Screen-Free Routines: 3 Times a Day to Limit Media in Your Child’s Life

By Kate Galvin, preschool lead teacher at the A. Sophie Rogers School for Early Learning and Rebecca Dore, senior research associate for the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy

The headlines around kids and screen time can be downright scary, but it helps to remember that there was similar hype around the introduction of comic books and even the novel! Although more research is needed on the effects of media on child development, one message that most experts will agree on is that moderation is key. If it seems daunting to set limits on something as pervasive as digital media, it’s helpful to remember three basic times when it’s important to do so: mealtime, playtime, and bedtime. Establishing consistent screen time routines during these periods can reduce power struggles, help your child establish healthy habits with technology, and make sure they have time for screen-free learning throughout the day.


Mealtime is a great chance to build your child’s vocabulary, narrative skills, and understanding of conversational norms. Even before they can speak, it is vital for young children to be exposed to language-rich environments in order to develop their own language skills. Children do not learn language from media the way they do from in-person conversations. Having a back-and-forth dialog that includes both gestures and opportunities for the child to respond is crucial to language development which in turn develops important skills for future success in life. If it’s a struggle to separate media from mealtime, try using your child’s favorite program or game as a conversation starter. For example, if they were just captivated by a show about animals, ask them which animal was their favorite or talk about the animals you’ve seen at the park. Extending the conversation beyond the program will make the content more meaningful and offer opportunities to connect with your child about their interests.

Unplugging at mealtime can also help your child develop healthier eating habits. Research shows that children who watch TV while eating are less aware of their hunger and therefore inclined to eat more than they need. Without the distraction of a screen at mealtime, your child can become more aware of their hunger and make better dietary choices.


Many of your favorite childhood memories likely involve playtime. Play allows children to freely choose to engage in hands-on activities they find interesting. In play, children are mentally active and engaged, giving rise to optimal circumstances for learning. Play can also involve interacting with siblings and friends, which can provide a context for children to practice important social skills. It is less clear that media time provides these same opportunities. Even when children aren’t actively using media, a television playing in the background reduces the overall quality of their play. Without the distraction of background media, research shows that children play with increased focus and longer bouts of attention. The quality and length of parent and child interactions also increases when screens are turned off. This means there are more opportunities for back-and-forth conversations that are so important for language development and for parents to support their child’s learning. If screens are usually on throughout the day in your house, as a family come together to schedule times each day to switch them off. Talk to your child about what other activities they would enjoy using during their media break. Offering materials that aren’t usually accessible to your child, such as play-doh or special art materials, can make unplugged time a novel and engaging time your child can look forward to.


At the end of a busy day, it can seem that sitting down in front of the television is a great way to wind down. However, screen time before bedtime actually makes it harder for children to fall asleep and disrupts the overall quality of their sleep. Light from screens reduces melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep cycles, twice as much in children as it does for adults. Ideally, children should avoid televisions, tablets, and other blue light-emitting devices 2 hours before bedtime. A consistent bedtime routine that includes singing or reading or telling stories is linked to important mental life skills like flexible thinking and self-control. Create a bedtime routine with your child that includes a time when all screens will be turned off. Then, help your child decide how their bedtime routine will unfold, i.e, “First, we turn off the TV and tablet, then we have bath time and brush teeth, then we pick out 3 stories to read before bed.”  Having a predictable plan in place will result in fewer power struggles about screens at bedtime and help your child get the quality sleep they need.


Media is neither entirely bad nor entirely good for children. Some effects may depend on when children use are using media. Setting aside time for meals, play, and bedtime to remain mostly screen-free can be a good start to establishing a healthy media routine in your family and setting your child up for success.