Screen time for the under 5's

March 10, 2020

Screen time for the under 5’s – how much is too much, is it safe and isn’t this the way they learn – are all valid questions from parents raising children in our modern digital age. Children under 5 are curious, busy and wanting to engage with the physical world around them. Complementing these age appropriate characteristics are their rapidly developing cognitive, physical and emotional systems, which many say, develop better without exposure to screens.

Optimal development from birth to 5

Maria Montessori believed the period from birth to six as being the most important developmental and learning period in one’s life.

“From birth to the age of six, [for that] is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed”.¹

She acknowledged that children in this age bracket learn from their environment and the world around them. They learn by touching, feeling, tasting, moving and by manipulating their environment. In this reality, they start to form an understanding of their world and how it works. As young children we learn through sensorial exploration which can only be delivered through physical exploration of the natural world as opposed to virtual ones. With this in mind let’s explore screen time in reference to a child’s development.

Screen time – what is it?

Screen time is defined as the amount of time spent watching/viewing or engaging with an electronic device (such as a smartphone, tablet, gaming console or computer) for entertainment and includes watching T.V and DVD’s, streaming videos, movies and other online content, playing games on consoles, computers or phones and texting. Screen time for educational purposes is seen as distinct from time spent purely for entertainment value.

Opinions on screen time use

As with most things relating to children, everyone has an opinion, even those without children! The amount of screen time a child under 5 should be exposed to, is no exception.

Those responsible for forming policies and making educational and health recommendations (generally a mix of Baby Boomers and Gen X’s) have had to learn about technology on the hop are in contrast to those who have grown up in the modern digital age (Gen Y, Z and Alphas) and can’t imagine life without technology at their fingertips! Both these groups view technology and the use of screens very differently, but probably agree that the early years of a child’s development are vitally important.

As Montessorians, we want our children to grow up experiencing the natural environment and learning from their interaction within it. Yet, we as individuals engage technology on a daily basis and many of us would have strong opinions on the value of technology from an educational perspective.

Screen time recommendations

When we talk about the early years (birth to 5) we must make note of the extensive cognitive, physical, emotional and social growth that occurs in this developmental period and what extrinsic factors either help or hinder this process.

The Australian Department of Health has issued guidelines for healthy growth and development known as the Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years (birth to 5 years): An Integration of Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour, and Sleep. These guidelines paint a picture of what a child’s day during a 24-hour period should look like, including active play, time spent sitting and lying down, and ideal amount of sleep.

The main points to consider for the under 5’s:

  • Active play is recommended for:
    • Infants – birth to 1yr – being physically active several times a day in a variety of ways,
    • Toddlers – 1 to 2yrs – at least 180 minutes spent throughout the day, in a variety of physical activities, including energetic play, and,
    • Preschoolers – 3 to 5yrs – at least 180 minutes spent throughout the day, in a variety of physical activities, of which at least 60 minutes is energetic play
  • Sedentary time – not being restrained (car seat, pram or high chair) for more than 1 hour at a time across all ages and when sedentary, children should be engaging in activities such as reading, puzzles, games etc
  • Screen time:
    • Age birth to 2yrs – NOT RECOMMENDED AT ALL
    • Age 2 to 5yrs – NO MORE THAN 1 HOUR – LESS IS BETTER

A nationally representative poll conducted by the Royal Children’s Hospital found 63% of children aged two and under had screen exposure. It also showed that 72% of children in this 2 to 5yrs age group far exceeded the “no more than 1 hour” recommendation.

Maria Montessori was a strong advocate for young children moving. Through movement they learn not only about their natural environment but also about their own bodies capacity. It was via her observations of children that she noted;

“When there is motor and physical activity, you can see a more important kind of education, a kind of education that takes the force of life into account…If we do not take [this] into account, we miss the best part of education”.²

Research has shown that unsupervised screen time coupled with the resultant periods of sedentary behaviour can lead to the under 5’s suffering language and speech delays, inattention and difficulty concentrating, lower levels of school readiness, difficulty with decision making, reduced capacity to be patient and increased social communication deficits. In addition, health risks such as obesity, poor posture, myopia (short-sightedness) and perceived lack of enjoyment and willingness to participate in other pursuits,  such as outdoor exercise and imaginative play have also been sighted as undesirable effects of screen time. These factors are thought to largely be the result of reduced “face to face” interaction with parents, peers and the wider community. In other words, reduced interaction with a child’s physical environment!

Screen time – what’s the answer?

The management of screen time is yet another facet of modern parenting that we have to pay attention to. My mother frequently says she’s grateful she didn’t have to address this when I was growing up! I agree with her, and to be honest, am somewhat envious of the “simpler” responsibility parenting was back when I was a kid. However, technology is a facet of parenting as we know it today and screen time is an issue we need to manage. In searching for an answer, we should ask the following questions:

Q: Are Australians paying attention to the current recommendations for screen time in the under 5’s?
A: Studies are categorically stating no.

Q: Should we be paying attention to these guidelines?
A: Probably. Especially considering the developmental growth and processes that take place from birth to 5 years of age.

Q: Is it challenging to limit the use of screen time to the recommended time?
A: Absolutely!

Rather than becoming totally overwhelmed and giving up, I think as parents we have to approach screen time much the same as we do most things in life.

With balance, consistency and moderation.

There is no doubt technology is here to stay and our children are growing up (fast!) with it integrated into most, if not all facets of their lives. If we consider the values of Maria Montessori in her approach to facilitating the best possible developmental outcomes for children:

A Montessori approach to managing screen time might look something like this:

  1. Get physical – encourage lots of:
    • outdoor play which facilitates your child’s interaction with the natural world, and
    • physical exercise over sedentary screen time
  2. Encourage independent play – using a screen as a parenting strategy to get “a minute” robs our children of learning how to play independently:
    • initially spend some quality time with your child giving them your undivided attention, then
    • encourage your child to play for a short period independently and as they get better, slowly increase their independent play
    • get them started on an activity, then back away to again encourage independence
  3. Establish a consistent and well balanced routine that includes:
    • active play, remember more is better,
    • good eating habits,
    • ample time for quality sleep, and
    • a period of screen time
  4. Set limits for screen time
    • be guided by the experts and find a balance that works for your family
    • be consistent with your limits so that moving on to a more active activity is predictable
  5. When your children are using technology:
    • prioritise quality educational apps that require engagement over passive viewing, and
    • actively participate in what your children are viewing and playing as it encourages communication.
  6. Have no screen “zones” at home:
    • in bedrooms, as this is unsupervised and develops poor habits around sleep, and
    • at the dinner table, as this should be used as a time for the family to communicate about their day,
  7. Create a family tech agreement and have your children sign it.

If these suggestions fall short, consider getting a cyber safety internet filtering product. There are many options on the market, we use Family Zone and have found it to be fantastic. It gives parents back control over what their children are exposed to online, sets time limits for screen time use, blocks adult and inappropriate content and so much more. A product like this can be individualised for each family member, has the capacity to grow with your family as they age and mature and will give you back a baseline from which you can then try and introduce more Montessori values.

Take home message

Although our children are growing up as members of a global digital society, they are also currently being educated in the Montessori way that encourages independence and interaction with the physical world around them. In finding a balance for your family, the most important point to ensure is that screen time doesn’t take the place of, or take priority over the significant developmental, physical, social and emotional learning that Maria Montessori observed as taking place in your children’s early years.

References and further reading

  1. Montessori, M., 1964. The Absorbent Mind. 1st ed. Theosophical Publishing House
  2. Montessori, M., London Lectures
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