Make playtime great again - tips on how parents can balance screen time and physical play

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  • It's important to maintain a healthy balance between physical and passive playtime.
  • Cognitive development is among the key benefits of technology, while playtime allows children to practise decision-making skills. 
  • An expert advises parents to be selective about the technological platforms children are exposed to. 


As parents with demanding lifestyles, many of us use gadgets as great co-parenting partners, not realising the damage they may be causing.

According to an April 2018 study in Australia titled Cross Sectional Associations of Screen Time and Outdoor Play with Social Skills in Preschool Children, screen time and physical activity during the early childhood years have great impact on multiple health and developmental outcomes, such as social skills.

The research also reveals that parents are unconcerned about their children’s physical activity and screen time behaviour — something that’s alarming, considering the impact these two forms of play have on children’s development.

A healthy balance between physical and passive playtime is fundamental, says clinical psychologist Dr Musa MaseTshaba.

“Increased device screen time has led to sedentary behaviour and poor diet. Thus, a healthy balance between technology and traditional play needs to be introduced to children prior to school-going age, allowing them to gain the necessary benefits from both, also considering that technology has become a key learning platform at many schools,” she says.

Cognitive development, according to child and educational psychologist Duduzile Magangane, is one of the key benefits of technology. However, she advises parents to be selective when it comes to the platforms and content used.

“It’s important to minimise the time children spend alone viewing and engaging with technology and content housed by these gadgets. Make it a priority to constantly discuss the appropriate times for passive play and suggest other forms of entertainment, away from the magical screen,” she cautions.

This, she adds, assists in limiting screen obsession and makes way for the introduction of other stimulating play forms.

Cut down screen time

In an article published on Parent24.com, Dr Aric Sigman of the British Psychology Society explains that children hooked on gadgets may experience permanent damage in the development of their brain.

“Too much screen time from an early age hinders development, ability to focus, concentration and attention span. This may also lead to them struggling to sense other people’s attitude and to communicate with them, as well as building a large vocabulary,” he says.

Dr Sigman adds that as much as tablets and smartphones are a great form of stimulation at your fingertip, a child’s brain doesn’t need this as it will weaken their cognitive muscle. Magangane explains that too much screen time and lack of outdoor activity have also contributed to the obesity epidemic, as well as limited family interaction.

“From a psychological and social skills perspective, young kids also run the risk of not developing positive interpersonal skill, leading them to become aggressive, develop anxiety and taking on negative behavioural habits such as smoking, alcohol abuse and, at times, early sexual engagement or experimentation triggered by watching violent content or movies that are not age-appropriate,” she adds.

Some activities to introduce that will make screen time a thing of the past:
  • Schedule family activities such as camping or hiking.
  • Encourage your child to sign up for a team sport, such as soccer, netball or martial arts. Team sports teach children leadership skills, and the appreciation of different abilities.
  • Introduce the culture of board games and encourage the kids to join book clubs — this will enhance their psychological, mental and social skills.

READ MORE | Out with the old, in with the new? How to balance traditional and modern parenting styles

Pull the plug

So, what’s the best way to wean your child off technology?

“Start by limiting time spent on devices,” Magangane recommends. “

However, remember that the limited screen content needs to be monitored to ensure it’s age-appropriate. Once the limitation process has started, introduce other forms of play,” she says, adding that merging passive and physical play will assist in producing well-rounded kids with sound psychological and social understanding.

She continues: “The right time to introduce a healthy balance between technology use and playtime is from the early childhood stage, as it will allow the child to grow up understanding the importance and appreciation of the two.”

Dr MaseTshaba advises that parents consider a phased approach when weaning kids off excessive tech consumption. Negotiate the pros and cons of gadgets, ensuring the weaning isn’t met with resistance.

“Introduce scheduled periods of time where everyone in the family agrees not to use devices. This can trigger your kid’s interest in things outside of their screens,” she explains.

This approach will also allow children to adjust to the changes, whereas a complete ‘shutdown’ may be met with resentment. Dr MaseTshaba adds that it’s important for parents to lead by example.

“Don’t be hypocritical. You can’t tell your kid not to use a tablet if you’re using yours,” she cautions.

Magangane agrees, saying children often mimic their parents. Other unplugging approaches include discouraging watching TV during the week, unless it’s educational programmes, as well as regulating time spent on gadgets, unless it’s for school.

READ MORE | Ayanda Borotho warns against harmful Huggy Wuggy game – plus how you could protect your children 

Join in the fun

“The reason it’s important for children to indulge in other forms of play is that they have an impactful role in their physical and social development,” Magangane explains.

Such forms of recreation, Dr MaseTshaba adds, allow kids to learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflict as well as develop self-advocacy skills.

“Playtime gives children an opportunity to practise decision-making skills, discover their areas of interest and ultimately engage fully in passions they wish to pursue,” she says. “Play is a simple joy that’s a cherished part of childhood.”

Dr MaseTshaba says, while Magangane encourages parents to get involved in their children’s playtime. Dr MaseTshaba says parents who play with their kids get to see the world through their young one’s eyes.

“The interactions during play tell children that parents are fully paying attention to them, and this helps build enduring relationships. Through play, parents learn to communicate more effectively with their kids, allowing for a fun-filled setting that offers gentle and nurturing guidance. Play offers parents a great way to engage fully with their children, Dr MaseTshaba concludes.

Things to consider when trying to wean children off TV or technology:
  • Children are people, not objects. So, don’t impose new changes on them. Have a conversation and negotiate where necessary.
  • Be involved. Make time to play with your children outside of the magical screen world. If you’re not available, hire someone or call on a friend to take on this role.
  • Introduce and buy your child toys. Especially puzzles and dolls as these will encourage imagination and creativity, taking them away from the passive isolated play that comes with gadgets.
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