Posts tagged: TV-free kids

Imaginative Play and Cognitive Function

By , February 21, 2008 3:31 pm


On NPR’s Morning Edition this morning was a VERY interesting story (“Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills“) about how children’s play has changed in the last century. Instead of engaging in self-directed, imaginative, improvised play, play has become centered around toys and the latest movie or TV show: “Essentially, instead of playing pirate with a tree branch” they play “Star Wars with a toy light saber.”

Commercialization is only partly to blame, as child safety has become more of a concern in recent years. Parents are now more reluctant to let their children run loose around the neighborhood. They enroll kids in structured, adult-lead activities.

This change in play-habits has actually changed children’s brains according to researchers. Imaginative play helps kids develop what is known as “executive function,” which is a cognitive skill necessary for self-regulation (controlling emotions and behavior, resisting impulses, and exercising self-control and discipline).

Read this interesting excerpt from the NPR piece:

We know that children’s capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at the National Institute for Early Education Research says, the results were very different.

“Today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains. “So the results were very sad.”

According to executive function researcher, Laura Berk: “Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.” In fact, good executive function is a more reliable predictor of success in school than IQ. Poor executive function leads to high dropout rates, drug use, and crime. Of course there must be a middle ground here, but the better a child’s ability to self-regulate, the better they will perform in school, and in life.

So here is yet another reason to turn off the TV, ignore the terrible whines, agonizing howls of boredom and claims of inhumane parental treatment and see what happens. They just might surprise you with the games they come up with on their own. And…they will be improving their executive function skills!

I urge you to listen to this fascinating NPR piece (7 min 50 sec), or at least read the online transcript.

+ Some suggestions for activities that promote self-regulation:

(from researchers Deborah Leong, professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, Elena Bodrova, senior researcher with Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, and Laura Berk, professor of psychology at Illinois State University, found on the transcript page of the NPR website):

– Play “Simon Says”

– Encourage “complex imaginative play” (child plans and acts out scenarios, invents own props, etc. Best if play lasts for several hours)

– Activities that require planning (the examples given are: games with directions, patterns for construction, recipes for cooking)

– Read storybooks with your children

– Encourage children to talk to themselves (“fosters concentration, effort, problem-solving, and task success”)

+ A related Unplug Your Kids post: Let Your Kids be Bored

(Photo (taken in Madagascar) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and photographer Harald Kreutzer.)

Life Under my Rock – “Ad? What Ad?”

By , January 30, 2008 9:39 pm

For those of you who have not been keeping up with the blogs Shaping Youth or Corporate Babysitter (aka. Parents for Ethical Marketing), there has been a HUGE debate raging over a certain Target print ad. The debate even made it into a New York Times article! Since I have been away on another planet for the past two months (between the holidays and blog moving), I only just discovered this controversy last night as I tried to play a little catch-up with my Blogroll.

There has been enough said on all sides of this debate, so my two-cents on the intention or appropriateness of the photo would really be overkill at this point in the process. Besides, any intelligent remark would only be drowned by the endless sea of flaming comments that are bombarding these two unfortunate bloggers.

My point in bringing this up is not to stir up further controversy, but to mention my revelation when I first read about the Target ad: I must really be living under a rock to have not seen this ad that everyone else in the universe HAS seen!

Part of this ignorance or innocence (depending on your point of view) stems from the fact that I live in the boonies. The nearest Target is about 3 hours away so we don’t see billboard ads for anything much other than Cellular One and local businesses.

The other, and more major cause of my uninformed state, is obviously my lack of television. With TV, we would be exposed to far more marketing than we are now. This controversy made me think more about advertising and children.

Since the average child in the US is supposedly exposed to 40,000 TV-ads annually, it seems that parents ought to come up with some sort of strategy for dealing with this commercial barrage.

In my mind, there are three approaches to dealing with kids and TV commercials:

1) Don’t worry about the number of ads they see:

The easiest approach, but you still might want to read on. I have some suggestions further down for discussing ads with your kids and teaching them a bit about media manipulation.

2) Limit the number of ads that your children view:

Some practical suggestions for accomplishing this:

– Limit their network TV viewing time.

– Choose PBS over advertising channels. They’ll see some “brought to you by…” stuff, but that seems far less blatantly manipulative than mainstream ads.


3) Totally eliminate TV advertising from your children’s lives:

How to do it:

– Get rid of the TV (but this is awfully drastic and is not for everyone)

– Allow them to watch only PBS or any other commercial-free channels out there (won’t work if the “brought to you by…” bothers you too.)

