Play Talk: All Kinds of Families, All Kinds of Play

The Genius of Play, a movement to raise awareness about the benefits of play, has posed the question, “how much of kids’ playtime should involve screens?” Watch and see that all the parents in their Play Talk video about screen time get it completely right. How can that be? They deliver widely differing assessments of what role media should play in children’s lives, from “I don’t even do TV right now” to “She had Mister Rogers on the day she came home from the hospital.”

Each can be right because these choices must be rooted in the family and what makes life work for them. That’s just what we hear in the video. Some families want their children outdoors, some are happy for their children to consume educational content, some look for playful and interactive media, some simply let their children choose what’s engaging and appealing to them. Some set time limits, some restrict certain content, some make media a family activity, and some use it to open conversation. We do what’s best for our values and situations.

Another reason that outside prescriptions can’t work is that “screen time” has become a meaningless term. Today, screens deliver all kinds of experiences, whether via tablets and smartphones, smart TVs, tech-enabled toys and cameras. Families use them for entertainment, communication and connection, to pursue hobbies and passions, for exploration, and to create stories and art of their own. Not all screen time is the same.

In her outstanding book on children and media, Lisa Guernsey coined the trilogy “content, context and the individual child,” as key consideration for making choices about screen media.

Even before interactive media, content mattered. Content with teaching intent is quite different from that designed purely for entertainment. There’s enough strong media content on the market now that every family should be able to find something specifically beneficial. (Remember, though, just as you and I sometimes want pure escapism as a break from “educational” media, children deserve the same!)

Context is the where, when and why of media use. Research by my company, Dubit, has found that children turn to different devices, platforms and content in surprisingly consistent ways, based on their emotional state (which often aligns with time of day and what else they’ve been doing). Here again, family choices are personal and situational.

When Guernsey refers to the “individual child,” she’s asserting that every young person has unique needs, interests and abilities. Some of these are well addressed through media (e.g., a child with a deep interest in a topic, who can study it and connect with others who have similar passions), and some may best be managed without a screen (e.g., a child who needs energetic physical activity).

Still, there’s one important thing for parents to remember when choosing media or toys: child development doesn’t change, but its context does. At the core, developing children need the same things from their play today that they’ve needed for all time: tactile experiences that develop their senses, sparks to encourage imagination, space and encouragement for exploration, and loving adults so they’ll feel safe to expand their world.

Top toy brands among children – such as Lego, My Little Pony, Nerf and Hot Wheels - mostly represent very strong, clear classic ways of playing - collecting and sharing, creating and building, storytelling and imagining. Most of these play patterns lend themselves well to digital extensions, too, like apps, tech-enabled products, digital-physical combinations.

Similarly, top digital-first brands also engage essential physical experiences or natural play patterns. While it was initially surprising to see Angry Birds and Candy Crush show up as a favorite even among the youngest children, these games use a swiping motion that is easy for little fingers, they’re filled with colorful action, and even toddlers model what they see from older siblings or parents.

So, follow the advice of the parents in The Genius of Play’s video. Or, to be more specific, find the parent whose approach most mirrors your family’s needs, interests and values, and start from there to craft your own screen plan! Join the conversation on social media using #GeniusofPlay and voice your opinion about the right mix of screentime in play.

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