Our child, peaceful and concentrated, immersed in free play, the television off, no smartphone and no tablet far and wide. I think most parents see this as a desirable ideal. And perhaps they also wonder how it will work. Or have a guilty conscience because it doesn’t seem to work for you. Because we are aware that excessive TV consumption can be harmful for babies and toddlers. And even for older children, too long a media period is not good. Studies associate excessive media consumption with obesity, concentration problems, ADHD and cognitive, motor and language developmental delays. None of us wants this for our children.
In this article I would like to deal with this problem and point out some easy ways to tackle it. The article is long, if you don’t have much time, just jump to the desired place in the table of contents. Otherwise get some tea or coffee and enjoy the reading.
So why are so many children sitting in front of TV, tablet and smartphone for so long? Well, quite simply. Because the parents are tired and exhausted.
We lovingly look after our babies, pay attention to a good bond formation and try to build up a healthy basic trust with our little ones. In return, we try to meet their needs, not to leave them alone, especially not to let them scream. When you grow up, we strive for a structured and supportive everyday life. We cook healthily, we play with you, we look at picture books together. And yet there is still everyday life to cope with. Letter stuff has to be done, the laundry has to be folded, the household has to be run. And we, too, are only people who have a need for breaks, for a good book, or perhaps have to or want to work at home. Raising children, especially high-quality ones, costs an incredible amount of time, attention and energy. It’s completely understandable to want to allow yourself at least a few, few moments of rest, in which you can perhaps take a shower or simply go to the toilet on your own. Or just clean out the dishwasher. Or cook. Or to actually lie down on the couch for a few minutes, especially if the night before you slept too few, incoherent hours.
So the question then arises: Does the few minutes of media time a day harm our little ones so much? Certainly not. And one or two episodes of Peppa Wutz a day can also be a nice ritual if the rest of the day is really media-free. But what if it were possible to take a break without turning on the TV or the tablet? Wouldn’t you like to make use of it?
Fortunately, there is actually a way to raise your child with little media time or even media-free without losing your mind and nerves and still get your everyday life and household baked. The secret lies in the self-directed game.
The self-directed game
Self-directed or also independent play is the play, which is independently selected, initiated and executed from the child. If your child is able to play independently, it is no longer so demanding and strenuous and no longer requires your constant complete presence. You will then no longer be responsible for the entertainment your child needs to be calm, balanced and happy. You can sit back and watch your child playfully explore the world. During this time you can read, check your emails, work, eat chocolate or whatever you want to do. And that without a guilty conscience, because you don’t have to exchange your peace for media time anymore. Wouldn’t that be an incredible relief?
Behind the development of intrinsic exploration, i.e. the self-motivated and independent exploration, there is an even greater benefit than to give you as a mother freedom and breaks. The intrinsic play promotes the social and emotional health of your child, it promotes self-confidence, creativity, self-discipline and problem-solving competence.
What is so harmful about early media consumption?
These important competences do not arise during media consumption. Much more does media consumption prevent and disrupt the development of these important skills.
After all, media and TV consumption very sensitively disturbs children’s instincts for independent play and intrinsic curiosity about discovering the world. One of the reasons for this is that media consumption reduces the attention spans of our children. This is shown by studies linking increased television and media consumption to ADHD.
But it’s also because the child gets used to being entertained. The need to be constantly entertained and amused becomes greater than the instinctive need and childish curiosity to explore the playful world.
More about early childhood brain development and the influence of early media consumption will be covered in another article shortly.
The media consumption spiral
If you now let your child watch television or use the tablet, a real vicious circle develops. The more the child watches television, the less it can engage itself, intrinsically motivated, and the more it needs further media consumption. And the more you as a parent really feel that you need the tablet and the TV to at least have a little rest for other tasks.
The same applies the other way around, thank God. Because the more your child enjoys playing independently, the more he or she wants to play independently. Preferably right after getting up in the morning. And the less interesting the media become. And the quieter everyday life becomes for you as a mother.
The practical guide to media-free everyday life
The only question now is how can I get my child to play independently? In the following I will give you some tips.
Turn off the TV and the tablet
The first thing you can do to introduce your child to independent play is to turn off the TV, tablet, and other media. This is important because, as mentioned earlier, it is media consumption that interferes with the development of the independent game. You can do this in two ways. Either you stop media consumption completely (temporarily) and don’t allow any TV or tablet watching at all. Or you reduce both to a minimum. You can follow the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Association of Pediatricians. They recommend that media consumption be adjusted according to the age of the child. Basically, the AAP guidelines state that the younger the child, the lower media consumption should be. They give the following guidelines:
0 to 18 months: no media consumption (with the exception of video telephony, e.g. with relatives)
18 months to 2 years: the AAP says that low and slow media consumption can start at 18 months, but they do not support it.
