Use Screens to Prompt Physical Play

Use screen time to encourage active, physical play

physical play - kids running outside in costume
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Do your kids need more active, physical play in their lives? There's no doubt that limiting screen time is crucial for kids' well-being, and that screen time is too often a sedentary pursuit. But you can also use your children's beloved screens to your advantage. They can actually inspire physical activity, instead of hindering it. Here's how, age by age.

Preschoolers, TV, and Physical Play

Choose the right offerings, and TV and movies can prompt your child to be more active. If you have a preschooler, you can encourage her to climb, hop, or stretch just like Dora the Explorer, Curious George, or another favorite character. She might do this while the show is playing. Or she might reenact scenes or create her own at other times, when the TV isn't even on!

On small screens, like phones or tablets, certain apps—like those focused on drawing—can improve your child's fine motor skills. You can also use the appeal of the tablet to get kids playing an active game, such as Super Stretch Yoga. Or, invest in a LeapBand, a wearable activity tracker for 4- to 7-year-olds. It features a virtual pet on its screen, which kids can care for by participating in brief physical challenges.

Grade-Schoolers and Screen-Inspired Physical Play

Like their little brothers and sisters, younger grade-school kids might watch a superhero cartoon and then play their own active, heroic game on the school playground or during a playdate. So many of the stories, characters, and settings your child sees on TV shows or in movies can be turned into imaginative, active play. (Making simple props or costumes available can help encourage this kind of dramatic play. But for many kids, part of the fun is turning towels into capes and sticks into swords!)

At this age, kids can also use simple fitness apps and trackers, and might enjoy those that award prizes (real or virtual). With your help, an app like Pokemon GO can be a big incentive to get out and get some exercise while searching for Pikachu and its pals.

You can also use screen time to your advantage by making it a condition of active, physical play. When you require kids to earn screen time by racking up active play time first, you are making physical activity a priority. And you're ensuring that screen time doesn't hog too many of your child's waking hours. You can use a formal system, such as giving kids tokens for every 15 to 30 minutes of active play which they can then exchange for an equal (or lesser) amount of TV or other screen time.

Or, you can set hours during which screens aren't permitted, such as before and after school, which ensures that screen time happens after homework, chores, and playtime are over. And for some families, a simple reminder will do the trick: "Hey, you've been watching TV for awhile. It's time to go do something else. Want to shoot some baskets?" Or even, "Do you want to watch a show later? Let's take Max for a walk together first."

Physical Play for Screen-Obsessed Tweens and Teens

If your older child is an athlete or a dancer, watching the pros on TV can be inspirational. Seeing them might inspire your child to learn new skills and practice more often. So can filming herself while playing, so she can zero in on ways to improve her technique.

Even if your kid is not into sports, TV and online videos can offer him a peek at something he might want to try. Who knows? He could be the first in his class to try archery or water polo, thanks to seeing the sport depicted on TV or on his favorite YouTube channel.

And if your child does love YouTube, Instagram, or some other social sharing platform, remind her that her followers don't want to see a constant stream of selfies taken in your living room. She needs to get out in the world and find new environments to see and photograph. Encourage her to do so on foot or bike. 

Teens with their own smartphones are also prime candidates for game-based fitness apps, from Pokemon GO to Zombies, Run to Ninja Fitness (or even older-school options like geocaching). 

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