"Young children aren't usually spontaneously interested in TV because discerning the two dimensional characters he is watching takes time to understand. The things a child would naturally be doing have such different characteristics," says Kohl.
Exploring the sensory world is the "work" of the young child, so setting up situations that allow a child to do that in a contained way provide self-entertainment.
For example, parents can place a toddler in a cardboard box filled with uncooked rice or oatmeal with cups, spoons, and sieves to play with. Parents can also offer a child a bag or box full of novel items, such as a colander, a turkey baster, or a scarf, that he can remove then discover their properties. "Toddlers love to pull things out of other things," she says.
A few other ideas include:
- Place ping-pong balls in a coffee can where a hole has been cut in the lid.
- Put stuffed animals with plain wooden blocks or the balls in the holes of an ice cube tray.
- Set up a contained pouring activity using large beans, a bowl, and plastic measuring cups.
"The way to keep kids self-entertained hasn't changed over the years, instead parenting and technology have," says Elaine Fantle Shimberg, author of Blending Families.
Shimberg recommends parents set a limit of one hour for TV/video time and be firm. She also suggests parents buy non-battery operated toys such as toy dishes and pots and pans, building blocks and LEGOs, dolls and doll furniture, crayons and paper, modeling clay, and toy trucks, trains, and cars. "These types of toys offer opportunity for creativity," she says.
Simple, low-tech methods for play can still be fun. "Encourage imagination such as making a doll's house by stapling shoe boxes together (high rise or one story ranch), making a race track or highway from construction paper, writing and illustrating a story book, or invading the "dress up box" and putting on a play," she says.
D'Amico also offers some options for self-entertaining:
- Let children play at the sink with the water and plastic dishes while you are supervising and getting some other project or phone calls done. "It is only water, so let them get a bit messy—it gives you time to get your work done and they will have a blast," she says.
- Challenge them to do a puzzle that is within their abilities all by themselves. Then offer some help if needed.
- Have them help you with simple cooking chores, such as prepping stringbeans or shucking corn.
- Make your chores fun for them too and you may be surprised by how much you can actually get done.
Parents can ask the child what they want to do and then help them get set up to do it. "Parents can also watch for activities the child is really interested in, and work to get toys and materials that further that interest for them," D'Amico says.
Reducing or eliminating television time can bring a sense of peace to a family. Katrina Kenison, noted in her book Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry, that eliminating television cleared a space for things they really cared about.
"I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that turning off the TV was the greatest single thing my husband and I have done to foster creativity, imaginative play, and independent thinking in our children," says Kenison. "What's more, we realized that we suddenly felt more connected to each other and more in touch with ourselves. Somehow we got far more than we gave up."
While eliminating the television might not be right for your family, reducing TV time is sure to reap benefits for all.