4 Steps To Make Screen Time Interactive Using Toys

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 spend 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) increases memory, perception, language, attention, and decision-making, all of which can be lagging skills for children with exceptional needs.

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 flips a cognitive switch. And bonus, this process gives you permission to buy toys!

Our Personal Story

My five 1/2 year-old-son, Barclay, is on the autism spectrum. We spend a ton of time reading, playing games, swimming, playing outside, and doing many activities to help boost him in his lagging skills such a language, communication, gross and fine motor, social-interaction and more. And one of those activities is using screen time, but not how you might think!

Barclay is in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. One ABA strategy is to use what motivates children as reinforcement. In other words, you use what your child gets excited about to help encourage behaviors you want to see continue. Barclay is super motivated by his favorite shows and characters.  But rather than using 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!

Step 1

Set aside a space in your home for what I call “interactive bins, bags, and binders,” I moved Christmas decorations from a closet to the garage to make room. You can use cabinets in the kitchen, purchase an upright locking cabinet from an office supply store, or utilize the space above a closet. But it needs to be an area that your child doesn’t have access to on their own. You may need to add latches or a lock. The reason you don’t want them to have free-access is twofold. For one, we want them to request access and choose which bin they want, either using picture cards, language, or nonverbal communication such as pointing. Secondly, we want them to be excited to use an interactive bin and having free access reduces the excitement.

Step 2

For every tv show or movie your child enjoys, you will need a bin, bag, or binder. That will depend on the size of the items you collect in Step 3. I’ve used clear storage bins with lids, empty boxes and Ziploc bags, and 3-ring binders. I’ve found storage bins at Home Goods with Paw Patrol characters for Paw Patrol toys and bought a plain toy chest and painted it to look like Andy’s toy box from Toy Story. But you won’t know exactly what to purchase until you do the next step. So initially, just use what you have available.

Step 3

At this step, you’ll collect every toy from your child’s playroom or bedroom that is representative of their favorite shows and put those together in a bin or bag. In addition, do an internet search for an image that represents what is inside the container. So if you are making an interactive bin full of figurines from Sesame Street, print off a picture of the character and attach it to the front of the container with packing tape so your child can clearly identify the contents. If you don’t have toys or figurines from their shows, it’s time to go shopping and/or to make items for your child.

  • If the show is current, use retailers such as Amazon, Target, Wal-Mart, Dollar Tree, and Five Below – always check the clearance!
  • If the show isn’t current, try Amazon, eBay, retailers such as Ross and TJ Maxx, children’s consignment shops, or thrift stores.
  • You can also make these items. Print characters off the internet and purchase an inexpensive laminator to laminate them and store in a Ziploc bag.
  • In addition, think about other elements from the movie that you can incorporate everyday items from your home. For example, in the movie Coco, Miguel wears a red hoodie, so if your child has a red hoodie, add it to the interactive bin. In the movie Trolls, Poppy plays a cowbell which can be purchased inexpensively from Amazon. This is where finding “props” around your home can really help to create an interactive and immersive experience.

Step 4

Now it’s time to put on one of your child’s favorite shows, pull out the interactive bin and play with your child. This is not the time to fold laundry. Engage. Pick up that toy guitar and play along with Miguel. Children with ASD can be great imitators. They love to script their favorite lines from movies. They can memorize entire chunks of dialogue. This is often the bridge to creative and functional communication. Also, putting tangible items in their hands that are artifacts of those shows give them a kinesthetic connection. Pulling out a toy piano when Johnny from Sing starts to perform is pretty much a guarantee your child will want to play along. It encourages them to move. It engages their brain!

Skills Your Child is Building Using Interactive Bins

  • They are building vocabulary.
  • They are learning sequencing and chronology.
  • They are learning to predict.
  • They are learning how to tell a story.
  • They are physically active, which engages the brain.
  • They are increasing their memory.
  • They are learning to make decisions.
  • They are learning to request.
  • They are increasing their receptive language.
  • They are increasing their expressive language.
  • They are learning that YOU care about them!

Final Thoughts

I hear parents all the time complaining about how many toys their child has, when that is EXACTLY what kids need! The problem is often poor organization, a lack of parent modeling, and not a clear understanding of how to use toys to help our children overcome some of their challenges. By simply rethinking how we look at toys, not as spoiling our kids or as unnecessary clutter, but as purposeful and needed tools for their cognitive development, parents can begin to put these steps in place to build those skills.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. – Mr. Rogers

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.