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Digital Distraction: 8 Ways to Turn Downtime Into Learning Time

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Quality family time used to mean lively conversation and group games with all ages playing together. But for many families, digital devices dominate downtime.

The trouble with high-tech activities is they seldom give parents a chance to engage their kids in conversation, which builds language development and social skills. If your child is fiddling with his phone or playing games by himself, there’s little opportunity for learning. The key to turning downtime into learning time is joint attention, which is when two people are focused on the same thing, such as a parent and a child using a tech toy together.

“We know that by two to three months, babies are sensitive to when others are sharing attention with them,” says Tricia Striano, Ph.D, psychology researcher and founder of HowBabiesLearn.com. “They look more at objects in the world when others have attended to those objects. This kind of attention and engagement helps babies learn language.”

To put it simply, your child needs you—no matter how many high-tech distractions there are. Here are some tips on how to make it happen:

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By Roberta Munoz

Quality family time used to mean lively conversation and group games with all ages playing together. But for many families, digital devices dominate downtime.

The trouble with high-tech activities is they seldom give parents a chance to engage their kids in conversation, which builds language development and social skills. If your child is fiddling with his phone or playing games by himself, there’s little opportunity for learning. The key to turning downtime into learning time is joint attention, which is when two people are focused on the same thing, such as a parent and a child using a tech toy together.

“We know that by two to three months, babies are sensitive to when others are sharing attention with them,” says Tricia Striano, Ph.D, psychology researcher and founder of HowBabiesLearn.com. “They look more at objects in the world when others have attended to those objects. This kind of attention and engagement helps babies learn language.”

To put it simply, your child needs you—no matter how many high-tech distractions there are. Here are some tips on how to make it happen:

Provide low-tech fun

Replace digital games with board games, card games, or other group activities, which involve plenty of face-to-face interaction. If competition isn’t up your kid’s alley, try cooking, crafting, puzzles, or free-form play—anything that gives you a chance to chat with your child.

Lead by example

Start checking your own everyday tech habits. Even something as small as responding to a text while talking to your child counts. “If you see someone walking down the street texting while the baby is in the carriage looking at a bird, this is a missed opportunity for learning,” Striano says. “The child could have learned the word for ‘bird’ or ‘fly,’ or learned about conversation in general.”

Listen patiently

“Although adult speech is valuable, an equally important goal should be to get kids talking as much as possible,” states a study by the UCLA School of Public Health. If the trick to getting your kid talking is to ask about his favorite video game or TV show, then ask away! If you’re finding it tough to sit through stories about his latest video game triumph or favorite TV characters, be strong and remind yourself that when he’s talking, he’s learning.

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Avoid easy fixes

It’s tempting to hand kids an iPad or other tech toy when they start angling for attention—but don’t take the easy way out. Pestering and interrupting are often a sign that you’ve been online a bit too long. Stop, look and listen—your child needs your full attention and not just an electronic distraction.

Make TV a learning opportunity

TV doesn’t usually foster “parental language input,” meaning that parents don’t usually speak while kids tune in. Break this trend by watching TV with your child closely and chiming in whenever a learning opportunity arises. If a TV character uses slang, ask your child to put it in his own words. If a character drops a tricky vocab word, stop to provide a definition. Modern TV technology such as the DVR lets you pause for teaching moments without missing a beat.

Designate 'sacred spaces'

Make a rule that certain areas of your home are permanent tech-free areas. The dinner table should be a no-phone zone, for example, as dinnertime might be the one daily activity your family devotes to conversation. Even the TV room can be a sacred space, free of laptops or cell phones, to allow conversation about the show you’re watching.

Embrace interactive technology

You don’t have to dump digital altogether. There are lots of virtual games and learning activities that encourage joint attention and togetherness. Interactive books are great for all ages—many virtual storybooks can be read while your child is on your lap, just like a print book, with you sounding out words and pointing to objects. There are also online games for multiple players that encourage both competition and communication.

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Involve your child in your own activities

Make an effort to involve your kid in off-line adult activities. When it’s time to cook, for example, don’t hand him a tablet to get him out of your hair—have him help in the kitchen or set the table instead. Don’t park him in front of the TV so you can get some gardening done—bring him outside to help.

Keep joint attention on your mind the next time your kid sits down to the computer or gets lost in a video game. Or to get your kid involved in conversations the old-fashioned way, follow Striano's simple advice: “Do what you enjoy doing and integrate your family into that activity.”

For some family-centered low-tech fun, check out these nine great family arts and crafts ideas.

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