How Children Learn to Entertain Themselves Without Screens

We were five days into a week-long family vacation at the Oregon Coast when it dawned on me that our hotel room did not have a TV and we had not missed it. At home we have cable programming, but my husband is the only family member who turns on the television, mainly for a few hours of sports programming each week. He also watches DVDs with our children, but they rarely watch movies during the day. Instead, our children habitually find ways to occupy themselves with creative pursuits. I don't credit myself for their activity choices, but here's what has helped them become skilled at independent play:

My son listening to his sister's impromptu guitar concert 

My son listening to his sister's impromptu guitar concert 

Providing simple, open-ended activity stations: this is far easier than it sounds. For our preschool-age children, it's as simple as keeping a child-sized art table (stocked with oversized white paper, scissors, and colored pencils), a small bin of dress-up costumes, and a bag of wooden blocks, for example.

Limiting toys: This sounds counterintuitive, but a surfeit of toys correlates with short-attention spans. Of the toys that remain, choose toys that can be played with in multiple ways and for many years, such as a wooden or metal train set (rather than a Thomas one) or realistic animal figurines (rather than a Littlest Pet Shop set).

My daughter making a snow angel

My daughter making a snow angel

Encouraging outdoor play: To paraphrase the old Scandinavian saying, "There's no bad weather, only poorly-suited clothing." Nature stimulates the mind and body in positive ways, soothing us, yet teaching us to pay attention.

Letting them help: Often our children just want to be doing something with us! Even if I'm doing something unsafe for children--such as using a hot glue gun--a little creativity on my part can help me figure out how my child can safely help--perhaps by pressing and holding the object together after I've glued it.

My son drumming on a drum pad and overturned trash can in the kitchen

My son drumming on a drum pad and overturned trash can in the kitchen

Relaxing my expectations: My children may make a decent playdough mess while I'm making dinner, or hold a long jump contest on the couch while I'm planning meals, but the creative play is far more worthwhile than anything they could learn from an educational TV program.

Reserving some activities and games for quiet time only: There will always be times when I need my children to occupy themselves--such as when a younger sibling is napping and I need a parenting break to restore my patience for the afternoon and evening ahead. My daughter knows which activities she can pull from the closet specifically when it's quiet time. This might include a paper doll set, reuseable animal stickers and habitat scenes, or a single player board game like Camelot Jr.

Checking out new library books weekly: Even though my children can't yet read, they've developed a habit of looking at books, slowly turning pages and figuring out the storyline if we haven't yet read it to them. A constant supply of new books encourages them to reach for those books whenever they have free time.

How do your children keep themselves entertained when they don't have access to tablets and TVs? Does boredom seem to arrive too often or too rarely at your house?

All photos in this post were taken by my husband. This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.

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