Working Motherhood During Covid-19: Screen Time and Pre-Schoolers
by: Rachel Ramsay , October 5, 2020
by: Rachel Ramsay , October 5, 2020
‘I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on, I go into another room and read a good book’.
Staring endlessly at a screen is not good for a young child. We all know this. Children should be looking at books or playing outside. However, screen time is very good for calming children down, entertaining them, and above all, keeping them quiet. I grew up hearing that watching TV would give me square eyes, make me aggressive, turn me into a couch potato or a zombie, eat away at my very soul. The World Health Organization recommends that children under the age of two should not be passively watching screens at all, and that screen time should be restricted to one hour a day for two- to five-year-olds (WHO 2019). I work full time, teaching English to future teachers at a German university. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, our kindergarten closed. Our semesters do not finish until the end of July, and after that we have two gruelling weeks of oral examinations, during which I cannot be disturbed at all. Back in March, daily screen time started to seem inevitable. While my partner and I could just about manage by alternating blocks of work with blocks of childcare between us, both of us really needed to take advantage of our two-year old’s hallowed midday nap. By that time, our four-year-old would be too tired to be able to occupy himself without being noisy and waking his brother. With some reluctance, I paid for a subscription to Disney+, which seemed to be everywhere at that time, probably targeted at working parents desperate for better-quality content during the COVID-19 pandemic, and resigned myself to the four-year-old watching a film every day. At least we would be able to discuss the content, I thought to myself. The encroachment of screen time into our lives led to debates with my partner. We eventually agreed that it could and should provide a basis for connection and learning, rather than the disconnect my parents had feared. What follows is a breakdown of what has worked out best for us.
Our children watch the same thing over and over again. One significant advantage of repetition is the deeper understanding of situations that arise: the questions this can provoke about the world and how things work, and cause-and-effect relationships. If something is bothering my four-year-old, he will often bring it up via a character or a storyline, and this creates an opportunity to talk about friendships, families, and personalities. I discovered the learning potential of repetition from observing my younger brother, who has severe learning difficulties, mainly linked to epilepsy and autism. He asked to watch the same film, Free Willy (1993), every day for an entire year. The characters became part of our everyday conversation; we speculated about their hidden motivations and discussed their behaviour. My brother would become agitated when thinking about the whale’s tank being damaged on purpose, which often led to seizures and taught us so much about the reasons he had them. He watched other films with similar intensity, and it came to the point where he knew the names of all the minor characters, including non-speaking ones like horses. It is hard to describe the impact this had on his development. His vocabulary grew rapidly, as did his imagination and empathy. We had not been led to expect much from him: most people with his level of disability remain non-verbal. Of course, we read to him and tried to teach him to read and write (I remember spending hours on this at the age of thirteen) but it didn’t happen, beyond writing his own name and ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy,’ and copying words down. He will never be able to read himself a book, but he will always be able to watch films, and it will be a way of remembering the experiences we have shared. The shared experience of repeated viewings can create deeper connections.
Secondly, our children watch the same thing in different languages. We are bringing them up in Germany and they attend a German kindergarten, my partner is from Colombia so speaks to them in Spanish, and I’m from the UK and I communicate with them in English. We try to expose them to all three languages, but stick to the well-known rule of multilingual households: that a parent should only speak to their child in their mother tongue(s). We try to watch the same episode of a children’s series in English, then Spanish or German (English is currently their strongest language). This means that the children understand the plot from the first viewing, and can pick up new Spanish or German vocabulary more easily. I don’t see why this technique of showing children the same thing in different languages shouldn’t be done in monolingual households, if you want your child to learn a little more during screen time. What a fantastic habit to develop as a child, and how wonderful would it be to already know some phrases from a foreign language before you start trying to learn it at school? Or to be able to talk about your favourite show at the playground on your foreign holiday (after COVID-19).
Thirdly, they watch recordings of nursery rhymes, poems and fairy tales repeatedly, so that they know them by heart. Learning Colombian and English nursery rhymes enables them to connect with their grandmothers, as they can sing together online. In language learning, the ‘lexical approach’ puts the focus on acquiring vocabulary and picking up the grammar along the way, rather than vice versa. Songs, poems and fairy tales typically contain a lot of fixed expressions and collocations, ‘multi-word prefabricated chunks’ (Lewis 1997: 3) like ‘this is the way we’ (clap our hands, stomp our feet), ‘this little piggy…’ (went to market, stayed at home), ‘what big (teeth, eyes) you have, Granny’. Children pick these chunks up effortlessly, and can easily adapt them to start building their own sentences. At senior school, our German teaching assistant’s main method of instruction consisted of having us recite his favourite poems. I remember Erich Kästner’s Sachliche Romanze (‘Matter-of-Fact Romance’) in particular, and, being a fan of classical music, I also learned Schubert and Schumann’s Lieder (‘song cycles’) and the accompanying lyrics by Goethe, Schiller and Heine, among others, by heart. In German language classes at university, instead of looking up cases in a grammar book, I would consult my memory to try to work out if I needed the nominative, accusative or dative case in a particular sentence, and which adjective ending was required. I now find that a working knowledge of English grammar is invaluable when teaching at university, as it enables me to explain how and why language is used or not used in a certain way, in English. But this kind of knowledge is not useful for pre-schoolers. For them, the repetition within songs, poems and fairy tales provides a good basis for picking up basic structures in a language or several.
