10 ideas to reduce screen time and inspire unplugged play

April 3, 2018

“Alright, time to put down the screen for today.” It’s a sentence that strikes fear into the hearts of children around the world. As parents and caregivers, we’ve all seen our children’s eyes roll and heard their sighs when we put the kapush on screen time. We’ve seen their little hands thrown up in exasperation and have maybe even been on the receiving end of a temper tantrum. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can reduce your child’s dependency on screen time and encourage unplugged play by creating areas dedicated to unplugged play throughout your home. Child sitting at top of stairs stretching out a rainbow-colored Slinkie Reducing the amount of time your kids spend on screens can be a challenging process—for both parents and kids—but the effort is worth it in the long run. Increased screen time is associated with less family time, lower grades, difficulty in falling asleep, and social-emotional volatility.1 There is no single silver bullet. Effectively reducing your children’s screen time requires a holistic approach and a host of methods ranging from reorienting our perceptions around screen time to environmental changes. Environmental changes can include turning off “background TV,” limiting screen use at the dinner table, and today’s topic: promoting screenless play through the introduction of unplugged play stations throughout the home.

“Unstructured play can strengthen the brain’s ability to plan, make decisions, shift between tasks, as well as to control thoughts, feelings, and actions.”2

With a few small changes, you can make it easier for your child to find his or her next activity once it’s time to power off the screen. It will build their confidence to know there are other fun things to do besides watching shows, YouTube videos or playing video games. And you can feel secure knowing that once your child can independently find entertainment, they will be better prepared to navigate the world throughout childhood and adulthood. Research shows that unstructured play can strengthen the brain’s ability to plan, make decisions, shift between tasks, as well as to control thoughts, feelings, and actions.2 Free play is the mind’s way of preparing for all of the new and unexpected things that happen in life. Exercising that frontal cortex helps kids learn to adapt to life’s changes in a well-adjusted way as well as stay entertained during the day!

Make it easy for your child to “bump” into unstructured play.

Unstructured play is by definition self-directed by the child. It’s supposed to be fun and it’s supposed to be their idea. But what if you have to pry the tablet or phone out of your child’s protesting hands when screen time’s up? What if your child has no interest in battling boredom outside of glowing-screen-land? While no one can make kids engage in unstructured play (that would make it a structured activity!) there are steps you can take to encourage it. To ease the transition from screen time to engaged playtime, you can make it easy for your child to “bump” into activities by setting up stations throughout your house dedicated to unstructured play. It’s hard to be bored when engaging activities are begging to be colored, built, and repurposed everywhere you look. When you make unplugged play easy to encounter around the house, kids can strengthen their independent play muscles and maybe even forget why they were so hung up on screen time in the first place.

“It’s hard to be bored when engaging activities are begging to be colored, built, and repurposed everywhere you look.”

It doesn’t have to cost a fortune either. Similar to the “shopping your closet” mentality, rethink your house as a playground. All of a sudden, seemingly mundane items can become a wonderland for exploration.

10 ideas to reduce screen time and inspire unplugged play:

1) Turn your bathtub into a top-secret lab.

Child playing science lab in the bathtub Using everyday household items such as plastic containers, bubbles, and food coloring, your child can stay busy while seriously flexing their imagination muscles. Keeping this activity contained to the bathtub helps with cleanup and prevents stains on carpets and furniture. Remember: don’t drink the concoctions!

2) Give your kids their own dedicated supply drawer.

Close up of open desk drawer containing materials for a child to use in creative activities. Drawer contents include masking tape, colored pencils, scissors, glue sticks, and paper clips. Make age-appropriate materials readily available to enable hours worth of unstructured play. We suggest a short list of must-haves:

  • Masking Tape
  • Colored Felt
  • Pipe Cleaners
  • Paper Clips
  • Large alligator clips
  • Rulers
  • Shape Tracers
  • Child-friendly pencil sharpener
  • Erasers
  • Colored Pencils
  • Crayons
  • Paper (all sizes, colors, styles)
  • Washable Glue Sticks
  • Age-appropriate scissors

With these and other tools, kids can make cardboard forts, temporary racetracks on the floor, and all manner of creative contraptions and artistic endeavors. Their only limit is their imagination.  Spark your kid's imagination with a creative station of their very own: Must-have items for a kid's art supply drawer

3) Roll out a big sheet of paper now and then.

