A recent email from a preschool teacher sparked my interest in the controversial topic of screens (movies, tv shows, video count down timers) being used to help children to sit down and focus on their snack or lunch at daycare, preschool, or primary school.
Firstly, I see the concerning decline in children's fine motor, gross motor, social, emotional and focus skills since the introduction of screens.
However, I also can understand the challenges that teachers, educators, and families currently have with children struggling to sit still and complete basic tasks such as eating without the use of screens.
Just this week I observed multiple preschool aged children trying to stand up and walk around the classroom during snack time, distracting their friends from eating with inappropriate social behaviour, and making it challenging for early childhood staff to keep the room calm so that all children were able to focus on eating.
I also saw poor eating habits at my childrens' school carnival - children struggling to sit down and eat the food in their lunchbox, instead climbing up and down the stairs, playing rough and tumble with the child next to them.
I feel that it's the difficulty to sit still, self-regulate excitement, and focus, that may be impacting children's daily living skill of eating a snack or a meal.
In my opinion, using screens as a way to improve children's ability to sit still and focus on their meal may be hindering their ability to sit still and focus on their meal, as it's the child's self-regulation, social skills, and focus that we need to support the children with.
Keep reading to find out ways we can help.
When I sent out an Instagram poll about whether my followers were using screens at snack and lunch time the feedback was incredible to read and reflect on. One mum admitted to giving her children access to screen time for snacks and meal times when they were between the ages of 3 and 4 years of age, and now she regrets her choice as she has struggled for the last few years to share meals with her 8 and 9 year old children.
For my family, my meal times had to be very structured otherwise I would have worn more food than my twins ate. My son Hugh preferred to play with food rather than eat it, so I started my twins from a very young age to only eat at their high chair or on a picnic rug. Every time we went outdoors the picnic rug would come with us, and meals were removed if my twins looked like they were ready to go and play. I found it stressful mixing meals and play together with two little ones crawling around. But I can see how this may not be as stressful for someone who has a single baby or infant.
If I could give one piece of advice... try to start the habits that we are hoping for, at the youngest age possible.
If you feel that you have already missed this boat, don't worry. The best part about humans is that we are always capable of learning. So try a few of the alternatives below to help children be able to sit still and focus on their snack or meal.
How to reduce screen time during snacks and meals for early childhood teams.
'Shake the sillies out' before snack or lunch time.
Providing all children with an opportunity to complete a specific gross motor skill routine, or participate in a quick 2 minute mindfulness routine, can help children to get their focus and arousal level to an optimal level needed to sit still and focus on their snack.
It may be challenging for children to self-regulate their arousal if they have just come inside for a snack after running around with their peers outside. Similarly, it might be challenging for children who are anxious to come inside and focus on eating if they are still feeling agitated or heightened from being around a busy and noisy play environment just before snack or lunch time.
By helping children to get to their optimal focus and arousal level, it can help the child's digestive system to feel hungry, and can help their sensory system to calmly sit and complete the action of eating.
Model how to engage appropriately in a social eating activity
Children learn through play. So use the magic of play to teach children how to sit down and engage appropriately in a pretend play social eating activity.
For example, create a small group tea party indoors using imaginative play food and crockery, or create an outdoor lunch time break for the diggers in the sandpit. Also try having special occasions with the children where they may help to make pancakes, and then everyone enjoys their pancakes together in a large group circle, modelling behaviours such as sitting down calmly, joining in group discussion.
I will type more about engaging in the social activity of eating in the family tips section below.
Allow children to eat in a range of different environments
I have seen in my experience of the years that some children with autism and/or trauma often find it overwhelming to sit at the snack table with all of their peers. The sounds of the lunchboxes opening and shutting, the crackling of chip packets and their friend's chewing sounds, may all be too stressful for children with sensory difficulties.
This is why I encourage early childhood teams to provide children with the opportunity to sit on a rug indoors. With the rug positioned near the snack tables but far enough away to be able to help children to self-regulate and concentrate on their meal.
Secondly, provide some children with the opportunity to stand up at a rib-height bench while eating. Now I know this goes against our social norms of eating and isn't the most ideal situation. But if it helps a child to stay focused on their meal and not distract others around them then it's a possible solution to the current meal time challenge, and is teaching the child to self-regulate while still being in a group eating setting.
Try these 4 alternatives to relying on screens during meal times
- Read a book to the children while they're eating their snack or lunch. For younger children you may like to use a picture book. My older children love listening to their teachers read sections of a chapter book each day.
