Have You Spoiled Your Child Today? Meet: S.P.O.I.L., a Screen-Free Psychologically-Based System for Prioritizing Child’s Play


SPOIL System for screen-free parenting leader imageOur take on screen-free activities is based on developmental psychology and overall good mental and physical health. Our research has led us to develop The S.P.O.I.L. System. 

Before we talk about the S.P.O.I.L. system, let’s talk about what research has found to have the biggest impact on physical health. The panicked cries about the obesity crisis and related health problems are often heard. What is usually espoused as the answer? Diet and exercise. However, we know that diets do not work. We know that diets are multibillion dollar industry because they thrive on repeat customers. If they worked the first time, all the new products, pills and books wouldn’t have a market to advertise to. Human psychology does not do well with restriction and limits. It often leads to feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing when the diet (as all do) inevitably “fails.” Long-term research shows the best advice for physical health is healthy habits: eating fruits and vegetables, exercise, moderate drinking and not smoking. Effects of weight on morbidity disappear when these healthy habits are followed. I believe a similar trajectory could be followed for screen-time research. If children are involved in “healthy habits” (like time outdoors, free play, literacy and bonding with caregivers) might some of the negative effects of screens be balanced out?

The research is clear that excessive screen-time is harmful to children. And yet, we know that the average five year old watches four and a half hours of television per day and the average teenager spends nine hours in front of a screen per day. Telling parents (and children) to restrict screen-time doesn’t seem to be helping. It might be hurting.

This is why I have decided to focus my attention on The S.P.O.I.L. System for prioritizing child’s play. I do a fair amount of writing about how to raise tech-savvy kids and tips for delaying and limiting screen exposure, in part to prevent a screen-habit from developing. However, I also want to focus on what parents can do with their children to help them thrive in a digital world. This system is based on child development theory and psychological research. The S.P.O.I.L. activities themselves are based on the developmental needs of children aged 2-10 and are proven to lead to well-adjusted, bonded and academically successful children.

The S.P.O.I.L. System also attacks one of the major concerns of excessive screen-time: displacement. Screen-time displaces experiences which we know are critical for healthy physical and psychological development. Experiences like being outside, spending quality time with caregivers and reading. If you make these activities a priority and ensure screen-time is not robbing your child of these experiences, you have eliminated one of the major drawbacks of too much screen time. Make these areas a daily habit and you can worry a little less about screen-time.

Don’t just trust me! The American Academy of Pediatrics discusses the displacement problem and the importance of free play, social relationships and reading in their new policy statement. 

Screen time displaces experiences which we know are critical for healthy physical and psychological development. The S.P.O.I.L System re-prioritizes those activities. Click To Tweet

The S.P.O.I.L. System guides you through the 5 most important activities you should engage in with your young child each day. These are:

1. Social (Bonding with caregivers, siblings and peers)
2. Play (Free play)
3. Outdoor
4. Independent (Independent work)
5. Literacy (Reading)

Let’s review the research on each of these categories, as well as the theoretical underpinnings for including them.

1. Social


Social might be the most important category.  It refers to a child bonding with their parents, caregiver, siblings and peers.  It is essential that caregivers spend some undistracted time with their child each day, doing something that leads them to feel close and connected.  Ideally this is time when the child is leading the play and the caregiver is following along.  Research consistently demonstrates that a strong relationship with an adult leads to better behavior, calmer and happy children, and better academic performance.  Peer interaction each day is also important and can take place between siblings, friends, cousins or school mates.  Social learning occurs during early relationships as children begin to understand things like cooperation, competition, empathy and perspective-taking.

Visit our Screen-Free Activities page to explore all of our activities in this section.

2. Play (Without Limits or Rules)


Play without limits or rules (free play) is critically important for children. Imaginative play is linked with executive functioning, which includes things like inhibiting impulses and sustaining attention. Imaginative play requires children to think about things that are not concretely present and plan ahead. This is play that is not directed or judged by an adult. It is play where the child (or children) is in charge. This includes things like imaginative games, messy play activities and games organized and created by children. Children are always learning through play and they learn best when adults get out of their way. A caregiver does not need to do much to encourage free play, simply give children the space to engage in it.

Visit our Screen-Free Activities page to explore all of our activities in this section.

3. Outdoor


Outdoor or nature activities are critical for everyone, not just children.  There is a tremendous body of research on the benefits of being outside for both mental and physical health. Regardless of the weather, time outdoors promotes vitamin D production and results in better sleep. Being outdoors in the sun is associated with increases in serotonin, our own natural antidepressant. Research also demonstrates that time outside can increase attentional abilities and potentially reduce ADHD symptoms. Time spent connecting with nature has also shown that it leads to decreased stress and increased creative problem solving.

Our children are able to behave better, pay attention easier, and sleep more deeply when they are given the proper amount of freedom to be outside.  Time outside often leads to active play, but can also be spent in a calm, reflective space.  Young children are the best at taking walks or hikes, as they know the true purpose is to appreciate each moment, not arrive at a destination.

Visit our Screen-Free Activities page to explore all of our activities in this section.

