Blog Post > “I’m bored!” Kids in the Summer Part I: Screen time

“I’m bored!” Kids in the Summer Part I: Screen time

This article is provided here by Megan Yaraschuk, M.Ed., PCC and was written by Nancy Darling, Ph.D.

How can kids make the best of summer screen time?


With summer break quickly approaching I have had many parents asking questions about the appropriate amount of screen time per day. The following article by Nancy Darling Ph.D. gives great ideas about not only limiting screen time but creative ways to utilize screen time.


“I’m bored!” Kids in the Summer Part I: Screen time

How can kids make the best of summer screen time? By Nancy Darling Ph.D

“I’m booooooored . . .

Ah . . . the sounds of summer.

Adults often look with envy at the long stretches of leisure that punctuate the lives of children.  Kids look forward to summer vacation all winter long.   So it’s really frustrating when parentsfantasies of leisurely bike rides, fishing trips, and reading in the hammock crash into the reality of kids gazing blankly at video screens, machine gunning imaginary terrorists, or whining that there’s nothing to do.

The goal of this short series is to suggest some ways of shaping your kids’ summer to keep it fun, low-key and child driven.

Summer is important.  For years, sociologists and educational psychologists have known that the achievement gap that separates low from high income kids from the same school doesn’t occur during the school year.  They happen during the summer.

The findings are startling.  Many school districts test children in September when they return from vacation and again at the end of the school year.  How much their scores change tells us what they’ve learned.  In the late 1970’s, a clever educational sociologist took those data and looked at it differently.  He decided to look at the change from June to September.

Findings were clear.  Kids who differed in social class learned at just about the same rate while school was in session.  However, every summer, children from lower socioeconomic status (SES) homes lost about four months of learning.  In other words, if their reading level was at 4th grade 10 months in June, they would come back in September reading at the 4 years 6 months level.  Upper SES kids came back in September at the same level they had left or maybe a little higher.  Because this happens every summer and over time, those lost months add up.  By the end of elementary school, the summer loss accounted for most of the performance difference between lower and upper SES kids.  More recent research has replicated and extended these findings.  The richer language environments and more diverse activities available to high SES kids helped them maintain what they’d learned.

This first entry in my blog on kids in the summer focuses on what kids seem to want most during the summer and parents seem to hate most: Screen time. How can you help your kids have a RELAXING and FUN summer, without letting their minds whither in the heat?

What’s a parent to do?

Tip number one: Put on a timer.  

Unless you’re going to ban computers and video entirely, the most important strategy for managing children’s screen time is simply to make a plan and stick to it.  Pick an amount of time and a time a day that’s comfortable for you and keep screen time to those limits.

For example, my son doesn’t play computer games in the morning.  Why?  Simple.  Because if he gets up in the morning and has to find something else to do, he often gets so involved with a friend or a book or a project that he doesn’t get back to the computer.  And if he does, I know he’s already done something else, and  I fret less.   In addition, the afternoon is often a hot, miserable time of day to be outside and running around in norther Ohio, where I live.  There’s a reason they invented the siesta!  If you’re going to veg out, the afternoon is a better time to do it.  And if we wind up going to the pool in the afternoon instead, so much the better.

Tip number two:  Use screen time for fun and profit.

There is nothing wrong with playing video games or watching tv if you’ve helped your kids choose good content.  What’s good content?

First, even though I grew up on tv, I strongly recommend videos and video games over television.  Why?  Two reasons: content and process.

  • Unless your children only watch public television, tv time is commercial time.  Content analysis of the ads placed around children’s programming suggest that it is heavily loaded towards high fat, sugary foods or towards movies and toys.  In other words, even if the show is great, the ads will give your kids a wicked case of the ‘me wants’.  Even more problematic in my experience, have been the placement of advertisings for movies or television shows that are completely inappropriate for kids around shows I’m happy for them to watch.  For example, I clearly remember my son running from the room in terror when a profoundly creepy horror movie ad came while we were watching Star Trek.  Using DVDs allows you to get just the show you want without the commercials.
  • Another advantage of videos is that they END.  Television never does.  Research has shown that the longer you watch tv, the less likely you are to turn the television off when your program ends.  In other words, watch one show and you might have a 75% chance of switching off and doing something else after the finale.  Watch a second one, and that chance may go down to 50%.  Although I have not seen research to support this notion, I would not be surprised if video games work the same way.  In addition, unless you start your timer straight on the hour, when your timer runs out, your child may be in the middle of a show.  Not a good way to start.

