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According to research, the quality and complexity of preschoolers’ play is reduced if the TV is on in the same room.
Television might seem like a good way to slow down a busy preschooler. It’s also an easy way to give yourself a break. But too much TV means less time for active and creative play. Here are some ideas to help you find a balance.

TV time for preschoolers

Most child development experts recommend no more than an hour of total screen time per day for preschoolers. This includes TV, DVD and computer time.

This is for the following reasons:

  • The time children spend watching TV should be balanced with activities that are good for their development. These include exploring outside, playing with toys, doing puzzles and so on.
  • Lifetime habits are formed in the preschool years. Children can become too reliant on TV for ‘something to do’.
  • Even having a TV on in the background affects preschoolers’ concentration.
Check out our article on how children see TV. Recommendations about TV time make a lot of sense when you understand that children see TV differently from grown-ups.

Making the most of TV time

Many young children will have some exposure to TV. That’s OK – but it’s also a good idea to put some thought into how your child interacts with the TV.

Checking out programs before you let your child watch them and using TV classifications can help you work out what’s suitable for different age groups. Our child-friendly movie reviews can also help you choose DVDs that are suited to your child’s level of maturity and understanding.

When you watch TV with your preschooler, you can explain what’s happening and respond to your child’s reactions. You can also point out when characters behave in good and not-so-good ways. Watching together might also give you ideas for other activities. For example, you could follow up a program on animals with a trip to the zoo, a pet shop or the library.

Preschoolers often enjoy shows that are slow-paced and give them time to think about what’s happening. They also like activity-based shows such as Playschool. So you could choose some favourite programs that seem to interest your child, and watch only those. You might also invest in some suitable DVDs.

When you’re choosing TV or DVD programs for your preschooler, it’s a good idea to avoid the following:

  • scary or sad visual images and stories – for example, preschoolers often get upset about stories in which parents die or children are in danger
  • violent content. Preschoolers can’t understand that violence on the TV isn’t real and won’t happen to them. Also look out for the messages that TV violence sends. For example, some TV heroes – both cartoons and people – use violence to solve problems or get what they want
  • scary fantasy images. Preschool children might be frightened by screen images with fantasy or supernatural elements, as well as by animals or characters depicted as dangerous or monstrous, such as in the Harry Potter movies
  • advertising. Catchy music and colourful images are likely to attract preschoolers, but they don’t understand that the point is to sell them something. Avoiding TV ads is one way to limit children’s pester power.
Video games that are also exercise can be a good way to encourage children to exercise indoors, when going outdoors is difficult.

Limiting TV time for preschoolers

Try to turn off the TV when the program is over. It can help to plan a smooth transition to another activity.

There might be times of day when your child can easily do without TV, so you can avoid turning the TV on at these times. For example, children are fresher and more able to amuse themselves in the morning. You’re also likely to be less tired and more patient! If your child’s favourite programs are on in the morning, just record them. This way your child can watch them later in the day, when you’re both tired and more in need of a break.

What about TV at dinnertime or before bed? Most families find dinnertime works better if you don’t set a place for the TV! It’s a good time just to catch up and enjoy each other’s company. If you let your child watch TV before bed, choose a program that finishes well before bedtime and isn’t scary.

Should my child have a TV in the bedroom? Most experts would say no. Studies show that children who have a TV in the bedroom watch more television than children who don’t. They are also more likely to have sleep difficulties, become overweight, and do less well at school in later years.

TV will start to become more interesting to your child at this age, so it’s a good time to set up some family rules and limits for TV time. Be strong. If you say no to the TV, stick to it. Your child will get used to the idea that the TV goes on only at certain times of day.

Teaching preschoolers to be active TV consumers

You can help your children be choosy about what TV they watch. You can also encourage them to be mentally active when they’re in front of the TV, rather than just accepting what they see:

  • Talk to your children about how much TV time is allowed and what TV programs are OK. Talking about what programs are on can help them be choosy about how they want to fill their TV time.
  • Give your children a chance to ask questions about what they see on TV. Let them know what you think, especially about natural disasters, violence and the ways characters behave, but also about the good things you see.
  • Talk about moods and feelings after watching TV. Get children to come up with words that describe how they feel – for example, bored, happy, scared, sad, excited, cranky or worried.
  • Talk about TV characters, stories and themes, and describe your likes and dislikes. Ask questions such as, ‘What did that person do?’ or 'What happened to them?’
  • Make a rule that TV is not switched on until all chores have been done. Even preschoolers can be given simple tasks and chores that help your family to work well. Be firm and clear about what needs to happen before it’s ‘TV time’.
  • Move the TV out of the main living area (if you have space). This way, it has to be a conscious decision to watch.

What to do when the TV’s off

We know: the reality is that sometimes TV is just the easiest option. It can keep the kids entertained when you need to get dinner, talk on the phone, or just take a break for yourself.

Here are some ideas to keep young children entertained without turning on the TV:

  • Music or story CDs are a good option for preschoolers. Preschoolers can make up dance moves to go with their favourite music. They’re also old enough to turn the pages when they hear the bell or signal on a story CD.
  • Check out Baby Karaoke – an animated storybook of popular children’s songs.
  • Put together a special box of games, puzzles, toys or objects that you bring out only at those difficult times of day. They don’t need to be expensive or fancy – just things your child doesn’t see all the time. Puzzles can work well, especially if you have a puzzle mat that lets your child work on a puzzle over several days. Special colouring books are also a good idea.
Preschoolers can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Also, they don’t have a grown-up concept of time. This means they can’t usually understand flashbacks or dream sequences on TV. Also, they can’t really see why ‘things turning out all right in the end’ makes everything OK.
  • Last updated or reviewed 05-03-2012
  • Acknowledgements Article developed in collaboration with Australian Council on Children and the Media (incorporating Young Media Australia).