Making Screen Time Interactive for Children with Developmental Delays

elmoScreens 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.

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!

interactive binsFirst, 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 making an interactive bin.  I labeled each of Barclay’s containers by printing off images from google.

Color Crew Red Hat

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.
Barclay Looi

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.

hallowwenFor 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.

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.

Sing 2The 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 and 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.

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!

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.

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







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Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 5-33! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience, a freelance writer, and a special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.

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