Navigating screens and young children while working from home

Child using a laptop

With families across Canada staying home from work and school, the perpetual question facing modern parents is once again top of mind: how do I navigate my child’s screen time?

Dr. Monica McGlynn-Stewart, a professor of Early Childhood Education at George Brown College, is the principal investigator of the Toys or Tools? project. As a researcher, she’s interested in the value of digital learning tools for children in developing both social and digital skills. From 2015 to 2019, McGlynn-Stewart and her team worked with kindergarteners in eight classrooms in George Brown lab schools and six classrooms within the Peel District School Board, introducing technology as a possible learning and teaching tool.

We asked McGlynn-Stewart to draw on her expertise in this area to provide some guidance on navigating children’s screen time when parents are working from home. Here are her tips:

  1. Be patient with yourself as well as your child. One of the principles of responsible screen time at home starts with the parent: try to be a good role model for your child. But in these atypical times, this can be hard to do.

    “Firstly, give yourself a break,” McGlynn-Stewart says. “These are unusual circumstances, and we all just have to do what we have to do to get by. Be compassionate with yourself and your children.”
  2. Make a loose routine. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate lesson plan for your day. “Be clear about what the day will look like. First, we’ll have breakfast, then we’ll read a book. Then I will need to do a little work and maybe you can play with your blocks,” says McGlynn-Stewart. “There may be screen time in there as part of their day, but they know when it starts and when it ends.” Treat screen time as an incidental part of the day, but not the centrepiece.
  3. Encourage interactive play and connection with others. As a general rule, children under age two should have limited access to screens, and the usage should be interactive – so a video call with grandparents or dancing along to a favourite song. With older children, screens can become a productive, creative exercise. One of the cornerstones of McGlynn-Stewart's project was technology that allows children to celebrate their world, even if it’s suddenly confined to the home. She recommends exploring apps that allow children to create the story of their day: taking photographs, recording their own audio or just capturing what their world looked like that day. The Toys or Tools project offers guidelines on what to look for in an app that encourages open-ended, creative opportunities for your kids.

    “Some of our older kindergarteners absolutely loved using the video function to interview. They just loved being the one in charge of the story,” she says. “Then screen time becomes something to share and connect with family members, something that lets them be creative and productive.”
  4. When you do use screens, use them thoughtfully. There will of course be times when you just need some old-fashioned cartoon time. But lean towards curated, high-quality programming, like TVO or CBC. Try to stay away from sources of children’s programming that rely on unpredictable algorithms like YouTube or Facebook.
  5. Make time for non-screen, unstructured play. If you have time and energy, very simple things can be wonderful outlets for kids and don’t need any forethought or planning from you, like building forts from couch cushions, water play in the sink, or bowling with stacked Tupperware containers and a soft ball. Or simply invite them into the routine of your adult life, such as cooking dinner or sorting laundry.

Perhaps the most important guideline of all in your children’s well-being is to be kind both to yourself and your loved ones.

“Right now the emotional tone is more important than the specifics of your day to day – make sure your child feels secure, that you’re there for them, and you put as much predictability into their day as you can,” says McGlynn-Stewart.

“When they feel your love, when they feel secure – these are the important things,” she says. “When they feel that your family will get through this together, they’re going to be okay.”

For more help navigating your child’s screen time, check out the resources for families that were produced as part of the Toys or Tools project.