– Have them watch only videos and DVDs.

– TIVO or videotape the kids’ programs minus the ads. Have them watch the recorded versions.

How to handle TV advertising and your children is a very individual choice and one approach does not work for all families. I am not preaching any particular philosophy here! Think about it, and decide for yourselves.

But whether your children see a lot of ads, or only a few, I think another important aspect of dealing with advertising and children is to talk to them about the ads that they see. Here are some suggestions:

For young children:

– Have them call out “Commercial!” whenever an ad comes on. Children under the age of 5 often have a hard time distinguishing between a program and a commercial.

– Have kids count the number of ads in one hour, or time the length of each commercial.

– Talk to children about what is being advertised and how it is made to seem appealing. Do they think that Barbie can really dance all by herself?

For grade-schoolers:

– Show kids that you are skeptical. Ask them who they think created the ad. What is the message? What information is missing from the ad? Do you believe what is being shown? Show them that many ads attempt to make the viewer feel that life would be better, or more comfortable, or “cooler” with the product in question.

For pre-teens:

– Mute the ad and have your child tell you what he or she thinks the ad is saying. Or have your child cover their eyes and then describe to you what they think the ad showed.

For better or for worse, ads are a part of our world and they aren’t going to go away anytime soon. So learning to deal with advertising and how it works seems to me to be an important life lesson, one that even TV-free kids will have to learn eventually.


Some of my suggestions came from PBS Parents: Children and Media

A related post of mine: Combating Commercials

Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons and photographer David Monniaux.

Combating Commercials (Christmas/Holidays Unplugged)

By , December 8, 2007 11:28 pm

I still remember growing up and seeing TV ads with Barbie looking gorgeous and twirling around by herself and thinking that if I had that particular Barbie, she would dance around like that and be like a best friend to me instead of a plastic doll, and my life would be perfect. Well, Santa did occasionally bless me with that wonderously miraculous gift of the moment, but the wonderous gift never did what it seemed to in the ads, and it never changed my life.

How do we explain to kids that what is in the ads they see, is not what would come in the package under the tree? The easiest way is to have no TV, so they see no ads.

Barring that more radical approach, the book Unplug the Christmas Machinehas some good suggestions for how to teach your kids about TV commercials:

According to this book, studies have shown that children under the age of 5 cannot distinguish TV commercials from actual programs. (Thanks for the link Dana!)

The authors suggest that parents watch at least one hour of TV with children, in order to discuss commercials.

+ Have young children call out “commercial” whenever an ad appears.
+ Talk to children (especially older children) about what is being advertised and how the product is made to seem appealing.
+ Have older kids count the number of commercials in one hour, or even have them time the length of each commercial.

Here are some ideas that grabbed me from the website PBS Parents: Children and Media:

+ For Grade Schoolers:

“When watching TV with your child, question the commercials.Voice your skepticism by posing questions such as these: Who do you think created this ad? What do you think the message is? What might the advertiser not be telling us? Do you think you can believe what you see? Start with obvious targets—ads promoting high-fat foods, for example—then move on to more subtle ads, such as those promoting a cool or attractive lifestyle. Explain how advertisements are often meant to make people feel that something is missing from their lives. “

+ For Pre-Teens:

Try muting an ad and have your child tell you what he or she thinks the ad is saying. Or…have your child close their eyes and tell you what he or she thinks it is showing.

There are so many more wonderful ideas grouped by age at PBS Parents: Children and Media, that I shall just have to link to them by age here:

Grade Schoolers


Quote of the Day:

“Adolescents, youths, and even children, are easy victims of the corruption of love. Deceived by unscrupulous adults, who, lying to themselves and to them, draw them into the dead-end streets of consumerism.”

– Pope Benedict XVI, quoted today while talking about Christmas (heard on tonight’s NPR All Things Considered)

Sorry this is so “heavy.” I am not Catholic, nor do I usually get into religion on my blog, but I did think this was a quote worth thinking about, no matter what one’s beliefs.

Read all the Christmas/Holidays Unplugged posts here.

"Average of 2 Hours/Day Watching TV and 7 Minutes/Day Reading " – Americans Reading Less New Study Says

By , November 19, 2007 11:25 pm

Tonight I heard on NPR’s All Things Considered an interesting story that fits right in with Unplug Your Kids so I absolutely have to report it for those who might have missed it. Sorry to postpone my next Christmas/Holiday Unplugged post for anyone who really cares, but I’ll get it up tomorrow morning or evening.

