Screen time is quickly becoming a common 'go to' activity for children and parents. A tablet, a cell phone and the television are all quick and easy ways to engage a child. It's something that can entertain for long periods of time and give us, as parents and caregivers, a much needed break or the opportunity to get something done.

However, research consistently shows that too much screen time is harmful to the growing and developing brain of a child.

So what can we do instead?

Summer is an important time to keep young minds learning and to reinforce the important skills that were developed during the school year. This is important for all children, including those with special needs who often require additional support during the school year.

We want to keep special needs children actively engaged during the summer break to help them build confidence, acquire skills, make friends and develop new interests. In addition to making summer fun and exciting, this will make for an easier transition back to school in the fall. Asking teachers for homework ideas or summer projects is a great first step towards keeping your child engaged without the use of screen time.

Here are other things that you can do to help limit screen time during the summer months:

Start now. Most children (and adults) rely on electronics for entertainment, even though we have other things around the house to keep us occupied. Easing in to limited screen time now may help your child learn to find other ways to entertain him/herself with what is in the natural environment.

Help your child develop new interests. Find classes and activities that may be of interest to your child. These can help shape learned skills and provide an opportunity for your child to practice social and community safety skills. On a budget? Instead of enrolling your child in classes, you could purchase various art mediums, musical instruments, etc. and make it an activity that you and your child engage in a few times a week. Many items can be purchased inexpensively at dollar stores and second hand shops.

Enroll your child in Extended School Year (ESY). ESY will help your child continue to practice routines and academic skills in the school setting, making for a shorter summer vacation (and a shorter time away from their routine). When children attend ESY, they are typically provided with support to ensure their success, as they were during the regular school year. ESY is a great way to keep children involved with activities in a fun, safe environment. ESY also helps children maintain and develop relationships with their peers.

Enroll your child in camp. Children who are on the Children's Long Term Support (CLTS) Waiver are able to receive funding for various summer camps that keep children engaged in fun activities. Summer camp provides opportunities to develop friendships, practice independence skills and so much more. Camps are provided by organizations that specialize in working with children with special needs. These camps can also be paid for privately.

Take your child outside.As the weather warms, take your child outside for some ball play or drawing on the side walk with chalk. Use play as an opportunity to improve skills your child already has. While drawing with chalk you're targeting fine motor skills, label the colors, practice turn taking. During ball play, practice gross motor skills by kicking, throwing, rolling and catching the ball. You can also target responding, by calling your child's name before throwing the ball to them, attention getting by making them call your name before throwing, expressive and receptive language, imitation and so much more. Children love to be active, and although it can seem like a daunting task after a long day of work, playing in the backyard with your child for even 30 minutes a day can help you both stay healthy and fit.

Although it may be tempting to use screen time to take a break, or get things done around the house, finding other ways to entertain your child will help them learn and practice new skills, find new hobbies, make new friends and spend time with those that matter most.■

Kendra Carter is the CLTS Waiver Program Manager at St. Francis Children's Center.

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