2 to 5 years: no more than 1 hour of daily media consumption
5 years and older: No specific time is mentioned, but the AAP advises parents to limit media time.
Please note that these are the upper limits.
I will do more research on this topic and will add studies and sources from the German research landscape. You can subscribe to my newsletter if you want to stay up to date.
One thing is for sure. There are no advantages of media consumption in early (small) childhood or even baby age. If you therefore have doubts and a bad feeling inside you, if you watch your little TV or let your tablet be used, then hold on to it. Your feeling does not deceive you. But that’s why you’re here and read this article. Let’s move on to the next point.
Create a safe and stimulating environment
No living situation is the same as any other, so the design of a safe, stimulating and child-friendly environment depends on your personal living situation. So I can’t go into all the necessary points comprehensively, but I would like to give you the most important tips and ideas.
Tips for a safe and stimulating environment
Safety and security
For you to be able to leave the room in which your child is or to focus your attention on other things, you need to be able to trust that your environment is absolutely safe and does not pose any danger to your baby or child. This includes the following things:
Keep heavy or dangerous objects out of the reach of your child so that they cannot be pulled down by him.
Socket fuses on all sockets (also check that all sockets are tight).
Edge protectors on sharp furniture edges.
Door guards for rooms that you cannot make baby- or childproof (e.g. rooms of older siblings). In addition to Amazon, Lidl has cheap and good barriers in its online shop.
The same for staircases, attach door guards here.
By the way, important: If you have a Klettermax that climbs over all door guards, remove them again.
You can turn up the door handles and tighten them. So it will take a very long time until your child can open them (and then it should be a lot more mature and sensible).
Attach a door chain to the front door to prevent your child from opening the door and suddenly disappearing.
Attach lockable window handles. Don’t underestimate your toddler’s urge to explore and discover by climbing onto the windowsill and opening the windows alone. Especially if you live higher than on the ground floor. You can get a set of 4 very cheap at Amazon.
Don’t leave any small parts lying around or in (climbing) accessible places.
Attach shelves, chests of drawers and cupboards (the not as deep cupboards as the floorboards or shoe cupboards) to the wall so that they cannot tip over if your child climbs up them.
Move your cupboards around so that there are no dangerous objects in the lower areas, and so that your child can follow his explorer urge to open and clear drawers and cupboards. Secure the remaining drawers and cupboards with safety locks. These magnetic fuses, which are available at Amazon, are best suited.
Keep cleaning materials, tools, batteries and the like completely out of the reach of your children. Put them up in the bathroom or toilet as soon as your child starts potty shopping.
Avoid having boxes or chairs on the balcony as your child can climb up there, or keep the balcony door closed or tilted.
There are similar rules for the garden, especially if you have poisonous plants in your garden.
Basically, it is much easier for you to guide your child to self-directed play and then really be able to play it alone if you know for yourself that the play environment is safe.
Beautiful and tidy playing environment
Children react very sensitively to disorder. It helps the child to concentrate, focus and get involved in the game when the toys are clean, tidy and in a tidy, beautiful condition.
Some tips for this:
instead of putting the toy in a large box, use small baskets, shelves or appropriate storage space (here you’ll find lots of ideas for a nice and appealing interior). This makes it much easier to have an overview of the toys and helps you to view and select them. Also tidying up and putting away is much easier.
The toy should always be accessible and alone for the child without it having to ask you as a mother. Of course, you can also put things away and save them for another time if your child can’t handle them yet. In this way you save the toys, some of them expensive, from breaking so that your child can play with them later.
Not too much toys
A selection of nice toys and books is important, but make sure it’s not too much. This can quickly create an over-stimulation in your child, so that your child would only play briefly and superficially with all the numerous toys.
A nice tip is to change some toys from time to time (preferably outside the child’s room) and to get others out.
A study by the University of Toledo in Ohio, USA, has shown some interesting things:
The play behaviour of 36 toddlers was investigated. They should play for 1 ½ hour in a room. Some were given 4 toys, others 16 toys. The result of this study showed that the children, who had only 4 toys available, had played much more creatively.
Children love bright colors. Even if the children’s room doesn’t look so chic and stylish in a tone in tone Greige a la Instagram due to colourful toys, pictures or carpets, it must first and foremost appeal to the child and encourage it to play. So use beautiful, colorful toys as a stimulus for your child – and that doesn’t mean cheap plastic toys, but rather colorful books, Duplo or later Lego, Playmobil 123, but also colorful accents in the children’s room design.
Chairs and tables
Table and chairs in children’s size are a great addition to any children’s room. At Ikea, for example, you can always find them. If the child can sit on a chair and at a table in his or her size, he or she will feel more self-confident and will be able to concentrate more on the game. In addition, these small pieces of furniture strengthen the child’s self-confidence and independence, as they are easy to use and move around as they wish.
