More than one day a week. That’s how much time most U.S. kids spend in front of a television. According to a 2009 Nielsen report, the average American child, ages 2 to 5, watches TV at least 32 hours a week; kids ages 7 to 11, more than 28 hours. If you’d like to prevent your children from becoming couch spuds, here are six simple strategies for tuning out TV and turning them on to other interests.
Avoid the TV creep
You know the TV creep. No, not some annoying guy on TV. It’s how, despite your best intentions, TV time creeps into your lives, and before you know it, your kids — remote tightly in hand — have whiled away a few hours plastered to the screen.
So that TV viewing doesn’t become excessive, create a preset schedule for your kids and involve them in setting time limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends restricting children’s screen time to one to two hours of quality programming a day. Try to avoid watching before bedtime, which can result in poor sleep quality. You might decide that the hour before dinner works best. Whatever schedule you choose, stick to it and be firm with the limits (writing them down helps).
Finally, rather than sitting down to a night of TV, the AAP suggests picking a program ahead of time — again, with your kids. Watch just that program and turn the set off afterward. Set that expectation — one show per sitting — early on, and you’ll keep the creep out of the house.
Keep TVs in full view
Keeping screen time at bay isn’t all about how much a child watches, but where. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 70% of U.S. kids have a TV in their room. Yet research shows a link between televisions in children’s bedrooms and troubling academic and health problems: Kids with bedroom TVs scored lower on tests; tend to have sleeping problems; and, for low-income preschoolers, are more likely to be overweight. Plus, research finds that kids with televisions in their rooms simply watch more — about nine hours a week of extra TV time.
So keep sets in common areas — and out of your children’s bedrooms — where you can watch what they’re watching. You can also make a point of turning one of your scheduled TV times into a family viewing night. Watch a quality movie together and talk about it afterward: Ask why characters made the choices they did or what the moral of the story was. Watching together, and talking about the show later, will turn TV into a communal, active experience, rather than an isolating, passive one.
Trade in screen time for green time
If you replace screen time with outdoor time, kids won’t even miss leaving the two-dimensional world for greener pastures (or at least playgrounds). While common sense suggests that outside play is good for children, plenty of research asserts it’s healthy for their minds and bodies.
By engaging in regular outdoor play, kids not only burn calories and get much-needed vitamin D from sunlight (essential for the immune system and regulating the biological clock), but those with attention deficit disorder, research has found, also gain better attention spans and self-control.
And according to Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv, kids who regularly play outdoors do better in school, are more creative, and are more adept at handling stress. Try scheduling park time alongside your weekly TV schedule. As the weeks go on, see if you can gradually replace those TV hours with outdoor activities.
Tune in to smart shows
With 100-plus channels, there’s plenty of bad TV out there. But that doesn’t mean all TV is bad. With a little research, you can find entertaining, inspiring, and educational kid-friendly programs.
Common Sense Media, a nonprofit dedicated to offering parents "trustworthy information to help manage their kids’ media lives," has dozens of recommendations for quality TV for children. They include learning-intensive (your kids will never know!) shows like Planet Earth, the Discovery Channel’s dazzling nature documentary series, and Crashbox, HBO Family’s animated, interactive series with knowledge-building games and engaging characters.
Create creative diversions
Help your kids take their minds off the boob tube by offering other creativity-inspiring options in its place.
Put together a box of art supplies with paints, pencils, glue, and paper. Build a simple card house from playing cards and challenge your children to build a bigger one. Fold sheets of paper in half to create a blank storybook they can fill out with words and pictures (either drawing their own or cutting and pasting photos from old magazines). Keep several jigsaw puzzles on hand — you can find inexpensive ones at thrift stores or yard sales — and see if your kids can keep beating their own records in number of pieces and time to completion. Bulk up as well on board and card games. Finally, consider investing in a Flip — an easy-to-use handheld movie camera — and let your kids sit back and enjoy watching their own self-produced TV shows.
Book some old-school fun
Don’t forget books, the number one TV tamer. Conversely, say many studies, steady TV watching eclipses reading and literacy. According to a report from the University of Michigan Health System, children from TV-centric households watch more television and read less than other kids. More sobering, young children exposed to constant TV are less likely to be able to read than other kids.
So read to your children, with your children, and encourage them to read on their own. Reading stimulates kids’ minds and imaginations in ways that TV can’t — and fostering a love of books is one of the best ways to set them up for academic success. If you’re not sure which books to choose, ask a teacher or librarian for recommendations. You can also check out books on tape from the library, which fires kids’ imaginations and promotes active listening. Audio books are a lifesaver for long car drives — or when you’d rather just listen along with your children.