How We’re Endangering our Kids’ Imaginations

6 minute read
Melissa Bernstein is a co-founder of Melissa & Doug and is leading a movement to Take Back Childhood

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) just released its updated guidelines for children’s media use.

The recommendations reflect what all parents instinctively know: children need less screen time. The corollary, of course, is that they desperately need more free time to ignite their imaginations, develop a sense of wonder, and discover their passions and purpose.

While we at Melissa & Doug are thrilled the AAP has created stronger guardrails and suggestions to help parents navigate this challenging terrain, this is only the beginning. Our children are overstimulated, over-scheduled and under pressure to perform academically and beyond school. This diminishes their ability to build creative thinking skills essential to self-discovery. Inventiveness occurs when kids have time for curiosity and exploration. With children spending up to eight hours a day on media devices and additional hours engaging in scheduled activities, opportunities for growth are stifled.

What we’re not so sure about is how to get our kids to want the free, screenless time we know will benefit them. It may sound counter-intuitive but today’s kids (and, frankly, many of us) need coaching to experience and discover the benefits of free time.

What came easily to parents a few decades ago has become a challenge for our generation. It’s not that yesterday’s parents knew more about child development; they simply had fewer options. Boredom and downtime were an inescapable part of daily life. Today, boredom and downtime are synonymous with, “I’m a bad parent and not doing enough to get my kid ahead.”

Recently, I had an eye-opening revelation while watching my 11-year-old daughter play in a softball tournament. I have six children and have attended dozens of such tournaments. I know the drill—or thought I did. Families settled in for the day with lawn chairs, coolers, sunscreen and siblings in tow. These spectator brothers and sisters would gradually gravitate toward each other. Games of catch and hide-and-seek began, friendships were formed in the span of an inning. At crucial moments, the newfound friends turned their collective attention to the field to cheer on their teams.

But that wasn’t happening. Though there were at least 15 children by the sidelines, I didn’t hear any of them. They sat in a silent huddle using their individual tablets. Even with the score tied in the final inning with runners on base, not a single child watched the game or spoke to each other. The situation was surreal and revealing: Kids have more planned activities and passive entertainment at their fingertips than ever before, but less free time to dream, make-believe and focus on what they truly love.

I get that making time for “nothing” is difficult in a world where we’re constantly worried our kids will fall behind if they don’t excel in sports and academics or rack up “likes” on the latest social media app.

But I refuse to sit back and watch this loss of childhood. We are taking back childhood. Imagination needs time and space to blossom.

If your kids are like mine, asking them to access their imagination will initially be difficult. That’s because they haven’t developed the skills and muscle memory to make it second nature. I hope the AAP guidelines prompt all of us to set needed screen time limits for our children. Personally, I’m practicing strategies to “ignite imagination” in my children head on—just as a coach would tackle turning a bunch of rebellious misfits into a championship team. Imagination, like a sport, requires practice, training, motivational speeches, rewards and extreme patience.

How does one coach imagination?

First, each season I review our schedules to see how we spend our time. What can give? Being part of an athletic team has benefits, but do we need multiple private lessons? Kids need time and tools to develop the creative-thinking skills that will let them discover their own dreams. Shouldn’t we invest in giving them that instead?

Second, I block off periods of downtime on our calendars, and keep those moments sacred. Many of us in the corporate world know that sometimes you have to book “meeting-free” time on your schedule to give your brain space to focus and create. Same is true for our kids.

Third, as an “imagination coach,” my role is to provide inspiration. For many of our kids, starting from nothing is daunting. Filling the blank canvas may make them tense and frustrated, which is the opposite of the creative openness we seek. One of my techniques is to provide a framework for their creative activities, a contest for example. My family often holds our version of the TV culinary competition Chopped, challenging kids to use a limited list of ingredients to concoct delicious treats. Another trick is to build on each activity: a game of ping pong with one child turns into a family tournament; a shell collecting expedition becomes a craft-making bonanza; a family dinner morphs into an evening of storytelling with song and dance.

Sometimes I’ll simply rattle off a host of potential activities: “Go outside on the swings, draw something, make cupcakes, ride bikes” . . . until something sparks their interest. If all else fails, I’ll engage in the activity with them, but only until the magic begins and it becomes their own.

In my ideal world, parents everywhere would start pushing imagination on our kids the way we push sports and academics. Am I asking helicopter parents to double down on their hovering? In a way, yes! But not for the usual ends of good grades, higher test scores and athletic achievements. I want us to hover so our children’s imaginations can soar!

Technology is not the enemy and there’s no going back to pre-smartphone days. But I’d love to go to a softball tournament in a few years and find the younger brothers and sisters back on the sidelines making up games, negotiating rules, forming friendships, taking on leadership roles, and laughing and giggling—like children.

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