Zachary Levi and Bert Team Up to Get You to Go Outside

Sesame Street has long been known for taking full advantage of the Internet with unforgettable videos, and their newest one is no exception. Today’s message is for the parents, though!

Chuck and Tangled leading man Zachary Levi flexes his singing voice for “A Lovely Sunny Day,” an ode to getting off the screen and getting outside. Kids watching might not know what Instagram and Snapchat are, but can still get the same idea from this romp at the park: get out there and play!

I Took My 15-Month-Old to the Movies

Photo: Jackie Reeve. Hannah's First Movie, 3 months old.
Photo: Jackie Reeve. Hannah’s First Movie, 3 months old.

Last week I took my daughter to see Monsters Universitywith my mom and six-year-old niece. They were having a day out and invited us along, so I thought we’d give it a try. I was fully prepared to leave the theater if Hannah got even slightly upset, but she loved it.

She sat in her stroller, parked in the aisle, for almost the entire thing. She had a snack, we made a trip to change diapers, and she got bored and played with her stroller toys a few times, but otherwise she was mesmerized and perfectly content. The only time she became upset was when I was too slow getting her snack. She was so content that I wasn’t sure how I felt about the experience afterwards.

This was not Hannah’s first trip to the movies. The Spring after she was born, when the summer movies were coming out, I made a couple of early morning trips. I planned them during her nap times, early enough that the theaters would be empty of anyone bothered by a potentially fussy baby. I bought her noise-proof baby headphones to ease my biggest concern for her at two or three months old. I also turned her stroller away from the screen and she slept the entire time.

Well, she slept through the entire first trip to see Men in Black III. When my husband came with us to see The Avengers, she made it through but woke up a couple of times. That was a much louder movie and we decided that would be the last time we tried taking her until she was a little older. Her hearing was our biggest concern.

Until now, when she’s a fully alert little creature curious about everything happening around her. My husband and I are well aware of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children under two avoid all screen time. The Montessori program she’s entering in the fall would also prefer no screen time. We understand that Baby Einstein is a scam and that a lot of shows advertising educational benefits offer no scientific evidence for that claim. But we are also a geek household.

My husband is an avid gamer and I am a TV and film nut. We don’t spend nearly as much time gaming and watching movies as we did before she was born, but it is still a part of our lives. One of my favorite photos is from my husband’s first Fathers’ Day, with Hannah fast asleep next to him on the couch while he plays video games. We each have iPads, iPhones, and computers. We spend a lot of time working in front of those computers. Media is ever-present, and a complete ban on screen time until she turns two would be a monumental task. I fully commend the families that can do it.

We’ve decided that, for our family, the best approach is balance and conscientiousness. We try to be very aware of her individuality and of what she can and can’t tolerate. Balance comes from a solid family nighttime routine. After her bath and pajamas I read at least two stories to her and she helps turn the pages. My husband then tickles and hugs her before putting her down in her crib.

We go to the neighborhood playground regularly, take her to the beach, the city, the park, and go sledding in the winter. She has her own shelves of toys and fabric scraps in my sewing studio to play with while I sew, and we’ve spent hours together in there playing in parallel. We keep small buckets of toys in most rooms we spend time in for that reason.

We are completely avoiding children’s apps on our phones and tablets until she’s older, although she loves to look at picture and videos of herself on my phone. She is interested in our gadgets to the point that she will crawl over us to get a look at the screens when we’re using them and that worried us. So, we are choosing to keep them adult-only zones until we feel she can handle them in moderation.

The photos and videos are an exception because who keeps physical copies of these things anymore? Babies love looking at themselves, and our phones happen to be the place to do that. When she crawls into my lap to be nosy, I switch whatever I’m doing over to photos and videos of her.

We have never really let her watch children’s television shows. No Nick, Jr. or Disney Channel. This was hardest during the school year, when we were both at work and she went to a sitter’s house with older kids who watched TV. But her sitter was great about trying to keep her away from the TV as much as possible, and we did realize that we could not be obsessive about it all the time.

