Making Screen Time Interactive for Children with Exceptional Needs

Screens often get a bad rap in the parenting world, especially when speaking about children with developmental disabilities. Overuse is a serious problem, and understandably so.  A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that many children are spending an average of 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen SITTING.  Add to that how much time children spend sitting in schools, doing homework, in cars, at the table eating, and the number becomes staggering.  Yet the research proves that MOVEMENT (not sitting) in children increases memory, perception, language, attention, and decision-making.  All of these are areas our children with developmental disabilities need help with.

Children love their favorite shows, and that interest is very motivating to them.  Yet passively watching even educational programs isn’t doing their brains any favors. However, if you get them off the couch moving and interacting with their favorite shows that can flip that cognitive switch.

How We Make Screen Time Interactive

My son, Barclay, is 3 1/2 years old.  He has a speech delay, ADHD, and ASD.  We spend a ton of time reading, playing games, swimming, playing outside, and doing a lot of activities to help boost him in his lagging skills. And one of those activities is using screen time.  Barclay is in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. One ABA strategy is to use what motivates children as a teaching tool.  Barclay is super motivated by his favorite shows and characters.  But rather than just use screen time as a reward, I transformed screen time from sedentary and passive to thoroughly engaging and physically and cognitively interactive.  Follow these steps, and you can, too!

First Step: Make Interactive Bins

First, you’ll need an area to store what I call “interactive bins.”  I used a closet downstairs near the living room.  You could also use a cabinet in your kitchen. I purchase all our bins from the Dollar Tree. They have a wide assortment of sizes and shapes and all for a dollar!  Then for every, and I mean every, show or movie your child is motivated by make an interactive bin.  I labeled each of Barclay’s containers by printing off images from google representative of the objects inside.

In the bin, put any figurines or toys your child has that are from that movie or show or that resemble characters or items.  If they don’t have anything that works, it’s time to go shopping. I use Amazon, Goodwill, Target, eBay, and thrift stores for terrific deals.  I also make items for our interactive bins.

Examples of Interactive Bins (see slideshow below)

Barclay loves the show “Looi” on Babyfirst TV.  I went on YouTube and pulled up each episode and took a screenshot of each character then pasted them in word, printed them and laminated them.  I purchased a reasonably inexpensive laminator from Amazon, but you can also take items to office supply stores to have them laminated. He LOVES to pull out the “Looi” box and follow along with the show.

For a Halloween video he likes, I found some window clings at the Dollar Tree of Halloween figures.  I glued them to cardstock, laminated them, and taped them to dowels, and now, when he watches that video, he has puppets to play along.  He also uses the puppets to tell the story even when he’s not watching the video.

He also loves the show “Color Crew.” I took screenshots of the blank coloring pages and the finished pages from the show on YouTube and laminated those and put them in a binder.  He colors the pages along with the show then uses a magic eraser to erase and can color them again!  He’s done this one so many times he has memorized the order.

How to Use the Interactive Bins

Another key component to this is for the child NOT to have free access to these interactive bins.  For us, this is HUGE. Because of Barclay’s severe language delay, he needs multiple reasons a day to communicate.  If he wants to watch Moana, he has to ask me for the Moana bin.  Sometimes I let him browse the bins in the closet.  This allows him to make choices.  Also, by the child not having free access to the interactive bins, they are super excited when they get one out.

The next piece is super important!  This is NOT the time for you to check-out and let your child watch their screen while you sit on the couch or fold laundry in the other room.  You need to be part of the action!  They need you to model what they are supposed to do.  A lot of our children with developmental delays don’t know how to play or have difficulty sustaining an activity. 

Barclay loves the movie “Sing.”  In our Sing interactive bin, we have a toy piano, guitar, microphone, and some of the characters.  When we have the movie on, the whole family is up singing, dancing and pretending to play the instruments.  We are not only having fun as a family, but we keep him engaged because he sees us staying engaged.

The Skills Your Child Builds Using Interactive Bins with Screen Time

So here is a breakdown of some of the skills you are helping your child build when you use screen time as an interactive experience rather than a sedentary one.

  1. They are building vocabulary.
  2. They are learning sequencing and chronology.
  3. They are learning to predict.
  4. They are learning how to tell a story.
  5. They are physically active, which engages the brain.
  6. They are increasing their memory.
  7. They are learning to make decisions.
  8. They are increasing their receptive language.
  9. They are increasing their expressive language.
  10. They are learning that YOU care about them!

For most of the movies and shows my son watches, he can now retell the stories on his on! He’s made a cognitive JUMP from screen time to information recall and independent play.  Those are critical developmental milestones that interactive screen time, along with the other activities we do with him, has helped him gain.

Children with developmental delays won’t see much, if any, cognitive benefit from sitting on a couch passively observing a television.  However, if you get them up singing and dancing, acting out scenes, and using interactive manipulatives such as toys and figurines while having fun with them, you’ll see a huge difference quickly!

For more information check out this podcast episode where I dive a little deeper into this process. You can also check out this updated post on the same topic.

Do you have any creative ways you engage with your child to help them be more interactive with their favorite shows?  Please leave a comment.

  • Autism and Elmo
  • Examples of Interactive Bins
  • Color Crew Interactive Binder
  • Interacting with the movie Sing.

One of the greatest natural resources is the minds of our children. – Walt Disney

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.

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