Is Play Better than Screen Time for Toddlers? An Unpopular Opinion

screen time for toddlers

What is the appropriate amount of screen time for toddlers?  How bad are screens for toddlers?  What do we do without screens?  Read on to learn it all.

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What kind of screen time for toddlers is recommended by the experts?

The Academy of American Pediatrics recommends exactly zero screen time for children under twenty-four months old.  The exception would be video chatting for children from eighteen months through twenty-four months.

They recommend less than one hour of daily television watching for children ages two to five.

What happens when toddlers have too much screen time?

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry does a good job of spelling out disadvantages of too much screen time.  These include poor sleep, less time with family and friends, less time reading, and exposure to content you might not want for your child.

Our House Rules for Screen Time

As a mother of cluster babies with children ages three years old, 1.5 years old and 0.5 years old, we have some firm, but few, rules about tv in our house.

First of all, children must be two years or older to watch tv.  Secondly, a parent is almost always watching with the child.  And third, parent and child choose the show together. (Nothing too annoying…right?)

We don’t let our kids play with our phones.  We also don’t have tablets, because we’re just not that cool. (Insert grandma emoji.)  But even if we did, these would be off limits for our kids at this point.

My Background

Before being a parent, I was a teacher for quite some time.  I primarily taught kindergarten, but also taught some first and second grade, as well.  

While iPads were all the rage in the classroom, I mostly stayed away from them with my young students.  I preferred to use real manipulatives and books over digital learning with my students.

In college, many years ago now, I had a child development expert convince me that children should not be watching tv before the age of two.  Her argument was primarily about it simply not being developmentally appropriate for the age.  I decided then and there, that I would not let my kids watch tv until the age of two.  

And I have impressed myself, because I have stuck to it.

No Time for Screens

I avoid screens with my kids for a variety of reasons.  A lot of them can be found in the article from the AACAP

However, a primary reason sadly just isn’t listed: Kids need to be playing.

Children learn just about everything through play.  They develop their language, their imagination, and fine and gross motor skills.  Children grow their social skills and regulatory skills all through play.  It’s actually amazing to think about all the benefits play has on our children.

Realistically, the #1 reason my kids don’t watch tv, is because there just isn’t time for it.  Only my oldest currently qualifies to even watch tv, under my rules.  There’s rarely a time that she’s awake and her brothers are both sleeping.  Occasionally this will happen, and she’ll get some tv time.

How to Survive without Screens

We spend a lot of time outside.  By a lot, I mean almost all of it, if the weather is good.

You can read here about why we play outside so much, and how I logistically manage it with three tiny ones.

During the colder months, we do a lot of indoor play.  I intentionally set out games, toys and activities for my children. I also try to schedule play dates and outings to ward off any cabin fever.

Honestly, I never let tv become a major thing in our house.  I’ve never really relied on it to babysit my kids, which does seem easier than reeling it back in after too much tv consumption.

What We Watch

I remember reading some good advice years ago.  It said if your young child is watching tv, then have it be live people or older animation, like the original Disney movies.  The slowness of it is less harmful for developing brains than the more modern animation.

Shows we will watch include Sesame Street, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and DocMcStuffins.  We will occasionally watch some Blippi or tractor videos on YouTube.  However, I try not to do too much YouTube.

We really like the Disney Nature documentaries, as well.  It’s beautiful cinematography focusing on all different animals.  I highly suggest those!

Exceptions to the Rule

Of course every rule has to have exceptions!  And our “no tv before 2” rule certainly has them!

We will absolutely watch tv with a newborn beside us.  Now, we don’t set that newborn in front of the tv.  But I will feed the baby or prop the baby on a boppy turned away from the tv.  A new little baby can’t even see the tv, so I’m never concerned when they’re that small.

This is pretty common, but we will use FaceTime with our children, no matter the age.  We don’t use it a lot, but I have no problem with my babies and toddlers using a screen for FaceTime.

Cutting nails.  Among the most challenging tasks of mothering toddlers…am I right?  My go-to for cutting my 1.5 year old’s nails is this ancient Raffi video.   

I loved listening to him when I was growing up, and we frequently listen to him through Spotify.  But it’s a real treat to watch Raffi live in concert…straight from the early 90s!  

Pregnant and/or sleep deprived mama = extra screen time.  During a typical tv session, my daughter will watch a show, or about 20-30 minutes of tv.  However, when I was pregnant, or just had a baby, this was definitely elongated.  Some phases of life are just survival mode!

TV as the Kids Get Older

I actually love tv.  I love good dramas, my Bravo, and old school sitcoms.  In the future, I really look forward to sharing good shows and movies with my kids.  I plan to make family movie nights a thing, as the kids get older.  I know tv, among other screens, will eventually be more a part of their lives.

But for now, I want them to be spending their precious young years playing and interacting with each other.


I truly believe everyone should make the best decision for their family when it comes to screen time…or anything, really.  I do think it’s helpful to know that it really is possible to use minimal screen time, even when there are multiple tiny people in one home.


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Outdoor Play Made Easy: How to get out there with your kids (and why you should)

screen time for toddlers

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