- Put on relaxing acoustic music that isn't fast enough to make the children want to dance, but isn't slow enough that they won't be interested in listening to the music. My children enjoy acoustic kids music options that can be found on spotify. The songs sound familiar to them, but they don't have the lyrics that can distract them from their meal.
- Use a gel timer instead of a screen for children who are struggling to sit still. Once the gel timer has finished, or has completed 3 x 5 minute cycles the children can then pack up their lunch boxes and continue to the next activity if they don't want to eat anymore.
- Place strips of masking tape on the edge of the table so children can pick at the masking tape while struggling to sit still at the table. This activity is quiet, and doesn't distract others around the child. If the child is too quick with picking the tape off, provide them with a straw or a pencil to wind the tape back onto and repeat the picking action again.
To download the alternatives to screen time poster click here
You're welcome to use this A4 poster in your classroom to help promote the social and self-regulating experience of eating a snack or meal in a group setting.
How to reduce screen time during snacks and meals for families.
Create positive social eating habits from as young as possible.
What I love about eating as a group is the social engagement and the conversations that children have while sharing meal time with others.
Providing children with the expectation to sit calmly for a snack or meal also provides children with positive skills such as:
- self-regulation (managing their excitement and being able to still focus),
- mindfulness (being in the moment, enjoying the sensations of their food),
- connectedness (feeling a part of their group while sharing meal time),
- patience (being able to wait for all members of the group to finish)
If we distract children with screens during meal times, then children are eating on 'autopilot' rather than being actively involved in the actions of eating.
Encourage children to be independent with their eating skills before starting kindergarten
Some of the challenging behaviours that I see during snack and meal time is possibly due to the fact that children haven't mastered these skills at home yet. Instead of sitting and eating independently with their lunchbox some children feel confused about who is going to feed them, like some families do as part of their culture at home.
In my professional opinion, we need to prepare children for the expectations and skills needed at kindergarten and school, so that our children thrive in this environment rather than feel frustrated.
Engage in snack time with your children
If you're trying to build up your child's ability to sit still at the table, start by having small snacks together at a children's size table or adult size table without any distractions or screens.
Talk to your child about their day, how they feel about their snack, what their favourite part of today has been. Encourage your child to talk to you as well as eating their snack, so that they're enjoying the social experience of the snack time.
As your child builds up their endurance of sitting still at the table, slowly increase the length of your meals, and the amount of times that they spend screen free at the table. With positive snack and meal experiences, and praise from you, your child will build up their ability to do this skill.
Have meal times as a family to model social eating behaviours that are needed at kindergarten and school
Meal times are an opportunity to connect with each other and enjoy the mindfulness of eating a family meal.
Take the time to sit down together as a family each night. Even if you're not ready to eat dinner yet, bring a cup of tea or drink to the table and enjoy spending the social time with your little ones as they eat their meal.
Talk about your day, what you're looking forward to tomorrow, what your favourite part of the meal is, how many colours you can see on the plate, what you can smell, etc.
This quality time helps children to develop the skills of calmly enjoying a meal with their peers and teachers at kindergarten and school. So start with quick family snacks, and build up your child's endurance to longer family meals. Each meal time will become easier, the more consistent we become with engaging appropriately at the table, screen free (including no screens at the table for adults too).
Try to not confuse meal times with play time until children are able to independently eat and engage in a social meal session
I see this often that families become playful at meal times. While this is adorable and a special moment to share, it can become confusing for small children about what is socially acceptable and unacceptable at the table during meals. While dancing at the table is exciting and fun at home. Can you imagine a room full of 25 children standing and dancing at the table?
Instead take time before or after meals to engaging in fun play and dancing like shown below. That way we can save the expectations at the table to be a calm and social meal, rather than an overexcitable moment.
Get children involved in the meal preparation or cooking
If you have a fussy eater making meal times stressful, try to involve them in the basics of meal preparation and cooking. Even if it's just involving them in helping you get the food items out of the fridge and onto the bench, or tearing the lettuce for the salad.
Teaching children to enjoy different elements of food - eating, preparing, sorting - can help reduce children's reluctance to engage with food at meal times.
For further support with fussy eating be sure to contact your local speech pathologist as they are an amazing resource for this developmental area.
Practice eating calmly out of lunch boxes when you have your next play date
For children who find it stressful at snack and lunch time, encourage them to have a play date with a close friend or family member and set up lunch boxes outside or on a picnic rug, and encourage children to enjoy a small play date with the lunch box that they'll be using for kindergarten or school.
Practicing eating a range of different foods from their lunchbox can help children to feel more confident to eat out of their lunchbox when at kindergarten or school.
For more snack and lunch time tips, and strategies for reducing screen time, continue this conversation on my Play Move Improve Facebook page.