As an early childhood educator with two young children of my own, people often ask me my thoughts on screen-time, especially the "Montessori approach" to screen-time. And it's a worthwhile question on all accounts! The "Montessori approach" would be to give the developmental framework that might inform the way in which you prepare your environment (and yourself!) to support your child during this critical time. So while many ideas around screen-time are coming from the scientific and medical communities about how screens are addictive and deeply impact sleep, there is another perspective: that of the educator (especially a Montessorian). This perspective is going to be about translating the development into context so that we can better understand the behaviors and dispositions of our children all the while, looking ahead in development to see how what we do now affects what we see later. So here is what I would highlight in the child's development about screen-time:
1. THE DEVELOPMENT OF ABSTRACTION
THE CONTEXT: The child under six is a concrete thinker and sensorial learner. As they get closer to 6, they develop more capacity for the abstract, but prior to this they really don't operate at that level. You can see this clear as day with how actively involved children under six are in their world - they need to touch, taste, smell, hear, and see for themselves (they never believe you when you say there are no cookies left!). They are trying to understand this foreign place they were born into (remember, when they were born, they entered into an environment that was completely different than the one they lived in!). And the thing about being a concrete thinker is that what the child experiences, they perceive as REAL. Let me give you an example: Let's consider we walk up and down a staircase with a toddler and proclaim to them, "We just climbed a mountain!" Having never climbed a mountain, the 18 month old may think that that's actually what they did (because that's what we told them just happened). Somewhere around three years old, the child starts to have more awareness of their world and are able to start understanding some basics - jokes are more possible and "lying" is more common - though it's not actually lying, it's usually the child "playing" with reality!). And so the child (and their brain) marches their way toward their sixth year when the child starts to have a more robust abstract mind and can better imagine different times, places, and people (without getting confused with their current reality).
THE PROBLEM: Screens and media on screens make the unreal seem very real. I once watched a trailer for a movie and saw a real person, standing in a real room, with real toys and one of the LEGO's from the bin jumped up and announced the new movie. Trying to see that through the eyes of the under six child, you can imagine how confusing (and frightening!) that is - wait, can my toys come alive?? Even if you try to explain (which doesn't work because they aren't reasoning yet!), they will go back to the reality that was presented to them: toys come alive. It's also dicey as to whether the child is truly understanding what is being presented to them. Has your toddler ever tried to feed someone their snack over FaceTime? Yea, it's because they don't get that the person isn't really there! In most screen-related situations, the child may be very confused and not be able to express it. After all, the child at three has just built their core language skills but it still takes three additional years to really get it up to speed - screens move so quickly it's hard to stop to find out what they may have been misunderstanding. To give you an example of this, I once had a 5 year old in my Montessori Primary (3-6) class who by all accounts had a firm grounding in reality (he was almost six after all!). I read a passage of a book that said "when fish are hungry, they will eat anything." About an hour after the read-aloud, the boy came quietly over to me and with a timid and concerned look on his face and asked, "Anything is anything, right?...so do fish eat people?" He had no idea what would be "real" and what would be "laughable" and it was provoking a real fear in him about water and the fish that live there...and that was a book!
2. THE DEVELOPMENT OF SELF-REGULATION
THE CONTEXT: The child undergoes tremendous gains in self-regulation and other executive functions between 3-5 years. These "executive functions" are like your brain's CEO - the parts of your brain that do all the higher order thinking: planning, sequencing, impulse control, working memory (among others). The whole idea is that the brain is actively in charge of the body (instead of the body acting with reckless abandon and the brain just receiving the inputs).
THE PROBLEM: What does the body look like when watching a screen? It. Doesn't. Move. So when the child watches screens, we know their brains are actively responding to all the stimulation they receive from the lights, sounds and content, but their bodies don't move. If we are trying to support the child in developing the wonderful skills of having their BRAIN being charge of their BODY (something that helps them to be really successful adults!), it sure doesn't help to disconnect the feedback between the two.
3. The Content
THE CONTEXT: The child under six is really looking at what they experience in the world as real, so we should aim to offer as close to reality as we can so that they get the correct impression of what the world is. It is deeply unsettling if you don't have a good grip on reality so by supporting the child's connection to what is real, we also support a grounded and calm child (Note: when you read calm, don't read inactive. Activity is learning and it's how this concrete thinker learns. Calm is more like 'peaceful' in their mind.)
