Turn off your television! Screen-Free Week starts Monday.

Have you heard of “screen time”? It’s a term describing the time we spend in front of screens, large and small, consuming media on a daily basis.

Video games.

Many screens compete for our attention, and we’re spending more time with them than ever.

Because of concerns about this trend, experts encourage parents to keep their children’s time with all these screens to a minimum. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of two, and a maximum of two hours daily for preschool children.

But it’s easy to make screen time a family habit. In the typical U.S. home, T.V. is a focal point for relaxation and entertainment–constantly on, as long as someone is at home and awake.

Unfortunately, for our kids, too much screen time can harm their development. Too much media and too little time on other developmentally important tasks can lead to poor school performance, childhood obesity, and other problems. New research suggests that even background television–when the T.V. is on without really being watched–can harm younger children by interrupting their mental tasks.

Too much screen time hurts older children, too. For example, adolescents who watch three or more hours of television each day often have more trouble completing their homework and risk long-term academic problems, according to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Overuse of internet, including social media, has been implicated in similar problems.

Screen-Free Week logoMedia habits are hard to break. That’s why the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) sponsors Screen-Free Week annually. This year, Screen-Free Week runs from from April 30 to May 6. Thousands of families will participate, putting aside their screens for other fun activities.

The CCFC explains:

Screen-Free Week is a fun and innovative way to improve children’s well-being by reducing dependence on entertainment screen media, including television, video games, computers, and hand-held devices.  It’s a time for children to play outside, read, daydream, create, explore, and spend more time having fun with family and friends.

It’s also a chance to reset media habits. After taking a break for a week, many families find it easier to enjoy other activities besides screen time on a routine basis.

Play, not screens (CCFC image)So, what will families do with all their “extra time” during Screen-Free Week? The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations. The CCFC suggests these ideas:

  • Play with art supplies
  • Play with words
  • Play with music
  • Make up songs
  • Play with blocks
  • Play with nothing
  • Play cards and board games
  • Play indoors
  • Play outdoors
  • Play tag
  • Play sports
  • Play together
  • Play alone

Want more detailed possibilities? Here’s a list of 101 great screen-free activities, courtesy of the CCFC:

101 Screen-Free Activities, Part 1101 Screen-Free Activities, Part 2

My family will join Screen-Free Week. Won’t you?

Parents: Is Screen-Free Week a good option for your family? What kinds of fun things could you do in a week without screen time?

Also, if you’ve participated in a previous Screen-Free Week and have any suggestions or memories to share, please post them below!

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Gift-buying guide for children

Looking for a special holiday gift for the children in your life? Here are some helpful tips for buying gifts for children–at the holidays and all year long.

1. Choose toys that encourage open-ended play.

Toys that encourage imaginative or creative play healthy choices that can provide children with the most fun in the long-term. Lower-tech, open-ended toys such as blocks, play food, and dress-up toys are great choices.

2. Avoid toys that tell children how to play.

Toys that direct children’s play should be given as gifts minimally. Avoid toys that have only one intended use and discourage creativity.

3. Choose toys that encourage interactions with others.

Toys that can be played with friends or by the whole family, such as sporting goods or board games, should be strongly considered.

4. Feel free to shop in the “wrong” toy aisle.

Although many stores arrange products by gender — with aisles of “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys”–consider these categories as mere suggestions. For example, little boys often enjoy play kitchens as much as girls do, but play food is in the girls’ aisle; girls often enjoy toys that involve constructing things, but these are usually placed in the boys’ aisle. Be creative in your search.

5. Try to minimize kids’ screen time.

It’s healthiest for kids to spend time in active, creative ways–not in front of a screen. Think carefully before buying any gift that directs kids observe or interact with on-screen content, no matter how “educational” their manufacturers claim them to be.

6. Look for experiences in addition to products.

Consider giving tickets to theatrical productions, memberships to zoos or museums, or vouchers for other outings. Things experienced, rather than consumed, are wonderful ways to create happy memories together after the holiday season is past.

7. Avoid on-screen products for children under two.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children younger than two watch no television. This applies to other screen-oriented products, as well (such as movies, computer games, and apps). Although it’s impractical for many families to follow the AAP guideline to the letter, it’s a good consideration while shopping: less is better, especially for the youngest of children.

8. Books, books, books!

For children of all ages, books make wonderful gifts. Every child should be given at least a few books at the holidays.

As published in the Globe North, Dec. 12, 2011