Second, use video to learn something: Video provides amazing learning opportunities.  Kids can learn Pokemon trivia on screen OR they could pick up facts about history, science, and literature.  Your library probably has wonderful DVDs available for free that your kids will loveThe Bill Nye the Science Guy, Reading Rainbow, or Eyewitness video series will all give your kids hours of entertainment and put a lot of useful trivia in the way of their roaming minds.  Most PBS series are available on DVD.  Series like Anne of Green Gables or Sarah Plain and Tall or Horatio Hornblower are great entertainment and teach kids about history without a lecture in sight.

It doesn’t have to say ‘educational’ to be ‘educational’.  I have written before about how kids pick up random knowledge – inefficiently but with incredible persistence – through aimless play.  My oldest son knows all the Greek gods and legends from watching Hercules on tv.  No one would label that educational television.  Little House on the Prairie, The Three Musketeers, or old Disney comedies all provide cultural content.  I learned to recognize the scores from Carmen and Das Rheingold from Bugs Bunny cartoons and Aesops fables from Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Use video as a bridge to something more.  Having real books about mythology or the Percy Jackson series lying around next to the television wouldn’t hurt either.  Even comic books.  Both my kids moved from beginning to fluent readers with long stretches of Calvin and Hobbes.  You can complement their interest by taking out related books or pulling together a craft or science project that the video may have piqued.   If you search on-line, you may find educational websites with teaching materials, fun activities and books already suggested.

Tip Number 3: Use your Computer as Toy

Kids can use computers for more than playing games.  Don’t forget the activities that come with your computer – like a good Paint program.  One of the my youngest’s favorite things to do is take a picture with my digital camera, put it in a paint program, and morph it in all the ways that photo editing can do.  Default paint programs come with both Windows and Apple machines.  There an inexpensive programs that may have come with your camera and others available at your local tech store.

My oldest son made truly incredible animations by using a paint program to make a series of drawings.  Then he would string them together to make animations, including soundtracks.  Windows MovieMaker, iMovie  or Picasa are all free and have this capability.  Microphones and sound editing programs are also  part of many computer systems.  It doesn’t have to be fancy for the kids to have fun.  If you own a webcam or have digital videos, movie software does fun effects too.  What can your kid think to do with them?

Even word processors can be used creatively to make cards, newspapers, or write, illustrate and decorate stories.

Chose computer games that YOU like.  Computer games aren’t all violent and filled with monsters.  If you look, you can find many that are creative and cooperative.  Search parent sites for ratings, reviews, and recommendations.    Games that focus on open-ended exploration or creature creation (e.g., Spore), historical or puzzle games (e.g., Oregon Trail, Myst), or the many, many simulation games (e.g., The Sims, Age of Mythology) can provide older kids with long periods of fun.  The state of Ohio, where we live, made a terrific resource of educational games available for free.  Your state may too.  Whatever games you choose, just make sure you are comfortable with the content – read the labels and online reviews.

Tip Number 4: Get physical

One of the big complaints developmentalists and health professionals have about kids’ screen time is that time spent watching isn’t time spent moving.  You can change that.  How?

  • Take away their chair! Because I spend so much time at my desk, I recently raised it up so I have to stand to use my computer.  After a day or two of adjustment, I found I had lots more energy and the circulation in my legs improved markedly.  A door on adjustable height horses makes a great computer table.
  • Sit on a ball! To help my very wiggly on use his energy while playing games, I replaced his chair with a large Pilates ball.  Staying balanced on it keeps him active even while wandering through the Legos universe.
  • Play games that make you move.  Recent reports have suggested that playing Wii games helps senior citizens maintain their balance and stay active.  It works for kids too.  Games like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero or Rock Band force kids to move more than just their mouse hand.

Tip Number 5: Make screen time their choice, not a battle

The saying goes that all things are good in moderation – even moderation.  Videos and computers can provide kids with great resources.  Let kids choose from some of the best options screen time can provide and give them control over when they do it within limits you are comfortable with.  Giving them control over what they do in their free time helps them to understand that the limits you have set are based on prudential concerns, rather than your desire to thwart them and bore them into the pool.