THE PROBLEM: The basic premise of screens and their content is already problematic with the "unreal" being "real," but the storylines, characters, and other media is also worth examining. 0-6 is the time when the child is building their language - being able to understand others and express themselves. But the understandings that the child is putting together are not not just the words around them - they are building general understandings about the world. Visualizations matter and will impact how they perceive themselves and others. The stories and characters portrayed rob children of their own imaginative creativity when everyone wants to be "Elsa" on the playground. Girls and boys are tracked into various attitudes and dispositions right from a young age and there are a plethora of stereotypes presented that perpetuate prejudice and bias. And more often than not, the aspirational characters are so out of touch with reality that children will never be what they so desire (and don't we tell them the opposite?). How does that affect confidence? Problem-solving?
4. The next stage
THE CONTEXT: It would appear as though we just have to get through the first six years and then we are ready to screens, well not quite. We have to take development as a series of stages - one building up to the next. If we look at this next stage of the six to twelve year old child, this is a child who is intellectually curious - they want to know why things are and how things work. Screens may help supplement some of this learning, but more often than not, the child will learn how something works best by tinkering with the real deal (not watching a video on the screen).
THE PROBLEM: So while light introduction to screens and different modes of communication may be warranted and applicable to a child this age, it should be noted that the next stage of development is adolescence. There is a tremendous focus on establishing relationships and your place in the world. This is a heightened time for social interaction, which makes it quite vulnerable to such interaction (and the social media interactions are often less than pleasant). The child this age benefits from real relationships, real conversations. So if we want the adolescent to emphasize real relationship building, it may be helpful to de-emphasize screens in their elementary years.
So then what?
Don't worrry, I'm not leaving you high and dry! Here are 5 insights to support your screen-free time!
Children crave predictability, but are also highly adaptive (confusing, right?) But what this means is that the more consistent and predictable our approach, the child will adapt relatively quickly. So while you may aim to reduce screen-time (instead of eliminate it), a "cold turkey" approach to the new plan is in order. This means not giving the child mixed messages about saying no screens after 6pm (and then letting them have it because their brother is throwing a fit and I have to deal with that). They are looking for what is real to find the truth - if it's not true, it's not a real rule. And rules that aren't really rules mean two things: you should keep asking for it until you get it (because you just might) and I only need to listen to this when you are around to check on me (which doesn't help the SELF-regulation part of their development).
2. "You're bored? Hmm. I don't know why anyone would choose to do that with their time, but go ahead!"
It is not your job to find interesting things to do - that's your child's job (and they've done it from birth). We are born to understand and explore our world. If you can own this mindset, the child is then in the driver's seat with what might be interesting for them. But, this doesn't mean we don't have a job. It is clearly helpful to provide developmentally interesting things in the environment, but the trick is that within those, it is not our choice (after all, the kid might want to play with the box instead of the toy anyway!). And lastly, try not to override what is interesting to them with what is interesting to you. For example, you may have gone to the Zoo to look at the animals (what is interesting to you), but your 2 year old is clearly only wanting to look at the fire hydrant they found. Let them look at the hydrant. If you override them, you are telling them to come to you to find out what is interesting in the world (this is the child that doesn't self-entertain). Plus, letting them find and follow their own interests is going to translate into more focus and concentration that they can apply to other learning pursuits.
3. "It seems like you don't like being bored...maybe you should choose something else to do"
If the child is new to choice-making, it may be helpful to give them a few options (Maybe you'd like to make a fruit salad? Or play with your dolls? Which one is interesting to you?), but the general idea is that they are choosing what they do with their time (within reason) and that being bored is not your problem. Especially between 3-6 years, we are tapping into the self-regulation that the child is trying to build - putting their brain in charge (instead of their body and instead of me). You can also help facilitate choice making with low, open shelves, so the child has a clearer picture of what their choices are.
4. Plan Adult-time Screen-time
Yes, our children are going through an incredible amount of development - which makes them exhausting to parent - and we all need a little R & R time. Screen-free doesn't have to mean for the adult too, but the times the adult uses screens can be allotted to times when children are asleep or otherwise engaged in something else.
5. Car rides: just act like it's 1980.
Seriously. If it was 1980, children in a car would look out the window, maybe have a book or two, perhaps some music and maybe a notebook. Oh yea, and conversation. Children have long since had the capacity to not be entertained every second, so try tapping into that and embrace the new normal (and they will too).
So, does it work?
Yes! We are two working parents and are screen-free with a 4 year old and a 15 month old (and have been since birth), except for the occasional FaceTime call to a distant relative (to us, connecting to the relative was a bigger PRO than the potential confusion about that relative going INTO the phone, though we are mindful of not doing that too often). The children can and do find interesting things to do, they last in multiple-hour car rides looking out the window, and they get along for the most part (read our post about Shared Space for more!). Screens (and screen-time) is just not part of the reality presented (so they don't ask for it).