How to Replace Your Toddler's Screen Time

Screen time, independent play, toddler

Screen time, independent play, toddler


This post has been written to assist you in devising a plan to replace, or greatly reduce, your child’s screen time.

Before delving in, I want to disclose that I have two children, a 6-year-old daughter and a 17-month-old son. Our 6 year-old gets some screen time. She thoroughly enjoys ridiculous YouTube videos and imaginative television shows. Sometimes she gets more screen time then I care to admit, but the majority of time, my husband and I make a concerted effort to limit screens. (Recent update, prior to publishing this blog post, my husband and I decided to delete the Youtube app on all of our smart TVs. She was getting way too obsessed watching Kidz Bop Music videos.)

Our 17-month-old does not get any screen time. He joyfully plays with his motely assortment of cars, trucks, balls, and other toys.

I am not casting judgment on any parents, grandparents, or caregivers who give their children or grandchildren unlimited or unregulated screen time.

If you are in survival mode and need screen time for your own sanity – do what is going to make you a better person.  Happy wife equals happy life and happy parents equals happy children. However, if you think you’re overusing screens and want to do better, keep reading.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children are getting an average of 7 hours per day of screen time (television, computers, phones, and other electronic devices). Yikes!

Nowadays, it’s rare NOT to see a person staring at his or her phone while waiting or hanging around for something else to start.

Waiting, relaxing, and unwinding now equates to watching a phone, a tablet, or television.  The art of waiting and simply sitting seems to be a thing of the past. We are constantly plugged in and stimulated. This is particularly apparent with our children.

Children waiting to eat dinner at a restaurant are now playing with phones and iPads instead of coloring or drawing on paper placemats.

At home, they play apps or watch YouTube videos of other children playing instead of playing with toys or running around outside.

Is this our children’s fault?

I don’t think so. Usually, us, parents, give our little ones screen time because it keeps them occupied and out of our hair. I mean, we have to get things done, right?

As a busy working parent, I totally relate. Giving your child a tablet or propping them in front of the television is an easy solution that involves no prep work and keeps the house clean. It can occupy children for at least a short amount of time while you strive to complete a task.

However, have you ever noticed how cranky or dysregulated your children become after having too much screen time? I do!

A family in California gave their children unlimited screen time for a 48 hour period to see what would happen. They discovered that their children became so distracted by the screens that they couldn’t even perform basic daily routines or tasks such as putting on their shoes to go into the car. They didn’t even realize that they were tired or hungry. To read more, click here.

Have you ever considered alternatives to screen time?

And, if so, have you tried to implement a plan to follow in attempts to reduce screen time?

Design and Implement a System to Change a Behavior

When it comes to changing a behavior or pattern, it is up to you to ultimately want to change. The most important and challenging part of change is the dedication and effort it takes to change behaviors and patterns. If you have fallen into the routine of giving your child screen time every time you need to focus on completing a certain task, than your child will come to expect it.

According to James Clear, author of the book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, a book I’m currently reading, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

As mentioned before, change requires effort. Since change requires effort, we should devise a system that will make it easier for us to change the habit. A system is a step-by-step procedure for completing an activity, solving a problem, or performing a duty.

Have you ever tried dieting but failed to lose the weight? Perhaps it happened because you didn’t make it easy enough for yourself to follow the diet. Having pre-planned meals, healthy snacks, and eliminating all junk food and temptations make dieting easier. Of course, some preparation and thought is involved, but if we are hungry and know that we have carrots and hummus to eat and not a chocolate bar or bag of chips, than it is much easier to make the right decision.

Having a goal to reduce screen time is not enough – you need to develop a system to achieve the goal of less screen time.

Begin by creating a family screen time plan.

As I mention in My Toddler’s First Words, I strongly recommend devising a screen time plan for the whole family. If you need assistance in creating a family screen-time plan, the American Academy of Pediatrics created an online FamilyMedia Use Plan Tool that is available for free at Since I feel passionately about this and am scared about the dangers associated with screen time, I created a family media plan for my family, too.

Family Screen Time Plan

Family Screen Time Plan

Once a family plan has been created, you’ll need to think about how to reduce or replace screens during those pockets of the day when, in the past, you have possibly defaulted to turning on the TV or giving an iPad to your child. Avoid using media as the go to babysitter.

A System to Increase Independent Toddler Play or Engagement

The following is a system that works for me and has worked for some of my clients. The ultimate goal of my system is to replace screen time with independent, age-appropriate, safe play.

  1. Begin by giving your child 1-1 undivided attention. Play, read, cook, or do simple chores together. If playing with your child seems unnatural or foreign to you, I suggest doing an 8-minute play routine. Turn on a timer and play with your child for this short amount of time. In my experience, giving your child some devoted attention enables them to feel more comfortable independently entertaining themselves and it makes you feel good! Playing builds bonds between you and your child and strengthens your parent-child relationship

  2. Create a bin, basket, or box that contains some of your child’s favorite toys. Break out this special collection of toys when you, the parent, need to accomplish a task or just want a moment to yourself. Your child’s safety is most important so keep your child in view while he or she is playing with his or her favorite toys. Also keep him or her in a safe and secure area of the house.

  3. Think about how long your toddler can independently and safely play by him or herself. Toddlers have short attention spans. Their ability to remain focused grows as they age. An article on shared, “The older a child is, the longer he’ll be able to play alone. For example, at 6 months, a child may be content by himself for 5 minutes; at 12 months, for 15 minutes; at 18 months, about 15 to 20 months; and at 2 years, for about half an hour.” You know your child best. How much time do you think he or she could safely entertain and or play by himself? Start with a shorter amount of time and then build it up from there.

  4. Set a timer to track how long your child has been playing. This will also keep you on track and increase your efficiency.

  5. Periodically, check in on your child. Praise your child for playing but avoid giving overly effusive praise because you do not want it to distract your toddler from what he or she is doing.

  6. Once the timer is up – assess the situation. If your little one is still happily playing, let him play! Continue about your work or tasks.

  7. If your toddler starts to yearn for your attention and interaction, give it to him or her! Play, sing, do a simple arts and crafts activity (coloring with toddler crayons, bingo markers, aquadoodle pad, magnetic tablets, doodle pads, etc.) or have a snack with your child. During these interactive times, keep your phone away and avoid looking at it unless absolutely necessary.

After you have given your toddler a healthy dose of love and attention, then determine what you should do based on the rest of the day. If it is time for his nap, then perhaps you can finish doing your tasks while he or she naps and avoid giving any screen time. If it is close to dinner and the meal still needs to be made AND you are tired and stressed and your patience are waning, then perhaps resort to limited screen time. Do this knowing that the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommends avoiding digital medial use, except for video chatting, in children younger than 18 to 24 months.

Your goal should be to make screen time a last resort.

Try not to let it become the automatic default.

I am not an advocate of screen time but I wholeheartedly believe that happy parents = happy children. Therefore, if you are at your wits end and not being your best self, then use it during such moments. My personal favorites are the classics like Mr, Roger's Neighborhood or  Sesame Street or shows that include classic nursery rhymes, finger plays, and familiar children songs, so they can sing or dance along.

screen time, replace

screen time, replace

If you have multiple children, you'll need to adapt this so they can either kindly and calmly play with each other or encourage them to play by themselves. Now that I'm a mom to two children, I know how things can transpire between siblings. I'll be addressing this in some future posts.

I hope this post is helpful and PLEASE feel free to comment.