Children learn best through play and exploration
Some parents fear that their children might be “left behind” when they start school if they haven’t been exposed to screens from a young age. But, Dr Downing says that, given how intuitive technology is becoming, there’s no reason why children who haven’t been exposed to screens before school won’t learn the technology very quickly.
“We also don’t know what technology will look like in the future – it’s changing and evolving so quickly that anything children learn in the early years may have changed by the time they start school. And particularly at this age, children learn best through play and exploration.”
“It’s also easy to fall into the habit of always having the TV on in the background or on during mealtimes. But there’s evidence to suggest that background TV reduces children’s attention spans during playtime and lowers the quality of parent-child interactions. We also know that eating snacks or meals while watching TV is associated with children consuming more sweet drinks and junk foods, and fewer fruits and vegetables.”
Develop healthy habits early
Dr Downing says it’s crucial that young children have plenty of physical activity when they are young. Evidence shows that developing movement skills at a young age has positive impacts on physical activity, fitness, body composition, self-confidence and behaviour in later childhood and adolescence.
“This is important for their fundamental movement skills – things like hopping, skipping, throwing a ball – which we know are the cornerstones for future physical activity and sport participation. Physical activity in early childhood also has important direct benefits for brain development, emotional health, heart health, fitness and bone health. We also know that there are a number of positive health outcomes related to physical activity in later childhood, adolescence and adulthood, and given that physical habits established early in life are often maintained into later life – setting up good habits early will certainly have positive benefits when they are older.”
In terms of meeting Australian government guidelines, Dr Downing is confident the majority of toddlers and preschoolers do achieve the recommended three hours of activity at any intensity per day.
“But, from the age of five years, children should be aiming for at least one hour per day of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity – and the adherence to this guideline drops to around 50 per cent. So the more physical activity kids aged five and under can get the better. As we know, physical activity habits established early in life are often maintained into later life,” Dr Downing says.
“It’s also important to note that less than 20 per cent of toddlers and preschoolers meet the screen time guideline of no more than one hour per day. This is particularly worrying given the range health and developmental outcomes associated with high levels of screen time, such as increased risk of becoming overweight, and poor motor development, brain health, and emotional health and wellbeing. And any time spent on screens can take away time and opportunities for other activities, including reading, quiet play, and physical activity, which have numerous health and developmental benefits.”