Fourthly, we try to watch together, at least sometimes. In order to have conversations about what the children have been watching, we need to be familiar with it ourselves. Viewing together can mean that they get less sucked in by what is on the screen. You can ask them questions to make them query stereotyped representations (does every family have a mummy and a daddy; can boys and girls play together; could we make one of those out of cardboard instead of buying it?) This way, they are not simply consuming the material passively. We recently watched Beauty and the Beast (1991), which my partner hated. While we were not able to bond over the ‘romantic’ story, the bookish heroine or the fantastic songs, the shared viewing experience did lead to a conversation about why forcing someone to stay in your castle might not be the best way of getting them to like you, and how much on-screen violence we really wanted to expose our children to (there is a scene in which the beast is stabbed with a dagger, which does not contain any blood, but is nonetheless quite disturbing to watch). Watching together is important. In fact, it is crucial.
Fifthly, my thoughts and experiences on avoiding conflicts over screen time. Watching TV to excess was the basis for many arguments in my teenage years. My mum, at the end of her tether with two recalcitrant teenagers and a severely disabled child, would go spare when we didn’t come downstairs immediately when she called at mealtimes. Eventually, she resolved the issue by breaking our (tiny, black-and-white) television, dangling it outside the bedroom window from its cord, and then letting it bounce gently down the stairs. I was not able to regulate my screen time, getting engrossed in platform and driving games in particular, on my brother’s Amiga console. Realising that I would not pass my GCSE exams otherwise, I had to quit gaming entirely, and at university I went to great effort to block or delete games, so that I wouldn’t get immersed in them (after I found myself playing Solitaire at 5 am instead of finishing my essay due the next day, for the nth time). My four-year-old used to have a tantrum every time we turned off the laptop.
Realising where this was headed, we decided to agree with him how much he could watch beforehand, and to have some respect for his screen time. I don’t pull him out for meals or change my mind about how much he is allowed to watch, though sometimes I allow him a little more time than agreed because I want to keep on working. Don’t be negative about screen time. Try not to say ‘no’ if they ask for it: I find that sometimes all mine want are a few nursery rhymes, and turning screen time into a treat will make them yearn for it all the more. But be enthusiastic about going outside and doing things. We have actually come to the point where my four-year-old has started self-regulating: he will stop watching when he has had enough, and come and help me hang out the washing or whatever, or even ask me to switch off the laptop and read to him, even if he has been watching one of his favourite films. He’s already seen it, after all, so he doesn’t need to hang on for the happy ending. Long may that last!
Finally, it cannot be overstated that there is a lot of material on the internet targeted at children that is absolute rubbish and utterly creepy: pirated material, subtle advertising–videos of toy unboxings and children trying sweet after sweet. These are largely computer generated and lacking any sense or plot cohesion, and some of it is very disturbing indeed (Bridle 2017). Fortunately, we read about this before the children were exposed to it. Back in 2017, my partner downloaded some episodes of Otmar Gutmann’s Pingu (1990-2006), and Colombian nursery rhymes, onto an old tablet, and up until the age of three, that was for the most part all my son watched. Not letting the children watch anything you have not downloaded and viewed yourself is the safest option. Avoiding autoplay on YouTube is a must, or at least using “restricted mode”, which limits flagged content.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have particularly needed to find ways to occupy our children for longer periods of time, so that we could continue doing the work that we are paid to do. Screen time can only be completely avoided if you don’t use screens yourself. If your children see you picking up a book to relax, they will learn to do the same. There are many alternatives to passively consuming children’s TV, though. Some of my son’s favourite activities are drawing on the phone, sending stickers to Granny on Skype (since we have not been able to see each other during the pandemic as we normally would have), children’s coding (we use code.org), and exploring the calculator function. A whole raft of educational content for young children has been released since the pandemic began, but it is not even necessary to spend lots of time exploring these options. My four-year-old has learnt most of the alphabet by typing out his favourite series’ titles into a search engine. There’s an intrinsic motivation for you! We recently started watching Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and are currently in the process of making a Totoro-themed birthday card for my younger brother. We will be sending him the DVD and are hoping to be able to re-connect and discuss it with him on Skype. Screen time is not just a way of filling time, or of keeping the children quiet. With a bit of thought, it can be a conduit for learning and development–and indeed connection–if children are presented with good content, learn to watch the same things multiple times, and to talk and ask questions about them.
Bridle, James (2017), ‘Something Is Wrong on the Internet’, Medium, 6 November 2017, https://medium.com/@jamesbridle/something-is-wrong-on-the-internet-c39c471271d2 (last accessed 24 June 2020).
Lewis, Michael. (1997), Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice, Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
World Health Organization. (2019), ‘Guidelines on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Sleep for Children under 5 Years of Age’, World Health Organization. https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/311664 (last accessed 16 August 2020).
Films & TV Series
Beauty and the Beast (1991), dir. Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise.
Free Willy (1993), dir. Simon Wincer.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988), dir. Hayao Miyazaki.
Pingu (1990-2006), created by Otmar Gutmann (6 seasons).
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