This, I think, is a reality for a lot of working moms. We dip our toes in the TV pool from time to time, but I really didn’t like the way she stared at even Sesame Street. And her response to Spongebob Squarepants, one of my all-time favorites, actually scared me a little. She stared it at so unblinkingly, and I became aware of how manic it was, that I shut it right off and decided to follow the “age six and up” guideline for that show.

We’re also trying to avoid exposing her to too many over-the-top, “buy me that” commercials for things. The programming in between the commercials, for us, isn’t strong enough to justify letting her watch even if we fast forward the commercials. I am warming up to the idea of Doc McStuffins occasionally–I like her a lot. And I was all for Fireman Sam until my husband got a look at an episode and decided it didn’t hold a candle to the original version he grew up with in the UK. I think when she’s older there could be some benefit to children’s television programming, but not now. So, what does she watch?

She watches movies. Last year I showed her some of the 2011 Winnie the Pooh film, and it was gentle and calming. She watched it, but she didn’t stare at it. She often fell asleep with it on and had amazing naps. Then we moved on to Finding Nemo, which she positively adores. She recognizes when I put it on and grins from ear to ear. She babbles and talks to the characters on screen.

I’ve practiced naming colors for her while watching. We’ve even debated getting an aquarium for her room so she can watch real fish, but this may have to wait until she’s old enough to stop trying to climb and take apart everything in sight. We loved taking her to the Philly aquarium to show her real “Nemo fish.” She even smiles if I say Nemo–she knows what that means. It’s given us a lot of interactive opportunities as a family, so we are more than happy to let her watch it. To us, that’s the best balance we can get with screen time. We’re starting to explore with some other movies that we can build on for family activities, like Happy Feet (penguins at the zoo) and the Madagascar movies (we’ve been on safari and want to take her when she’s older).

It’s not very often that she watches an entire movie start to finish. We can have movies on in short bursts, maybe ten or fifteen minutes, without dealing with the same level of hysteria that can come from fifteen minutes of a children’s TV show. I feel like movies build their storylines slowly over a feature length time, so there are more drawn out rises and dips in the action. If I want to have something on for a short treat, or so I can take a shower, or to help distract her when she’s teething and inconsolable, I can find a section in a movie that will work that’s also relatively calm.

Interestingly, she self-regulates her media consumption. I wasn’t expecting that at all, and it gives me hope that we’ve struck enough of a balance to keep screen time from being the end-all-be-all of entertainment for her. If she’s upset and we curl up on Mommy and Daddy’s bed to watch a little Nemo to calm her down, she’ll snuggle and watch until she’s feeling better, then she’ll try to escape and go play.

I am completely guilty of putting a movie on while I’m cooking or writing something, and she will watch it for awhile. But often, and sooner than I would expect, she gets bored and turns her attention to her toys and books. Or to unpacking the bookshelves or to trying to break into a bathroom to play with the toilet paper rolls. Or she’ll just come babble adorably at me while I’m working. She’ll look up at the screen occasionally, but it rarely holds her interest for the full length of the movie. I am 100% okay with this.

So what do I make of a movie in a dark theater keeping her rapt attention for a solid hour and forty-five minutes? How do I assess the experience of my six-year-old niece holding on to my mom for the scary parts while Hannah watched without flinching? My own earliest memory is sitting on someone’s lap in a movie theater watching Kermit the Frog ride a bike. Movies were a huge part of my childhood, and I do love that Hannah is apparently her mother’s child. I absolutely loved Monsters University and I say go out and see it with your kids if you haven’t already. But I think it’s also shown me that this is one of those individual moments we need to add to the family balance sheet for her.

She was really well-behaved (pro!), and she enjoyed herself (pro!), but she rarely took her eyes off of that screen (big con!). There was nothing else to grab her attention, which is entirely the point of movie theaters. I think I was almost hoping that she would get upset and we’d have to leave, because that would definitively tell me she is not ready for movies in theaters yet. Instead the experience told me that she’s ready, but maybe I’m not. Or maybe this is just an occasional treat until she hits that two-year-old milestone.

