Too much screen time can affect early childhood development

Kids may be spending more time in front of a screen, but traditional play is important, especially in early childhood development. We look at why.


In South Africa, the national average of South African children aged 0 to 4 years old participating in some sort of early childhood development programme is only 45%, according to the latest Department of Education progress report.

Early childhood development is an integral part in the acquiring the concepts, skills and attitudes that lay the foundation of lifelong learning. “Quality development in these areas can assist young children to inhibit the basic skills needed to perform efficiently in the schooling and home environment,” says Grant Webster, chief operating officer of Toy Kingdom.

Striking a balance between screen time and traditional play

“Keeping traditional educational toys in the home for playtime is becoming increasingly important in this day and age of electronic devices, so that children can still spend time developing the basic skills associated with play,” says Grant.

Children need to learn from a very young age how to react to the world around them, and playing with toys such as dolls and action figures can help with understanding feelings like empathy. Registered occupational therapist Dana Katz says educational toys, especially those that support fine motor, visual perceptual, planning and problem solving skills can help to develop more refined, higher level learning skills. “Skill development is essentially like building a pyramid. If the lower building blocks are in place, we can continue to build on that skill. If all the underlying skills like gross motor, sensory motor, focus, awareness of the two sides of the body and motor planning  are in place developmentally and the child is able to process sensory information effectively, developmental toys and games can be valuable in supporting higher level skill development,” explains Dana.

She believes that moderation and responsible use is key in striking a balance between screen time and traditional play. “Research has indicated that too much screen time can be detrimental to young children, impacting negatively on emotions and behaviour. Excessive screen time generally results in extended periods of sedentary activity, with a child often assuming a poor posture for long periods and focusing on a small visual field to the detriment of the peripheral visual field (which is required for much school based and play based activities).” Paediatricians recommended no more than two hours of screen time per day, according to international standards.

Does my child need occupational therapy?

For many parents, identifying if their child needs further skill development or occupational therapy can be daunting. Dana says look out for these signs:

  • Your child does not enjoy an age-appropriate game or activity
  • Your child has difficulty engaging with his peers in play
  • Your child is unable to participate actively in everyday classroom tasks and is struggling to develop independence in age-appropriate tasks at home, such as play, dressing, feeding, toileting etc.
  • Your child displays resistant, controlling or avoidant behaviour, which may indicate that he is finding something challenging.

Parents who have recognised some of these signs and whose children are perhaps already in occupational therapy can further assist in building essential skills at home with a variety of toys and role-play exercises. Putting some time aside each day for children to engage with these activities can help to further their development, and ultimately enrich their experience in the world around them.

Toys that can assist with early childhood development

  • Toys that encourage problem solving. Lego and building blocks are a good choice for developing children’s motor and problem solving skills, as it gives them a chance to try and figure things out for themselves.
  • Consider toys that will help build strength in children’s hands, for example, play dough. This strength will be necessary to take on writing among other daily activities.
  • Things that feel ‘weird’. Toys with sticky or slimy surfaces help children to experiment with texture. This can be beneficial in ensuring children are more open to putting textured food in their mouths, and is also a great way for them to get their hands working.
  • Toys that require the use of both hands. Learning to use both hands well can help with colouring, cutting and writing. Wind-up toys are a good example or even simply tossing and catching a ball.
  • Toys that encourage pretend play. Fantasy and play have long been used to stimulate creativity as well as social skills in children.  By pretending to do or be something different, the child is practising both verbal and non-verbal communication, harnessing the skills to socialise and cooperate with other children and adults.

On a tight budget? Click here for tips to make your own educational toys for your little one.

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