child's hand holding a TV remote control

Television for Preschoolers: How to Find the Benefits

Many kids watch television at some point. Although the AAP recommends less than 1 hour per day of screen time (for children aged 2-5), it doesn’t mean that any screen time at all is “bad.” There can be many benefits, including parent-child bonding, early literacy skills, school-readiness, and cultural awareness.

This post offers some ideas about how to help make television time beneficial. This isn’t about whether or not your child has any screentime. It’s just a few ideas if you’ve already introduced television. (I’m not going to address video games or more interactive activities on a tablet today).

Below are a few tips.

Television as a bonding activity

If your child is going to watch television, please let them enjoy it. Watch with them, if possible. It’s the perfect chance to snuggle and connect. By watching with them, you can answer questions. You can also ask questions of your own to spark little conversations. Two-way conversations are so critical to development. Anytime a child feels emotionally connected to their parent, whether over a television show or a conversation, is time well spent.

Choose television content for preschoolers carefully

There are many wonderful shows for young children. Some strive to be primarily educational. Sesame Street has this reputation, and there are many YouTube channels with similar goals. I’ve learned that some families feel pressure to choose formal educational shows above all else. These shows are fine, but I’d remove that pressure. I just suggest ensuring the subject matter suits your child. Some elements of nature and history may be better introduced later on. Each parent knows their child best.

Television as preparation for school

Young children do not need a daily rigorous workbook-based education. However, if they enjoy a few minutes of screentime that teaches phonics or introduces numbers, it may be one way of preparing them for later learning.

Choosing TV with a story arc and drama

Other shows have lovely fictional stories. There is value in these as well. Character development, sequence of events, and conflict resolution can both entertain and educate. These are wonderful for children to develop early literacy skills. Being able to follow a story helps build a foundation for future reading.

Consider parent preferences

Not all shows are created equally. Any parent of a TV-viewing-child has preferences. And for good reason. Personally, I think it’s acceptable for a parent to “veto” a show if they just don’t like it or think it doesn’t align with lessons they want their child to learn.

Toddlers often blur reality and fantasy. At times, they are literally unable to distinguish the two. This is on my mind as I am extremely careful to introduce nonviolent programming to my kids.

When choosing dramas for the youngest kids, I also pay attention to how the characters treat each other. This is a personal parenting decision, but I’m pleased with the many options where the plot is not driven by mean-spiritedness. There are also many highly-rated shows with unkind characters. Of course, any conflict is an opportunity for conversation and discussion. However, in my family, when children are very young, we’re striving to choose TV that represents kindness as normal.

We can also use television to point out and discuss stereotypes or prejudices. “Hmmm, that’s interesting. All these animal friends are male . . . We know in real life that girls can have these kinds of adventures too . . . “

(Lastly, I personally choose to avoid shows with frenetic pacing and a lot of shouting. This isn’t necessarily medically relevant, but I’ve decided to limit the annoyed-mom state when I can).

Television as an opportunity to learn about another life

Finally, television shows are the perfect opportunity to introduce children to people who do not look like them. They can also get to know people that live differently. It’s a chance to see parts of the world that they may not otherwise see. Yes, books are perfect for this as well, but it’s worth keeping in mind when choosing television shows.

And, sometimes TV for a preschooler does offer a different experience than a book. I have to admit to the thrill of seeing a video of a leaping lemur, for example. It’s simply a different experience than when reading and looking at pictures.

We’ve also enjoyed hearing (and seeing) native speakers talk in languages with which we are unfamiliar. It’s another window to our global community.

In 2020, when much of the world was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, screens often helped people stay connected. This was true for toddlers and preschoolers as well, even beyond video phone calls.

Take breaks. Avoid uninterrupted television time.

Even if parents follow all the above tips, there’s still one downside to TV with young kids. Any time watching TV is time not spent doing other things. It’s sedentary time indoors (generally). It’s time not looking at something with natural light, which we know is important for eye development. The eyes are also focused on something 2-dimensional as opposed to the “real world.”

To counteract this in my family, if we watch TV, we take frequent breaks. Every family is different, but we haven’t needed to set strict limits. (Most days we don’t end up watching anything at all). The shows we enjoy these days usually have episodes less than 15 minutes long. My child understands giving eyes a break, and is (usually) happy to pause and run around outside for a few minutes, look at a book, or play. Many times, the “break” morphs into the day’s next activity, and we end up turning off the TV.

Summary: There can be benefits to television for young children.

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of screen time for young kids in general. Life is so full and the outdoors so inviting. However, many kids seem to love television. Benefits exist. And, the change in pace is often welcome.

So, if we as parents watch with our children, choose the shows thoughtfully, enjoy the activity, and chat about what we see? It can be a special and positive time indeed.

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