It was a great day out, and I’m thrilled that I got to go see a movie (so rare these days), but I will be thinking long and hard about my next trip to the theater with her.

Screen Free Week: The Wrong Conversation

My son plays one of his favorite puzzle games. Photo: Amy Kraft
My son plays one of his favorite puzzle games. Photo: Amy Kraft

As someone who makes games for kids to play on screens, I’m not a fan of the Center for a Commercial Free Childhood’s Screen-Free Week, which begins today. I’m all for kids getting more unstructured play, more time outdoors, more time reading, and other good stuff, but the label “Screen-Free Week” forces the wrong conversation that lasts all year long.

The Center for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) has found receptive ears here in New York City and elsewhere. I know many parents who have thrown out their TVs and heavily restrict other screens in the house. I’m on the tech committee at my daughter’s elementary school, and there are parents who are outraged at having computers in the classroom. Computers! Just wait until we can afford iPads! The parent association and the principal enlisted me to talk to other parents to try to change some hearts and minds. Continue reading Screen Free Week: The Wrong Conversation

Hallmark BlogOut Challenge: Family Time Offline

Hallmark's Abigail Story Buddy

One of the biggest challenges many families face is spending good, quality time together. Especially as children get older and become involved in sports and their own social lives, finding opportunities to just be with each other becomes more difficult. Sometimes, even though everyone is at home, each is engaged with one kind of screen or another so they might as well be miles apart. Computers, TVs, phones, game consoles, tablets, they all keep us entertained, but often in a solitary way. So, when Hallmark contacted me about participating in their BlogOut Challenge, I jumped at the chance.

The idea is a part of their Life is a Special Occasion campaign and encourages all of us to walk away from our screens for a day, or an afternoon, or even just a few hours and spend that time with our families. My family does spend a good deal of time together “doing things” so it’s not like we can’t disengage from our screens, but I will admit it can be a bit difficult. A lot of my work is online so the temptation to check things on my phone is overwhelming and when I find something that needs my attention it’s so very easy to pop open my laptop and take care of it while the kids play in the living room. I was definitely up for this challenge.

To get me started, they sent me a Hallmark Interactive Story Buddy and a Recordable Storybook for my two girls. The minute I took out the Story Buddy the kids were fascinated with her. We happened to receive Abigail, who is an adorable little plush bunny with a storybook all about how she wants to be a grown-up. You read the story out loud, and plush Abigail makes a comment after the last line on every page. I read this book to my kids, they read it to each other, and then they took turns reading it to every stuffed animal in their rooms. Even better, my oldest daughter figured out that it was the last sentence on the page that made Abigail speak, so she wrote her own little story to read and just inserted those lines to make Abigail talk.

We also spent an afternoon playing with the Recordable Storybook We’re Not Scared of Anything. The idea is for you, or your kids, to read the story and make a recording that will play as you turn the pages. You can do this as many times as you like, which has led to multiple recordings with all sorts of crazy voices. My job in this adventure was to make sound effects at all the right moments. I’m not sure we’ll ever have a finished version because every time they pull it out they have a new idea they want to test.

My initial plan was to spend an entire day free of screens, any of them, including my shiny new iPhone 4S, but this proved more difficult than I’d expected. So instead, we spent not one day, but several afternoons away from our screens. I found myself looking forward to a little scheduled one-on-one time with my family. In addition to playing with Abigail and the recordable book, we spent most of one afternoon cuddled in bed reading together. Another we made a fabulous disaster of the kitchen while decorating Halloween cookies. This weekend, we kept the kids up past their bedtimes playing their new favorite role-playing game, Mouse Guard, until we finally decided to be responsible parents and put them to bed.

We managed to take the idea of BlogOut and turn it into not just a single day, but something that we do nearly every afternoon. And really, that’s the idea, remembering to take time out from “life” to enjoy the everyday moments that make being a family special.

