Screen Free Week:

Supporting School Success and Whole Body Play

Jean Rogers, Rinny Yourman | April 2019

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The day Jean’s son, Scott, graduated from kindergarten, he stomped his little sneakered feet. “I don’t want to go to first grade! They don’t get to play there!” Was he developmentally delayed, or just overly sentimental about his teacher or the classroom? Far from being behind, Scott’s sense of urgency about play makes sense from a child development perspective. Playing with the whole body, mind, and surroundings is a child’s job. It prepares them for school, work, and life.

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Young children thrive when this fundamental need for whole body play can be met. But as we all know, the definition of the words “game” and “play” have morphed to mean things developmental scientists never imagined. Jean Piaget, a constructivist child developmental psychologist, didn’t envision child’s play to entail mindless swiping or passive staring at a screen. Rather, he understood play to encompass a broad variety of activities that help young children construct knowledge of their physical, social, and emotional world.

For example, from birth to age 2, when a child navigates what is known as the Sensory Motor Stage, they learn object permanence, or the idea that a teddy bear can exist in the bedroom even when the child is in the living room. She can learn this from observation and movement from room to room. Conversely, when a digital teddy bear is swiped away from the tablet screen, a child is deprived of this kind of sensory learning. She can’t physically confirm that the digital teddy bear still exists, and misses the opportunity to construct this piece of cognitive information upon which so much further learning relies.

As children grow older, they continue to need active play that transcends the screen. During the Pre-Operational Stage, from ages 2 through 7, children learn that words and phrases can represent real objects or even categories of objects. For instance, by playing with his own teddy bear and his sister’s stuffed duck, a child begins to understand that stuffed animals can be different shapes, sizes, textures, and colors. Again, the digital teddy bear, moving quickly on and off a screen, cannot provide the same concrete, sensory experience.

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What does this mean for educators and parents? Healthy play requires a vast array of sensory play: nature immersion and exploration, reading, social play at school, and independent and family play at home. When play in these forms and settings is encouraged, it results in a rich panoply of joyful and challenging experiences; ones that exercise children’s minds and develop their gross and fine motor skills. Conversely, when young children spend time in passive engagement with screens—in other words, when screen time displaces play time—valuable opportunities for healthy growth and development are lost.

Screen-Free Week, this year celebrated from April 29 through May 5, encourages children, families, schools, and communities around the world to shut off screen entertainment for a week to enjoy all forms of healthy play. For this reason, we like to think that Screen-Free Week supports the constructivist theory of cognitive development. Rather than viewing play as a respite from other daily learning activities, constructivists, like Piaget and his peers John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky, present play as an active learning experience in and of itself. By discouraging screen time and encouraging playtime, Screen-Free Week creates the space and opportunity for kids to learn in the way their brains and bodies are designed.

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Unplugged play prepares children for school success.

Teachers can encourage play.Teachers can design and scaffold play adventures so that learning happens without children even knowing it! During Screen-Free Week, teachers of young children can create spaces and props for socio-dramatic play, provide safe outdoor spaces for movement and exploration, and supply materials for artistic and musical expression.

Parents can encourage play. It’s true that screens can make parents’ lives easier, but only in the short term. In the long run, screen-free play helps children develop resourcefulness, creativity, and self-soothing skills that will make parents’ lives much easier. During Screen-Free Week, parents can design active, creative play opportunities—going to a local park, setting up blanket forts or even just pretend play with pots, pans, and a few kitchen utensils. Activities and events planned for Screen-Free Week often create precedents for how to manage screens and develop healthy habits as children grow.

What happens when screen time starts to usurp time that should be dedicated for healthy play?

No one sets out intentionally to replace young children’s play time with screen time. Without realizing it, though, we often fall into the seductive trap that the convenience of screens provides. We are familiar with the scenarios, whether we are using screens to gain some quiet during an important phone call, manage our grocery shopping without constant demands for junk food, or ensure that we have some uninterrupted time to attend to our own texts, social media, and emails. Eventually, parents try to salvage the increasing encroachment on play time by seeking out “educational” apps for their children. But there are no standards for what constitutes an educational app, and all too often these apps expose young children to manipulative and commercialized content. Even when their content is not objectionable to the parent, the reality is they displace the developmentally healthy play kids need.

The busy rush of life often makes it hard for parents and caregivers to step back for a moment and reflect on what all of this means to their young child’s development. This is why Screen-Free Week is such a valuable tool for parents and educators.

The week encourages families—whether they celebrate at home or at school—to power off of entertainment screens and enjoy all kinds of play, together. It’s also a chance for schools to host some after-school fun—nature walks, read-alouds, playground meet-ups, arts and crafts, gardening, volunteering, games, and more. If it’s celebrated at home, families can enjoy time to read, play, exercise, garden, craft, cook, sing, dance, hike, and much more.

Far from telling parents what to do about their screen time, (believe us, some would like us to tell them just how much screen time is okay) Screen-Free Week presents an opportunity for parents and children to explore what it’s like to enjoy other options, try out activities they have never considered, and base future media use on their own values.

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Screen-Free Week creates an excuse to enjoy time together, which is especially meaningful to young children, who seem to know when we are shortchanging time spent with them by focusing on our own devices. They yearn for our undivided attention, and are thrilled to have it during Screen-Free Week celebrations. With our phones tucked away, we have the time and opportunity to play, undistracted, and the children in our lives love it.

What’s so remarkable about Screen-Free Week is that it is completely flexible. This year it takes place April 29-May 5, but if the week isn’t convenient for your family or school, consider holding it another week. It can be celebrated more than just once a year, or for longer than a week. It can be celebrated by adults, not just children. It can be celebrated by families, schools, and communities. And it can be celebrated through any form of play. There are no rules other than not using digital entertainment.

What happens after Screen-Free Week is over? The beauty of the week is that it frees up some quiet time in which to ponder what role laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other devices have in our lives and in the lives of our children, and whether that role is a healthy one or not. Ideally, we find inspiration in that quiet to rethink our reliance on screens and, for our kids, to restore more offline play time in their lives. While many of us feel guilty about our children’s screen time and think about renegotiating it in our family life, parents tell us that Screen-Free Week can act as a reset button for them.

We invite you to celebrate Screen-Free Week with us,register to receive tips, and share your stories to inspire others!

Children and Screen Time, Advocating for Young Children