Overhead view of child sitting cross legged bent over and coloring with crayons on a large sheet of white paper. Maybe it’s just us, but for some reason, it’s impossible to resist coloring on the table when restaurants provide crayons and a paper tablecloth. Now and then, give your kids the same joy at home, or better yet, screw a large paper roll dispenser to the wall and let them pull off sheets at their whim.

Looking for a bigger canvas for your kid? Get inspired with chalkboard wall ideas!

4) Set up a writing and drawing station.

Closeup image of child drawing a comic with crayons on a desk Find a flat surface in your home that your kids can use at their leisure to compose stories or draw pictures. This can be a desk, a countertop, a deep shelf hung at standing or sitting height, an activity table, or even a hard floor surface. Try stocking it with books showing how to draw figures and how to construct a storyline. Make sure paper, pencils (and a pencil sharpener!), erasers, crayons, and colored pencils are close by. If you don’t have a space you can dedicate full-time, grab a shoe box, bag, or storage tote to create a portable writing and drawing activity kit that your child can easily carry to a flat surface.

5) Re-think what you’re throwing away or recycling each week.

Handmade marble run made out of cardboard, paper plates, and water bottles. A water bottle can be used to build a tall tower or turned into a tornado maker. Paper plates can become a spiral marble track and cardboard boxes can take on hundreds of different applications, limited only by your kids’ imaginations. Used streamer leftover from parties can become a fantastic grass skirt or a portal to another universe. Set these materials aside in an extra laundry hamper or storage tote so your kids can grab them whenever inspiration strikes. Masking tape is a must-have to enable construction, so make sure to keep a roll or two easily accessible.

6) Help your kids reflect on the world around them.

Child wearing a red cape and looking through a telescope on a tripod out of a large window. Enable regular observations of the surrounding world by keeping things like telescopes, binoculars, and sketch pads at-the-ready near windows that have good views of the outside. Whatever the view, woods, a city or neighborhood street, a parking lot, or a backyard, kids can use this as a way to reflect on the world around them and process their environment. It also doesn’t hurt to keep a box full of dramatic play outfits in the closet to make for easy wardrobe changes 😉

7) Create a vertical play center.

Child playing with legos on a shelf hung at standing height. If you’ve got empty wall space, get the most out of your square footage by mounting a play center right on the wall. A vertical play area can allow for hours of fun without taking up much space (and helps to keep the toys off the floor!) Save money by scouring thrift stores for second-hand shelving or grab some inexpensive wooden boards and metal brackets from your local hardware store. Pro-tip: Hardware stores will even cut the boards to your specifications. We created a play center focused around Legos*. The top shelves are less deep and are used to display finished builds. The bottom standing-height shelf is deeper, allowing plenty of space to spread out and build. You could use this same setup to play make believe with small dolls or figurines, to display any type of collection, to play with toy cars, or a number of other activities.

8) Carve out a reading nook.

Reading nook: Child reading book on a wooden bench in a corner Encourage reading by turning quiet corners into book nooks. A book basket and a soft blanket can be all that it takes to inspire your child to get in a few chapters on a regular basis. Try a floor pouf, beanbag chair, bench, window seat, or kids teepee tent to create a sense of relaxation and focus. Don’t forget a bright reading light!

9) Keep a Slinky nearby.

Child sitting at top of stairs stretching out a rainbow-colored Slinkie The Slinky** is an iconic toy that has stood the test of time for good reason: it can perform cool tricks. Kids can experience first-hand various concepts of physics like levitation, gravity, equilibrium, and oscillation. When combined with a structured age-appropriate physics lesson from a parent or caregiver, unstructured play with a Slinky can result in a greater understanding of the world’s physical forces. In general, Slinkies and other spatial learning toys offer fantastic learning opportunities for kids to discover naturally through self-directed play. Make sure to try it on the stairs!

10) Save those cardboard boxes!

