As a parent, managing a child’s screen time is tricky during normal circumstances. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it has been even more difficult. Electronics can provide a much-needed distraction for little ones and parents alike, but it’s worryingly simple for them to develop bad habits that lead to distraction and dependence. That’s where OK Play comes into play: It’s an app developed by child-development experts to enable digital fun without falling into the common traps that often come with it.
Earlier this year, the American Association of Pediatricians issued modified versions of their suggested screen time limits in order to give families more flexibility while everyone is stuck at home. The organization also issued a series of suggestions about how to make screen time more productive. That includes involving the parents in what could otherwise turn into very head-down, solitary behavior.
OK Play’s selection of activities are designed for parental participation. “If you think about reading a book to a kid when they’re younger, it’s not about the words on the page, but the conversations you have as you read with them,” says Colleen Russo Johnson, the app’s co-founder and chief scientist. “You’re pulling things out and comparing them to real life events as part of a meaningful conversation with a child.” The app’s animated videos provide prompts and brief pauses during which parents can talk to kids about what’s happening on-screen in a way that TV shows can’t.
The app provides between three and five new pieces of content every day that’s free for users. Upgrading to the $9.99 monthly membership (or $59.99 annually) gets you access to the app’s entire catalog of activities whenever you want them. You can, however, experience everything the app has to offer without paying—if you come back every day. According to Russo Johnson, that’s to encourage a healthy play routine, as well as make it accessible to lower-income families who may feel particularly crunched under the weight of parenting during the pandemic.
Unlike some other services that provide an endless stream of screen-based games, OK Play offers a wider variety. Some of the activities are merely prompts for the child and parent to put down the phone and perform an activity in the real world like going out to describe clouds or talk about their favorite animals. “Kids today see little distinction between ‘real’ play and digital play,” says Russo Johnson. “It’s easier to transition them off the device if part of what they’re doing is already off the device.”
Other activities focus more on content creation—they integrate the phone’s cameras and touchscreen allowing them to take pictures and make drawings. This kind of learning may take more of a hit during COVID-19 as it can be more difficult to integrate into remote learning curriculum.
Eventually, those activities can happen away from the OK Play app itself. Russo Johnson specifically mentions the Angry Dance Parade activity, which encourages a child to manage mad feelings rather than simply trying to push them aside to prevent a tantrum. “Asking a child to talk about their anger doesn’t really make sense to a kid in the moment,” she explains. “But, what does make sense is to stomp their feet and really feel the anger. So, we don’t want to put a bandage on it, we want them to express what they’re feeling and work through that emotion.” Once you’ve gone through that process a few times, the app may not even be necessary in that situation.
Ultimately, OK Play’s goal is to embed scientifically sound parenting techniques into fun games. Check the company’s site and the blog posts come with appropriate references to scientific studies to back the concepts. While it won’t entirely replace other common screen-time activities, OK Play can be a handy nudge for kids and parents to play together for a few minutes—even if it still is technically screen time.