This article was published in December 2016 and January 2017 in the following publications: Woburn Daily Times Chronicle, the Randolph Herald, Canton Journal, Holbrook Sun, and Stoughton Journal.
Parents often worry that their children are watching too much TV or spending too much time with a tablet. Whether their children are typically developing or have special needs, this concern is warranted. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), too much unsupervised screen time can have negative consequences. Overexposure to screens has been linked to reduced social interaction and poor sleep quality.
However, recent research conducted by the AAP’s Council on Communications and Media indicates that digital media can also offer opportunities for learning when supervised and used in moderation. And a 2015 study conducted by Lauren Myers of Lafayette College provided evidence that children as young as 17 months can learn new words by engaging in “video chat” with family members (1).
The AAP has recently relaxed its screen time recommendations, upping the recommended time to one supervised hour per day for children ages 2-5. The Academy also states that video chat is acceptable for children younger than 18 months. This is great news for working or traveling parents and other family members who want to connect with their favorite toddler or language learner.
In addition to providing special bonding time, video chat apps like Skype and Facetime provide ample opportunities for novel language exposure and for learning and practicing new skills.
The parent who is assisting a child on one end of the video chat should help, but not monopolize, the talking time. It is also important to coordinate expectations with the people on the other side of the line. These adults should sit close, keep eye contact, speak slowly, and use simple sentences. They should ask open-ended questions (not yes/no) and give the child time to respond (at least 10 seconds). It is also important to respond every time the child communicates. For example, if he says, “cup,” you say, “That’s right, this is my coffee cup!”
Here are some additional suggestions:
Make routines. Children learn best through repetition. Having a special routine is a great way to make your time meaningful while also encouraging new learning.
- Say hello and good-bye the same way, i.e., “tootle-loo kangaroo!”
- Sing familiar songs together and leave off the last word “Twinkle, twinkle little …”).
- Involve children in your daily routines (like getting the mail) while you are video chatting.
- Play games like peek-a-boo that encourage eye contact, repetition, and memorization.
Talk about something new. Use your tablet or cell phone to show the child your environment: the dog, the backyard bird feeder, or pictures on the wall. You could set up your tablet at the park or in the backyard and talk about the things you see.
Share an activity. Plan ahead to do something fun together like coloring, playing dolls, or having a snack. This will make the child feel like you are truly spending time together.
Nothing compares to face-to-face contact, but used judiciously and intelligently, video chat can be another tool to encourage social connection, improve language development, and learn new things.
The article can also be read on the May Institute's Topic Center webpage.