Small stools are also wonderful for increasing the child’s self-confidence and independence, as they can perform so many activities without the help of adults. They can, for example, go to the toilet alone with a stool in the bathroom or wash their hands alone. It can also be used in the kitchen to help cook or prepare food; a Learning Tower, a small IKEA hack, is ideal for this. You can find instructions here.
It depends on the toy
It is certainly a challenge to choose beautiful and good toys. Especially with the first child it is understandable if you are insecure and overwhelmed because of the sheer large selection of toys. But there is one small principle: Simpler is often better.
It is best to choose toys that stimulate and encourage the imagination and not toys that make noise and move. That doesn’t mean that you should give away all these toys or not accept them from giving grandparents. You can also simply remove the batteries. And if the rest of the toys don’t consist of battery-operated things, that doesn’t hurt either. Infant expert Magda Gerber says that active toys make passive children and passive toys make active children. But active children are masters at finding fun, interesting and entertaining activities without having to be fun.
Here are some ideas for toys that are wonderful for the nursery and self-determined play:
Tips for the right toy
Montessori toys, (Maria Montessori herself never talks about toys, but about working materials. In future, further articles will deal in more detail with pedagogy and suitable Montessori toys. Since this is often expensive, I will also give some DIY Montessori ideas.)
Painting and handicrafts
DIY game ideas:
Containers for opening and closing. Recycled food containers are ideal for this.
Collect old materials or clothes, stick them onto containers and baskets and design them.
Basket with finds from nature, such as fir cones, leaves, stones
Cars, trains, dolls
wooden figures, painted and designed by yourself
Puzzles, wooden puzzles for the little ones are popular
Children’s kitchen with cooking utensils and accessories, at Ikea there are cheap children’s kitchens, but also in the LIDL Online Shop
Books of course
in further articles I will present a lot of beautiful toys and especially DIY toys. You are welcome to subscribe to my newsletter to be informed about it.
Reading is the basis for the growth and development of every child, especially in today’s media-influenced world. Whether you read aloud, look at the picture books together with your child or look at the books alone, hardly anything is better than a constantly growing and changing stack and selection of books for the child.
It is especially important that the books are easily accessible to the child and are attractively placed, be it a basket, a bookshelf or an open shelf.
DIY toys or purchased toys
There are really beautiful toys that we as mothers can confidently buy for our children. These include puzzles, books, building blocks (for example Kappla bricks), cars, wooden toys, but also good plastic toys such as Lego, Duplo, Playmobil or Playmobil 123. I think most of us know these things from our own childhood and can remember how we spent hours building Lego buildings or diving into Playmobil fantasy worlds.
Beyond these things, however, self-created toys and craft stations are often much more suitable for creating a self-directed gaming environment. At craft and play stations, their creativity and focused, concentrated play can unfold much more easily than with the latest fashion figure, doll or talking and pippy toy dog.
Every mother of an infant is probably not unaware of how difficult it is to draw the attention of these little whirlwinds to an occupation for more than a minute. Play stations set up inside the apartment can be very helpful here. In addition to the beautifully and stimulatingly designed children’s room, you can set up different play areas in different corners. For example, you can set up one corner as a puzzle corner, another corner as a craft corner or a building corner.
In the kitchen
In the kitchen, for example, I have five different baskets with different toys and utensils, including many kitchen utensils such as whisks, cooking spoons, small pans, jugs and children’s dishes. While I’m cooking or cleaning in the kitchen, I take turns taking out the baskets.
Due to the rotations there is always something new and interesting, with which my little ones usually play long enough until I am finished. Often I then hand over real carrots, peppers, parsley, potatoes or other things, so my little one „plays“ the same way as my mum does.
In addition to this activity, it also makes sense to involve your child in real cooking and preparation. So even small children can help baking a cake by adding eggs, sugar or nuts to the dough.
The Learning Tower is a construction consisting of two Ikea stools on which the child can stand securely at the height of the worktop. Instructions can be found here.
Especially in the kitchen, it is of course ideal if you rearrange the drawers and cupboards so that plastic bowls and similar items (unbreakable items) are placed in the areas accessible from below. Just the discovery of all these belongings and equipment, the storage and removal can keep your child busy for half an hour, if not hours.
And all this self-directed activity wonderfully serves and promotes the development of self-directed play. And all this without the fact that these are special children’s toys. At the beginning it may be unusual to have your child around while working in the kitchen, but it makes more sense than watching TV.
Apart from all these suggestions, it is of course incredibly good for children to be outdoors as much as possible. They not only get plenty of fresh air, but also the important vitamin D. If you have your own garden, then of course you are blessed and can create a real little child oasis where your little one can spend hours. There is not really the wrong weather, but only the wrong clothes, as hackneyed as the saying may sound. But even without your own garden you’re not lost, even if it’s not as easy as simply opening the patio door.
