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  • Writer's pictureGennie Gorback

The Secret to Turning Screen Time into Learning Time

If your car has a bumper sticker that says, “Kill Your TV,” then this post is not for you. But if you are a parent who allows your child some screen time* and want tips for making time as valuable as possible, then read on!

Active Vs. Passive Viewing

Not all screen time is created equal. In fact, children’s screen viewing is typically categorized into two categories: Passive and Active.

Passive viewing is when a child mindlessly watches the screen. I’m sure you’ve seen the zombie look of passive viewing before. Passive viewing requires no thought or creativity.

Active viewing is when a child is cognitively, verbally and/or physically interacting with the screen and/or an adult. When a child is actively participating in screen time, they are strengthening brain connections and developing cognitively, emotionally, and physically.


Pause the Show!

Social-emotional development is my jam. I love encouraging my students (4 and 5 year olds) and my daughter (2.5 years old) to identify their own emotions and the feelings of others. When watching a show with children, I like to periodically pause it to ask questions about how the characters are feeling, how they would feel in the same situation and what they thinks will happen next. Identifying emotions and empathizing are learned skills and children need practice! This is a great bonding experience that also helps transition your child from a passive viewer to an active viewer.

Get Moving!

Something amazing happens when children pair learning new things (like new vocabulary words or concepts) with movement (getting up and dancing, connecting concepts with a movement or using sign language). Educators refer to this process as “using the whole brain” or “the mind/body connection.” Combining movements with visual cues (what’s on the screen) strengthens a child’s brain connections and embeds the information deeper into their memory banks!


Have you found yourself singing “Grown Ups Come Back” from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to your child when dropping him off at daycare? Believe it or not, you are encouraging active viewing even when you are away from a screen! Singing familiar songs triggers a child’s memory of the information absorbed during screen time. This helps them associate the concepts developed in the show with a real life application!


We all think it is adorable when our children respond to Dora the Explorer’s questions (demonstrating active viewing), but most children don’t consistently respond to the questions while watching this type of interactive show because they are passively watching it. Children need to see this type of interaction modeled by an adult or an older child. In order to encourage your child to move from passive viewing to active viewing, model, model model!


Want to read up on active vs. passive screen time? I recommend the searching for the following studies:

- For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. - Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.

- For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs.

- Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.

- For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.

- Interactivity and adult modeling help children to learn a task better than passive viewing of the same material (Lauricella, A. R., et. al. 2010)

- Live interactions between a child and an adult conducted over a digital device such as a tablet or smartphone enable children to learn new words (Roseberry, 2013)


Just because I am passionate about encouraging active screen time in my home doesn’t mean that my daughter doesn’t passively watch tv. Sometimes, mama’s got to get dinner in the oven and I can’t focus on dancing to “The Hexagon Song” from Heidisongs with my daughter. Just like all areas of parenting, it’s all about balance! If you provide your child with developmentally appropriate shows and if you practice any of the tips outlined in this guide in an attempt to encourage active viewing during screen time, you’re already ahead of the game!

*The phrase “screen time” encompasses all interactions with a screen, including video games, video calling, and work/play on the compute or tablet, in addition to viewing shows/movies. For the purposes of this article, I am only discussing “screen time” as screen viewing time (tv, dvd’s, movies, etc.)


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