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Reality Check: Rousing a Couch Potato

Q. With his 6-year-old brother around, it's impossible to keep my 2-year-old away from the TV and the computer. Any ideas for preventing him from becoming a couch potato?

A. The TV-and-computer issue has turned into a whole different reality with our second child. Our first, Madeline, didn't watch a video until she was close to 3, play on the computer until she was 4, or know until the ripe old age of 5 that there were television stations other than PBS showing children's programs.

Ellie, on the other hand, has had no such innocence -- she's been exposed to TV, videos, and the computer since day one. I have no idea how old she was when she sat down to watch her first video, or what that video was, but now she's a pro at loading, rewinding, and ejecting videos all by herself. And I swear, I limit TV viewing time to 30 minutes a day during the week, and a little longer on weekends.

According to David Bernhardt, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics and sports medicine at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, there are three approaches parents can take to keep a case of juvenile couch potato-itis at bay:

  1. Lay down the law. For kids about age 2, limit zoning-out activities, such as TV viewing and computer games, to 30 to 60 minutes a day.

  2. Encourage more physical activity, like biking, walking, and climbing around the playground.

  3. Whenever it's possible, become a participant yourself.

Dr. Bernhardt's family (he and his wife have three boys, ages 7, 5, and 2) takes a 30-minute walk or bike ride three to four nights a week after dinner. Instead of calling on an electronic babysitter when you need to cook dinner or get something done, Dr. Bernhardt recommends that you have young ones play nearby with a basket of toys and coloring books, and older ones read or play with friends in the backyard, ideally. It's worth a try.

I've also encouraged my girls to do other things while they watch TV, like art projects and "writing" stories about the program they're watching. This isn't extremely physical, but it's cured them of the sit-still-and-veg-out habit. In any case, at least the little spuds are using their brains.

Contributing editor Trisha Thompson is a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine.

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