We recently spoke with Jessica Zambito, Owner & Director of Bloom Sensory Gym about parenting questions related to screen time. Her valuable insights are below along with some recommendations for great apps.
Bloom is North Brooklyn’s first multidisciplinary pediatric sensory gym, located in Greenpoint. They provide Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy and Speech and Language Therapy in collaboration with Williamsburg Speaks to children of all abilities ages, from 6 weeks to 12 years old. Their clean, modern and unique sensory gym has a variety of sensory integration equipment including swings, climbing structures, a rock wall and a ball pit, along with a fine motor and speech area.
Bloom prides itself on providing evidence-based, holistic and specialized therapy for children. All of their therapists have at least 5 years of pediatric experience. They accept private pay clients at this time with a monthly invoice and insurance superbill for out of network or HSA/FSA reimbursement. They also offer flexible scheduling and payment options.
Bloom is committed to providing support and education to their growing community. Empowering parents and children using a holistic and play-based approach is their mission, especially during this time of need. Bloom is currently providing teletherapy sessions and parent consultations at affordable rates. We sat down to talk with founder and occupational therapist Jessica Zambito, who specializes in intensive training and experience in development, sensory integration and self regulation in children, about the appropriate amount of screen time for kids and how to teach them to self regulate.
Q: There is a lot of conflicting information out there about what age is appropriate for babies and children to engage in screen time. What are your thoughts about this?
A: Yes, there are many conflicting thoughts and research on this topic, and most existing research studies do have limitations and more longitudinal studies do need to be done before we know the long term effects on brain development. However, many studies that have been done do in fact show that screen time significantly impacts brain development, specifically white matter integrity and the development of the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain that is responsible for processing information from the senses. Unfortunately, now it is part of our new reality and we are all trying to find a balance.
There are definite screen time effects on the nervous system, brain development, language and literacy skills, obesity and sleep, but there is also a reality that children will be exposed to screens during their learning journey in our current world, especially right now. I do believe there is a definite difference in the type of screen time. Screen time can provide a passive or active experience. A child who is engaged, learning and interacting with the screen with a human or educational game has a very different experience compared to a more passive experience, such as a YouTube movie, app or video game. Passive screen time allows for children to zone out and also provides instant gratification, leading to challenges with self control and regulation. Active screen time will engage the child, teach a skill or provide a cognitive or educational task and provide interaction. I am a firm believer in everything in moderation and finding the balance.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on the amount of screen time babies and kids get?
A: Yes, screen time definitely is impacting children’s development and I do advise families to follow AAP guidelines. AAP guidelines suggest that “children under 18 months should not be exposed to screen time. Children 18 months to 2 years should not have screen time, aside from video chats with parental supervision. Children ages 2 to 5 should have a limit of screen time to an hour a day of high quality children’s programming.”
As an OT, I do believe it has an impact on social, emotional, cognitive and motor development. I witness how children today are not meeting motor milestones, and have challenges with self regulation and sensory processing as a result of too much screen time. Children need to move their bodies to develop gross motor and sensorimotor skills and strength, experience and explore with their hands to build fine motor skills and be engaged, read, and sing to build speech and language skills. They also need to socialize in order to build strong self-regulation and social emotional skills. Children also need opportunities to learn how to explore play, as play is the foundation for learning and many developmental milestones. A child that is only experiencing the world through a screen is not going to develop the same way as a child who is exposed to playing with their bodies, building with blocks, manipulating playdough, exploring nature, reading, singing, or playing hide and seek.
Q: Are there differences based on the type of screen time being consumed?
A: Yes, absolutely. A child who is just pushing a button on a screen to watch a silly video or dance is not having the same experience as a child having a Zoom call with a teacher or therapist, learning and engaging. Right now it is important for parents to find that balance and prioritize active vs. passive screen time use.
Q: Any tips for helping with self regulation?
A: Self regulation is one’s internal ability to manage attention, arousal level and emotions in response to change. For example, as adults we tend to have the ability to calm ourselves or cheer ourselves up and use effective strategies as needed. For children, dysregulation often occurs easily as they don’t have the ability yet to control their emotional response. For many children dysregulation occurs when the brain responds to sensory input in a manner that triggers the alarm state or “flight or fight” response.
When a child is dysregulated, it is harder for them to cope, listen or comprehend. This is why supporting self regulation and providing co-regulating experiences is so important, especially in the first 5 years of life. Co-regulation refers to the social relationships and the way one can adjust themselves during an interaction with another in order to maintain a regulated state. When parents provide co-regulation experiences they are able to stay in the moment with their children, emphasize with affirmative and conscious statements and facial expressions and calmly mirror what they feel and accept their expression of their feelings.
After acknowledging their feelings calmly, it is helpful to redirect or demonstrate a strategy to adjust their mood and arousal level. Then, parents can demonstrate simple strategies to build self regulation such as deep breathing or taking a sip of water. As an OT, I do believe that sensory processing is an important factor in building self-regulation. Teaching children effective self regulation tools, which are often very sensory related such as deep breathing, chewy/crunchy food, deep pressure and movement are important when addressing self regulation. Self regulation tools such as taking a deep breath, pushing against a wall, squeezing their hands together or giving themselves a big hug are effective and easy tools for kids to implement.
Q: Any screen time content recommendations?
A: I love anything that is interactive and involves movement for kids. Cosmic Kids Yoga and GoNOODLE are great. I encourage families to explore different positions when playing on iPads. Have a child lay on their tummy, or on a vertical surface to build upper body strength and wrist and grasp position. I also encourage families to explore using a stylus with some apps, such as prewriting or writing skills to build fine motor and grasping skills.
Some apps I love to use with kids:
- Avokiddo Thinkrolls
- Wet Dry Try from Handwriting Without Tears for letter formation skills
- Dexteria Junior for fine motor skills
- Atomic Puzzles
- Bugs & Buttons
- Headspace for Kids
- Super Stretch Yoga
- Stop, Breathe, Think
- Breathe,Think, Do with Sesame
- Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings
Q: What about screen fatigue? Do blue glasses or anything else help? Do our little ones need screen breaks?
A: Blue glasses can be helpful. I strongly recommend avoiding screen time for at least 2 hours before bed. Research does show blue light impacts sleep dramatically, and or children who are not getting enough sleep will in turn have tremendous challenges with self regulation. I always encourage parents to let their children walk away or have a movement break as needed. Some kids love to sit in a bean bag or bouncy ball, jump on a trampoline, stand, have a snack or a fidget in their hands during screen time to keep their nervous systems organized.
A child, especially a toddler, does not need to sit in front of a screen for a prolonged period of time. They have limited attention spans and it is better to allow them to move and proactively provide them with natural opportunities throughout their days. I encourage all of my families to provide their children with a quick movement break before and after each period of prolonged screen time. Movement helps children attend, so by providing them with a movement break before and after you are proactively eloping their nervous system to stay regulated. It is also a great transition tool if your child has difficulty getting off the screen. Have a child do 10 jumping jacks, or bear crawl to the table before their screen time or Zoom school session. Afterwards, have them slither like a snake or jump like a frog or skip to their bedroom or blow some bubbles. This helps the nervous system reset and is a practical way to provide your child with movement and sensory experiences naturally throughout their days, which in turn will help build strong self regulation skills for greater, happier kids.