What the AAP Should Have Said About Screen Time

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a strong recommendation for parents to avoid TV for children under the age of two. The AAP admits that this policy was based on limited data and was a precautionary measure, and 12 years later they’ve revisited their guidelines with the new data now available. Dr. Ari Brown, lead author of the policy, presented it earlier this week.

This video is long, but I highly encourage you to watch it through the Q&A at the end. As I watched the beginning, I was encouraged that the AAP was making this revision taking into consideration the reality that 90% of kids under age two are watching some form of screen media and that they were asking if the media use does any harm (because they know you’re gonna do it…).

What follows, though, is hardly different from the 1999 recommendation. They still strongly urge you not to expose your babies and toddlers to TV, with guilt-inducing phrases like missing parental “talk time,” language delays, and “time well spent.” There’s a fair amount of doubletalk in this presentation. They understand you can’t be engaging with your kid every second of every day, but won’t you please try?

OK, I’ll admit that I’m thankful for the original guidelines that I followed to the letter when my daughter was born because it broke me of my habit of leaving the TV on when no one was watching it. When I let her start watching Yo Gabba Gabba at 18 months, I did it because I thought it was a cool show and I wanted to watch it with her. Since then, as you may remember, I learned how to stop worrying about screen time.

Cut to baby number two. Baby number one is now a six-year-old. How often is he in a room as a TV plays Phineas and Ferb or SpongeBob SquarePants? Um, a lot. I’d love to give him the independent play Dr. Brown recommends but at the moment that means that I find my 17-month-old at the top of the loft bed ladder. We have times in the morning when he sits on my lap to watch YouTube videos while I answer emails and catch up on Twitter and Facebook. And with a Mommy who makes games for little kids to play (showing my bias here), he has access to lots of little screens. If he had the disposition to be gentle with it, I’d let him play with the iPad, too. He’s a thrower, though, so he has to wait.

This may be a good time to mention that the AAP recommendation does not take into account any interactive media. Seriously?! A lot has happened in the last 12 years! Not all screen time is created equal!

At the end of the Q and A, Dr. Brown acknowledges, when pushed to describe most people’s reality, that people will expose their young children to screens (hilariously the instance she gives is the Superbowl, because you know that’s the only rare occurrence when it might happen):

We want parents to thoughtfully consider media use when they’re choosing to allow their child to be exposed to it. We discourage it in under age two because we don’t find the value and we have some concerns about harm.

If you ask me, this is the line that should shape the policy as it’s described to parents. Stop trying to make parents feel guilty and give them concrete guidelines to shape the media usage. I’m fine with trying to get people to reduce their screen time or turn it off as background noise, but they could add helpful tips like:

  • Pick programs or apps geared towards the youngest viewers.
  • Music is great for this audience.
  • Look for things that don’t have a lot of edits or close-ups but that show things in a more tangible form.
  • When it’s possible, co-view a program with your child and talk about the things that you’re seeing.

That’s just my list. I’m sure we could come up with many more. Maybe with a little instruction about how to use media effectively for all ages, the AAP could reverse some of the harm they’re worried about.

On that note, I’m going to leave you with one of my 17-month-old’s favorite videos on YouTube. For your co-viewing pleasure, try pointing to the pigeons! Talk about big and little bears! Count the people walking? If you’ve watched this as much as I have you start coming up with all sorts of possibilities.

What are your thoughts on the AAP policy? Will you follow the AAP guidelines?

[Many thanks to Scott Traylor of 360 Kid for the extended video!]

Dr. GeekMom or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Screens

My daughter and her screen of choice, the iPad.

I don’t know if it’s just my corner of Manhattan, but more and more I find myself in conversations with parents who have thrown out their TV, won’t allow video games into their house, or think that handheld gadgets are the downfall of civilization. Here on GeekMom, Jessamyn made a recommendation to try a week – or a decade – without the tube, Kay declared recess from screen time, and Kathy wrote about a family that totally pulled the plug on technology.