The National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) has just released today, a new study on the reading habits of Americans: children, teens, and adults. Here are some of the findings:

++ Americans are reading less – teens and young adults read less often and for shorter amounts of time compared with other age groups and with Americans of previous years

Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier.

Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20-year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.

On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.

++ Americans are reading less well – reading scores continue to worsen, especially among teenagers and young males. By contrast, the average reading score of 9-year-olds has improved.

Reading scores for 12th-grade readers fell significantly from 1992 to 2005, with the sharpest declines among lower-level readers.

2005 reading scores for male 12th-graders are 13 points lower than for female 12th-graders, and that gender gap has widened since 1992.

Reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in prose reading dropped by 10 points, a 20 percent rate of decline.

According to NPR, an earlier NEA study was criticized for only considering adults reading literary works, fiction, poetry, and drama. This time the study also included all ages, and all reading materials, including newspapers, magazines, and even the internet. The results were the same.

There seems to be a decline in pleasure reading beginning in middle school and continuing on through high school and adulthood. People read less and less…and therefore, read less and less well. This affects academic and economic performance, as well as civic and political contributions.

Of course the obvious culprits appear to be electronic distractions, however some speak of a positive “New Literacy” among today’s youth, “a literacy not limited to books.” Dana Joya, Chairman of the NEA debunks this claim. Apparently all the kids tested engaged in the same sort of electronic activities, but those who READ BOOKS, did better on the tests.

Other interesting stats from the study :

55% who read below “the basic level,” were unemployed.

Only 3% of prison inmates are proficient readers.

(and I have to say I have not read the complete study so as to be able to exactly define the terms “basic level” and “proficient,” but at least this gives you a general idea).

The final tidbit that caught my attention from this report was that the NEA found that socio-economic status did not have an impact on the amount that children read, rather the defining characteristic, was the number of books in the home.


NPR story: Reading Study Shows Remarkable Decline in US

NEA: 11/19/07 New Reading Study Summary (and link to download full report)

Photo courtesy of and photographer jeltovski

Children’s Behavioral Problems Linked to TV

By , October 9, 2007 8:55 pm

There is a new study out which finds that children who watch TV for two or more hours per day from a young age (2.5 years-old), are more prone to behavioral problems and poor social skills when they are older (5.5 years-old).
The study was conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, and was published in the October issue of the journal Pediatrics. It is based on a nationwide survey of the parents of 2,707 children.

Here are some of the findings:

-Children who had been sustained, heavy (two or more hours of TV a day) TV watchers from ages 2.5 to 5.5 had problems in the areas of social skills and behavior. Problems with aggression and difficulty paying attention were also commonly found in this group.

-Children who didn’t watch much as toddlers, but who were heavy viewers by age 5.5 demonstrated problems with social skills.

-Children who watched TV heavily at age 2.5 but who had reduced their TV viewing time by age 5.5, showed no significant social or behavioral problems.

I think that the last point is one of the most interesting findings in this study. Even if a child was a heavy viewer as a toddler, as long as viewing is significantly reduced by age 5.5, then the negative behavioral and social effects seem to be alleviated. In other words, preschool and kindergarten age is still not too late to reduce a child’s TV viewing and see improved behavior. Reducing or eliminating the TV, even after the toddler years, can have a positive impact on behavior and social skills.

Today’s Phoenix newspaper (The Arizona Republic) had an article about the study, that added a few bits of interesting information. The Arizona Republic reporter interviewed Jill Stamm, a psychologist and co-founder of New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development in Phoenix. According to Ms. Stamm, TV’s short bursts of programming and commercials trains an infant’s brain to “scan and shift” rather than to pay attention for a long period of time. Once this brain pattern is set, it can inhibit the ability to learn later in life. She says: “What the brain gets wired for is quick hits of salient information. The brain gets used to that, and that’s what it wants.” Ms. Stamm says that the brain is adaptable and by reducing or ceasing TV viewing altogether, particularly before the age of 5, the brain will rewire itself and repair the damage.

There is also mention of a former Phoenix school teacher who says she could pick out the heavy TV viewers in her class simply by their behavior. They were the kids who couldn’t sit still and had short attention spans. She also said that “their vocabularies were limited and their writing less descriptive.”

Additionally, the study gaged the effects on 5.5 year-old children of having a television in the bedroom. 41% of the parents surveyed reported that their child had a TV in their room. Not surprisingly, the study found that having a set in the bedroom was linked to sleep problems.


Read the summary of the study at the Pediatrics website, here.

The Arizona Republic Article: TV Bad for Kids, New Study Reports

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