Cardboard fort with child's drawings on it such as "Keep out" and "Secret fort". Cardboard box is held together with white masking tape. Cardboard boxes hold a wealth of possibility in the hands of a child. They can become secret hideout forts, princess castles, a spaceship, a network of underground tunnels, or anything your child can dream up. The details are what matter when transforming plain cardboard to an afternoon filled with adventure, so encourage your child to add the details that will bring it to life for them. That may be a moat for a castle, “danger” signs for a secret fort, or a control panel and windshield for a spaceship. Keeping materials such as markers, crayons, and masking tape around will enable your child to follow their imagination independently.

Get more cardboard box fort ideas!

Fair warning: All of these unplugged play stations can have a “tornado effect,” where you end up with multiple little messes strewn around the house instead of one big one. These little messes are evidence of experiential learning, a testament to your child dutifully following their imagination. We’re not saying that they should have immunity to cleaning duty—your child still needs to be responsible for putting the toys away. But walking into the messy play space doesn’t have to be a mood-killer. With the right mindset, seeing a trail of toys can be a joyful, celebratory moment. Try asking your child to walk you through the journey they took that day. Celebrate their play—and then tell them to clean it up 🙂

“When we take the training wheels off of playtime by turning off the screens, our children can experience the independence and joy of pedaling their imaginations to new and exciting places.”

As Dr. Peter Grey, PhD states in his Psychology Today article, The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders, “Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.” When we take the training wheels off of playtime by turning off the screens, our children can experience the independence and joy of pedaling their imaginations to new and exciting places. And when those places are easy to find, they can spend more time discovering who they are, what they love to do, and just being a kid.  

About the author: Image of author, MK MK works on the Marketing team for Relay and Republic Wireless. Her son (featured in the photos) has been testing Relay for close to a year. After a scary experience with not being able to find her son and the neighbors’ children in her neighborhood, MK vowed to find a solution that would provide more peace of mind for her while still allowing her son to play freely with the neighborhood kids. With Relay, she now feels comfortable letting her son go beyond the front yard to play. “The level of freedom and responsibility he feels now is similar to how a sixteen year old feels when getting their first car. It’s made a huge difference in our lives. I’m so proud to help bring Relay, a product my family uses and loves, to market.” Sources: 1Pressman, R.M., Owens, J.A., Evans, A.S., Nemon, M.L. (2014). Examining the Interface of Family and Personal Traits, Media, and Academic Imperatives Using the Learning Habit Study. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 00:1-17 2-3Barker, J.E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L.S., Snyder, H.R., Munakata, Y. (2014). Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology    *LEGO is a trademark and/or copyright of the LEGO Group. ©2018 The LEGO Group. All rights reserved. **Slinky is a trademark of POOF-SLINKY, LLC . All rights reserved.

Notable Replies

  1. Great blog MK! Lots of good ideas. I also think they will work for my grandkids when they come over! I can live with the “tornado” issue as well :slight_smile: Jeff

  2. Thanks Jeff! The ideas I featured in the post are things we’ve introduced gradually throughout our home over the course of about two years and now our son regularly entertains himself for hours on end. Would love to hear what you end up trying and how your grandkids respond.

  3. Nice ideas! One thing we’ve experienced with our kids is getting past the “I’m bored.” Even when we’ve given them great things like are in this article. It’s OK to let them be bored and once they get past it is when their imagination really turns on!

  4. Exactly! Being comfortable with boredom is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately - not only for my son but for myself too. It’s in those quiet moments we find time for reflection and can fully process our thoughts. Not every moment of the day needs to be programmed. I may even write my next post on this :slight_smile: Would love to hear some examples of things your kids do once they get past their boredom @espieps !

  5. Getting out and playing with the neighborhood kids for one. We had one parent tell us kids were never outside until we moved in. Now they see pick up games of basketball and soccer and other things. Kids are actually pretty good at coming up with ideas on their own if you take away the screen time and let them think about it. I’m one of those parents that when their kid comes to them and says, “I’m bored,” I just look right back and say, “Good, It’s good to be bored sometimes.” :slight_smile:

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