I don’t begrudge any parent for doing what feels right for her family, but I do think families that unplug are missing out on amazing content, and the rewards that content can bring. I have a natural bias in this area because I work in children’s media and I know a bunch of really talented people who truly want to make great shows and games for kids.

I’m not without my moments of unplugging. When my daughter was born, I went from being someone who had the TV on constantly to a mom who was trying to follow to the letter the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no TV until age 2. But something happened at 18 months. A pre-Nickelodeon pilot of a show called Yo Gabba Gabba was floating around town, and when I saw it I absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to see what my little girl would think. I loved having her on my lap watching “There’s a Party in My Tummy” over and over again.

But I stressed about it. I endured nasty looks from other parents who couldn’t believe I’d let my baby watch TV. Then I started showing her computer games. Then I got an iPhone which opened up a whole new world of gaming. Then a Wii. And a Nintendo DS. And a Leapster Explorer. And an iPad. I just did a quick count and when all are present and accounted for, we have 11 screens in a one-bedroom apartment on which to consume media. I’ve stopped worrying, though, because now that my daughter is 5 and very savvy on all of these devices, I’ve noticed some really amazing things.

  • Characters really want to teach ABCs and 123s. Flip on any show, game, or website aimed at a preschool market, and you’ll see characters trying to teach your kid the alphabet, math, or Spanish. In many of these cases, the creators have brought in educational consultants, tried to align with education standards, and some have even done efficacy testing to show that kids can actually learn using media.
  • Media can inspire new interests. Thanks in large part to PBS, my daughter calls herself a scientist, and has a genuine interest in doing science experiments at home. It started with Sid the Science Kid. Then we watched nothing but Dinosaur Train for months on end, and now she’s shown an interest in SciGirls.
  • Time spent on the computer is often time spent reading. My daughter’s first sight words came from the land of interface: new, play, game, continue, etc. We have some games that are reading-dependent and I can’t always play with her, and I’ve see how much this motivates her to learn to read. Older kids do tons of reading online, but it often doesn’t get counted as such because it’s not in book form.
  • Good video games encourage strategy and perseverance. My daughter and I are hooked on Plants vs. Zombies. Sometimes we play together and talk about different plant strategies to defeat the zombies, but one day she pushed me aside saying that she really wanted to figure it out for herself. I watched her from afar as she tried different things to see what would work. It was very scientific.
  • It’s easy to be ad-free. Many anti-TV parents point at advertising or the inappropriateness of the news as reasons to keep kids away from TV. We live in a time where it couldn’t be easier to control what your kids see. We gave up our cable box, but in a typical week we’ll watch DVDs, watch recorded shows which are either commercial free or can skip commercials, stream Netflix to the iPad or TV, download shows from iTunes, watch shows or YouTube on the computer, and play games on any one of our screens.
  • It’s good to be entertained. I don’t mind a bit anymore when we bag the educational shows in favor of some lighter fare. I’ve recently come to appreciate just how funny and surreal SpongeBob is, and watching my little girl giggle uncontrollably while watching it seems like a wonderful milestone in her sense of humor. And, we watch Phineas and Ferb as a family, which has some of the best comedy writing on television.

I realize I’m a bit atypical in how much I’m interested in watching kids shows, but one of the best things that we can do is watch and play this stuff with our kids. The conversations that can come from co-viewing or co-playing are not only enjoyable, but they can add a whole new level of thinking and learning.

The baby likes the iPad, too. This was when I was able to use Koi Pond to put him to sleep.

My screen-loving daughter is a fluent reader, she’s creative, and she has a hilarious sense of humor. We also have a baby in the house, and trying to abide the recommendation for no screen time this time around is an exercise in futility. We don’t plunk him down on the couch to watch TV, but we also don’t keep it off when he’s in the same room. And you know what? Like his sister, I know he’s going to be just fine. I can’t wait to watch Yo Gabba Gabba with him.