4. Independent Work


Independent work is important to help children feel accomplished.  These are the things that your children can accomplish all by themselves.  They usually involve some learning and confidence building. It is critically important that children feel a sense of industry and accomplishment. Children should be given the opportunity daily to complete “work.” Ideally they are engrossing activities that keep your kids busy and require simple or minimal instruction. Work may include homework, helping a sibling, maintaining personal hygiene and age-appropriate household chores. Children who are involved in completing daily household chores have higher self-esteem, are more responsible, are better able to delay gratification and report higher academic achievement. In fact, longitudinal data links chores at an early age to academic success, career success and self-sufficiency. Independent work may also include activities that a child can choose to complete independently based on their interests and developmental age. This may include cutting, writing, sorting, stringing or reading, just to name a few.

Visit our Screen-Free Activities page to explore all of our activities in this section.



Literacy activities are anything that helps a child to enjoy reading and writing.  We believe that children are designed to learn and it is not necessary for an adult to enforce a learning schedule on their child. Give them the freedom to explore and learning will happen naturally. The benefits of daily reading to a child are well-documented. Reading is related to empathy and the ability to take others’ perspectives in preschool children. A 2010 study demonstrated that the more books preschoolers had read to them, the more the children were able to empathize with and understand the different perspectives in others.  The children were also able to understand that others have different thoughts, feelings, and motivations than their own. If it’s educational achievement that motivates you, research has demonstrated a strong link in a twenty-year longitudinal study between the number of books in the home and children’s educational achievement.  Having 500 children’s books at home is related to that child achieving 3.2 years further in their educational journey.2  The same group did another study a few years later and found that in over 42 countries, the amount of books in the home is related to academic test scores. The author of the study, Mariah Evans, is quoted as saying, “Regardless of how many books the family already has, each addition to the home library helps children do better (on the standard test).”

Visit our Screen-Free Activities page to explore all of our activities in this section.

We intentionally did not include educational or exercise on this list.  
These activities are heavily promoted in our culture and often in ways that are not helpful for children.  Of course we believe education and exercise are important. However, we believe these activities develop naturally if you are outdoors, reading or bonding together. There is no need to be doing drills (physical or educational) with your child.

Fill Your Child’s Day

Much like the research on healthy habits, I believe that integrating these five activities into a child’s day will have a much bigger impact on their well-being than the amount of screen-time. If screen-time is interfering with their ability to get outside or diminishing their enjoyment of reading, then it’s time to tackle that screen habit. Otherwise, it’s okay to focus on what you are doing with your child, not what you are not doing.

When individuals follow advice to eat more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, it is likely that they naturally eat less high-calorie sugar-laden foods. They are less hungry for them. When children have a day filled with S.P.O.I.L activities, screen-time will likely naturally diminish. They are too busy and developing many other rewarding and engaging habits. So rather than focusing on what they “can’t” do, they are able to enjoy what they are doing.

Further Reading – References


  1. Rideout, V. J., & Hamel, E. (2006).The media family: Electronic media in the lives of infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and their parents. Menlo Park, CA: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
  2. TedX Talks (2011, December 27).TedXRainer – Dimitri Christakis – Media and Children.Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoT7qH_uVNo
  3. Strasburger, V. C., Jordan, A. B., & Donnerstein, E. (2010). Health effects of media on children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 125(4), 756-767. doi:10.1542/peds.2009-2563


  1. Rees, C. (2007). Childhood attachment. The British Journal of General Practice, 57(444) 920-922. doi: 3399/096016407782317955
  2. Markham, L. (2012) Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.


  1. Thibodeau, R. B., Gilpin, A. T., Brown, M. M., & Meyer, B. A. (2016). The effects of fantastical pretend-play on the development of executive functions: An intervention study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 145120-138. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2016.01.001
  2. Smirnova, E. O. (2011). Character toys as psychological tools. International Journal f Early Years Education, 19(1), 35-43. doi:10.1080/09669760.2011.570998


  1. Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207-1212. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x
  2. Kuo, F. E., & Taylor, A. F. (2004). A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study. American Journal Of Public Health, 94(9), 1580-1586. doi:10.2105/AJPH.94.9.1580

Independent Work

  1. Telzer, E H., and A J. Fuligni. A longitudinal daily diary study of family assistance and academic achievement among adolescents from Mexican, Chinese, and European backgrounds. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38 (2009): 560-571.
  2. Rende R. The misperception of chores: What’s really at stake? 2015. Paper prepared for the Whirlpool Corporation. http://www.childadolescentbehavior.com/Article-Detail/the-developmental-significance-of-chores-then-and-now.aspx


  1. Mar, R. A., Tackett, J. L., & Moore, C. (2010). Exposure to media and theory-of-mind development in preschoolers. Cognitive Development25, 69-78
  2. Evans, M.D.R., Kelley, J.,  Sikora, J. and Treiman, D. J.. (2010). Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Evidence From 27 Nations. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility,28(2):171-197.
  3. Evans, M.D.R., J. Kelley, & J. Sikora (2014). Scholarly culture and academic performance in 42 nations. Social Forces,00(0): 1-34.

Visit our Screen-Free Activities page to explore all of our activities by section.