet time where I can choose what I want to do rather than follow what my children want to do is important for my own mental health.

However, I have discovered an interesting consequence of G.’s screen time that I didn’t see coming. She has been watching a series on YouTube of a girl who plays barbies and acts out all kinds of scenarios, different characters, different life experiences. Even since, G.’s own dramatic play has grown exponentially. She has new conversations, new experiences, and she’s more willing to play by herself for much longer than she ever has been. She’s always kind of been the kid who wants to roughhouse, who jumps all over everything, who wants to ride bikes and climb and yell and dance. Which is fantastic. I love this about her. However, I have a house full of toys that have never been touched because she had no interest in independent play. Now she’s playing. She’s world-building in a way that she never has before.

There’s a well-known researching on children’s play named Vivian Paley, and I’ve been re-reading her work on fantasy play in children, and it’s fascinating watching it play out in real time right in front of me. She talks about how fantasy play is universal, they follow the same themes and the same scripts. I’ve heard the phrase “mom, pretend you’re… and I’m….” so many times in the last month that I’ve lose count. And it’s the same phrase that Paley observed in her research. There was an interesting point made though – we have lost touch with the story tellers of our culture, the elders and grandparents who used to pass down fairy tales and other stories. Now, children get these stories from the play of others. I’ve also been following a respectful parenting Instagram account that shared a reel about worthwhile TV shows, what makes a TV show overstimulating and how to find shows that are better for your children, and they made an interesting point about how high quality children’s programming can actually build on children’s dramatic and fantasy play skills. This isn’t a point I ever really thought about beforehand. Outside of daycare, G. has no one to play with other than a one year old brother. It isn’t like before, where we played with older cousins, or neighbourhood children. Covid meant that we have been alone for so many months. For such a social child, this has been especially hard for her. In screen time, she has found a new way to play, new narratives to explore, new fantasies to play out. She has found a new source of story telling that wasn’t accessible to her before. Who am I to say that this is a bad thing?

So yeah. We screen time. But, we do it responsibly. And when we notice it’s too much – when they have a hard time transitioning away, when they start to stare obsessively like someone on a heroin high, when it causes tantrums and becomes a NEED – then we take a break and we detox for a little while.

It’s balance. It’s a contradiction. It’s finding a way to parent in a modern world with modern tools and limited access to social supports. It’s life. I’m still going to preach limited screen time, but I’m going to do it in a realistic way, offering realistic suggestions. Because I’ve seen the benefits of how screen time can affect play, and it isn’t all bad. Come join me on the dark side.

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