Geek Lifts Off On Lemon Education

Backlit Lemon Slice by Neil Lloyd (Creative Commons)

Education systems are a mess the world over. We know this, but we are dauntless geek parents. When we’re given a lemon situation, we don’t just make lemonade; we make rocket fuel!

I don’t actually know if it’s possible or wise to launch a rocket using citrus, but if that’s what it takes to keep my kid hooked on science, I won’t shy away from the experiment. (Out of geek courtesy, I will warn the neighbors, though.)

Putting the oranges in orbit aside for a moment, we really do need to make the most of the lemon education systems we have. Given all the demands on our time and attention, it’s best if we first identify the simplest, most direct help we can give our little geeks, every day:






Beyond that, there are tons of things we can do to help educate our kids, at all ages. Children are never too young to learn. Even babies can grasp number, space, and time; parents just need to puzzle out how to engage their littlest ones’ mental rulers through play. Clapping along to music comes naturally, and as luck would have it, it’s a real brain-builder! As they grow, teaching them healthy self-regulation will pay off academically, too. And not every middle-schooler wants to be a scientist when they grow up, but for those who do, why wait? Continue reading Geek Lifts Off On Lemon Education

IRL Lessons: Declaring Recess From Screen Time

“Mom! I can spell your name!” Look at him: Only four years old and fearlessly riding the wave of the future. Given my druthers, he’d be running around outside with other neighborhood kids, getting dizzy spinning on a swing, or climbing up a curly slide. Sunshine and fresh air, right?

The problem is that we can no longer trust the ‘village’ to help raise our children. As a result, unsupervised outdoor playtime is generally off-limits to young children and risky for teens. It’s sad, but not a complete disaster because kids today have options that were unavailable to previous generations. And that’s exactly as it should be.

What’s unchanged is the way some grown-ups still have a hard time keeping up with kids. “Oh my! Average teens text 3339 times per month!” I’m not sure I send fewer messages per month along such old fashioned lines as email, yet I’m supposed to be shocked that tech savvy youth are massive communicators? No, they’re just doing what they like, as kids are wont to do.

Yes, there’s plenty of uproar on the web about how screen time damages children. Some research links it with psychological problems, poor social skills, obesity, sleep disorders, repetitive stress injuries, and even death. Those are all real risks and I won’t argue otherwise. However, I don’t think the screen is the problem. As usual, I blame the brains in charge (that’s us, mom and dad).

Human bodies and minds haven’t changed dramatically in the past 200,000 years, which means that we’re still unsuited to the sedentary, indoor lives we’ve adopted as part of urbanization, over-population and other technological feats. Nobody should sit for hours upon hours on a daily basis, and that’s especially true for kids, whose brains and bodies need a lot of exercise to develop properly.

That said, it’s not like this trend is going to reverse; we’re going to have better and more ubiquitous screen time from now on. And aren’t we geeks? We love our screens! We just need to relate to the crisis of screen time in terms of the opportunities it presents us with. Not the potential education and employment benefits of being media marathoners (everyone talks about that). No, I mean the alternative possibilities: In Real Life Lessons.

IRL Lessons are the sort of thing we should be doing so automatically that we can take for granted that our kids are learning them by our example. With so much screen time going on, that’s not happening organically, so we have the unprecedented opportunity to live well on purpose. We geeks invented screen time, and we can reinvent screenless time, too.

The essentials:

But enough of that grown-up stuff! My favorite reinvention of screenless time is actually an old standby: Recess. Whenever we’ve seen enough of our favorite devices for a while, I declare recess breaks. Anything goes as long as the screens are off and we’re moving around for at least fifteen minutes. Pillow fighting, going out on an odd rocks hunt, competing in a super slow-motion indoor obstacle course race, or just plain walking and talking together for a few blocks – it’s all good. I even take fifteen minute yoga breaks while I’m at work because getting away from my computer as often as possible actually makes me work faster, better, smarter the rest of the day. And the same IRL Lesson goes double for kids.