A recent joint study on the effects of TV viewing on young children by the Universities of Montreal and Michigan found that by fourth grade the children who had watched several hours of television a day at age 29 months experienced a 7% decrease in classroom engagement, a 6% decrease in math achievement and a13% decrease in time spent doing physical activity. In addition, it was found that those same children had a 9% increase in soft drink consumption, a 10% increase in consumption of snacks, a 5% increase in Body Mass Index (BMI) and a whopping 10% increase in classmate victimization by the fourth grade.
As a TV actor, I'm certainly not saying television is the root of all evil. I'm saying we need to bring more mindfulness and discretion into how much of it our children consume.
Citibabes founder Tracey Frost took these stats to heart. Her New York-based community center is not only for kids, but also for parents. The purpose is to educate them while creating a safe place for kids to play.
"As a mom whose priority has been to educate and enrich my children's world as much as possible," she admits,"my first reaction [to this study was] completely one of guilt. While I am neither a child psychologist nor researcher, I am a mom, and it's difficult to hear studies like these and not feel defeated in some way. Most parents I know educate themselves on the dos and don'ts of parenting, but we're all human. Perfect parenting is an unfair goal."
Offering enrichment classes such as the ones available at Citibabes is one way to get kids moving. "When it comes to TV," Tracey says, "we reserve judgment and, instead, try to create a vibrant world of real-life experiences. Everyone can agree that real quality time spent face to face with other people is more fulfilling than virtual experiences."
When I asked Tracey what we could do to create healthy viewing habits in our kids, she suggested the following:
- Role Model: The best thing you can role model for healthy TV viewing is, ironically, turning the TV off. Showing kids there's more to life than a video screen is key which is why getting outside to the park, the beach, or just running some errands models the fun of physical activity over being a couch potato.
- Conversation starters: One thing that comes naturally to grown-ups that may not be easy for kids is the importance of discussing what's happening on TV. When my husband and I watch TV, there's always a conversation to be had whether it's debating a point that's been made or sharing complimentary information about the topic we're watching. We try and modify that in an age-appropriate way whenever we watch TV with the kids. Asking questions about what we just watched is the best way to get kids thinking actively about what can turn into passive viewership.
- Reward: Sometimes the power of television is too seductive for kids, not unlike sugar and sweets. So, just like we've made dessert a "treat" after a healthy dinner, you can extend that lesson to watching TV. Make a chart for the fridge - and include the whole family - indicating what physical or "real world" activities were done for the day in order to "buy" TV time. An hour at the park might mean an hour of your child's favorite show. A half-hour of reading a book might mean 30 minutes of playing games on the internet. Instituting a system of checks and balances may seem too rigid, but for young children who like structure and reward, the strategy works and you can always ease up as they get older.
So what do we do when they wing about wanting to watch just one more show? Tracey says to draw the line.
- Ignore the Whining: It's important for parents to understand that for children, TV may always seem like the more fun alternative. There will probably be a lot of whining when you turn the TV off and plan a "real world" activity, but I promise: once the kids are engaged, they forget all about what they are "missing" on TV.
- Think like a TV Producer: Examine your child's favorite TV shows from a television producer's eye and pick out exciting elements of that show you might be able to turn into a real world activity. Do your children love action and superheroes? Find a comic book shop in your neighborhood and make a trip. Is it fantasy they enjoy? Go to your closet and play dress up or, better yet, bring some dress- up clothes to the park for an afternoon of make-believe. For instance, if your child is obsessed with Dora, pack a backpack for the day, draw a map, and go on your own "exploration" of your neighborhood or city. Sure, children love watching their favorite characters on TV, but they love playing their favorite characters even more.
- Live Performance: One of the joys of living in New York City is the sheer amount of live performance available to families, from puppet theater to Broadway shows, there's something for every child out there. I strongly encourage families to seek out local community theater, dance or music and exposing children to the energy of live performance. It's a wonderful counterpoint to watching something on TV and you can discuss the differences between the two when the curtain falls.
What are the best TV shows for kids? While Tracey didn't want to name names, she says she selects shows by their level of participation such as those shows that invite kids to get up, dance and sing along. I can't see my eleven-year-old getting jazzed to do that, but she gets a lot of exercise just going to school and back every day. A little vegging out in front of the tube on vacation and weekends is okay as long as it's not the only way they enjoy the slow.
Here are some of Tracey's favorite alternatives to TV viewing:
- Make your own TV show or Movie: Create your own characters, costumes, plot and scenery for a class movie. Let the kids hold the camera, yell "Action" and direct their friends for hours of excitement.
- Make your own Storybook: Whether it's a story about a television character your child likes or something they've made up completely, have your child narrate while you document their words verbatim. Help them if they're stuck by asking questions about the character and plot, but try to let the child create the bulk of the tale's action. When they're done, divide up the words on several pages for the child to illustrate like a real storybook.
- Scavenger Hunts: Scavenger hunts are great warm weather activities that get kids out of the house. We actually use them a lot in the club in our preschool class, whether we're learning about Australian animals or going on an African safari - we hide stuffed animals around the club for children to find. You can take this game outside very easily, either in teams or one-on-one with your child. Variations include doing a photo scavenger hunt where you take pictures of things on your list or the more traditional version where children have to retrieve items or information from various neighbors or local businesses.
- American Idol Sing-off: Turn on the CD player, if you don't have a karaoke machine, and let your kids belt it out. It's fun to play dress up before the big "show", maybe choreograph a few moves and, at the end, you can even record it and play back the video for all to watch before it's time to go.
Art imitates life. It's fun to have a blend of both as Tracey suggests.With her tips it truly is possible to embrace the power of slow without drooling in front of the tube for hours on end.
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