Maybe you have the possibility to lease an allotment garden in your residential area or in your village? They are no longer as stuffy as their reputation might still be. And they are usually very cheap and affordable even with a lower monthly income. Here you can offer your child just as much experience as in your own garden, if not more. Because you can grow fruit and vegetables, you can teach your child sustainability and ecology right from the start. Space for playground equipment such as a trampoline or pool is also enough. And you are not as isolated as at home, in the allotment gardens nowadays there are usually many young families with children who can play together in the complex.
And even if this is not an option for you, the nature and the playgrounds of the surroundings still remain. Maybe you will find other mothers in your neighbourhood and you will meet regularly on the playground. Or you stroll with your little one through your neighbourhood, you observe ants and bumble bees, inspect the different fences, trees and plants, collect leaves, chestnuts or flowers (which your child can then process at home).
Being outdoors a lot in the fresh air has the advantage that your child gets tired through all the impressions and physical activity and will sleep better and probably longer. Which in turn gives you as a mother a lot more time out and mommy time.
How to introduce the self-determined game now
In this last paragraph you will find some practical tips on how to introduce and cultivate self-determined play:
Watch your child
Observe and follow your child as it explores and discovers its surroundings. Over time, you will learn about his preferences and see which toys and activities he likes and which he ignores. You can also put these things away for the time being and put them down again later. It may well be that your child will then play with these things.
In this sense, self-determined play is also a good experience for you as a mother to learn more about your child’s preferences, interests and current state of development. And maybe it is also a learning experience for you to hold back, not to intervene constantly, but just to watch.
Resist the urge to help
Allow your child to struggle with things or have difficulties. Don’t intervene immediately, give him the space and time to solve it himself. It is also part of the learning process to deal with difficult moments. Your child will have many important experiences as he or she explores his or her environment, as he or she „plays“ with the toys and materials provided. This way it learns a lot. But it also means that it will have difficulties with a few things, maybe restless, snappy that gets restless. That it’s impatient or angry and throws the thing away or wants you to take it away from it, with which it’s having trouble at the moment.
Don’t throw in the towel here and don’t give up at this point, which can occur frequently in the beginning.
And don’t interfere here and resist the urge to help. Encourage your child, on the other hand, to master or solve it by himself. If you have offered age-appropriate toys, they will also be able to do so.
Of course, this does not mean that you should refuse your child any help. Of course, you can also offer support in appropriate places. But without taking over the helm.
And above all, keep in mind that there is a right or wrong way to play with toys. Also hold back at this point and resist the urge to show your child how to play „right“ with things. Let your child make his or her own experiences and let him or her play according to his or her imagination and ideas. This is exactly where the value of self-determined play lies.
Don’t disturb your child
When children play, they actually do important work. Don’t disturb the child by interrupting it for any reason. You may have noticed it already: Your child is playing with his toy lost, you may just want to help him and show him how „it works“, but after that the „flow“ is out. Your child doesn’t want to play any more, the peaceful concentration is over. So hold back and let your child explore his environment and his toys or objects on his own.
Trust your child
Let your child decide for himself what he wants to play with, in what way and for how long. There are days when it devotes itself to one thing for a long time, then there are days when it jumps from one toy to the next. Both are ok. In this way your child learns to follow his own compass and the ability to control and direct his play over a longer period of time.
Limit access to TV, Smartphone & Tablet
Basically very simple, your child should not have independent access to the appropriate devices. If you have a TV in your nursery, it’s best to remove it. Some families even consciously do without the TV in the living room, but it is enough (for small children) to keep the remote control out of reach. It’s also best to keep your smartphone and tablet out of your child’s reach and sight, in keeping with the motto „out of sight“.
Setting a good example
Children learn from us, they imitate us, they want to do what we do. It will be difficult to introduce your child to the self-determined game if you sit next to it all the time with your mobile phone or tablet. So try to put away the appropriate devices yourself and use them little (near your child).
Maybe you would like to read a book while your child is playing, but you use a Kindle? Or you have to or would like to work on a PC or laptop, for example because you work freelance from home? My experience has been that this works differently for children. If your child observes you writing on a PC, for example, then he or she really understands you as working and not as using the media.
The same applies to the Kindle. Children understand that it is „reading“. Because it sees the same pages as in a real book. And just no colorful pictures.
This whole process of introduction and change can take longer and can be very tedious, especially if your child has watched a lot of TV before or was used to using the tablet or Ipad. But believe me, it’s worth it. You’ll feel great when you can comfortably read a book, tidy up or start having dinner, and your kid will play peacefully immersed in his toys.