5th TV-Turnoff urges families to pull the plug

A week spent tubeless can encourage children to read, experts say

April 18, 1999|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Parents who want to encourage their children to spend more time reading and less time watching television might want to tune in to the Fifth National TV-Turnoff Week, which begins Thursday.

For seven days through April 28, an estimated 6 million people are expected to voluntarily abstain from television viewing, according to the program's sponsor, TV-Free America.

Some might mark their participation by hiding their remotes, hanging "No TV" flags outdoors, or, the nonprofit organization suggests, stretching crime scene tape across their television screens.

According to TV-Free America, which encourages children and adults to reduce television viewing, the average participant will gain three hours and 46 minutes each day for activities other than watching the tube. Maybe even reading.

A week without television could be the perfect opportunity for parents to nurture a love for reading that will keep their children choosing books over television long after the week has run its course.

"Once children really develop the skills to entertain themselves in ways other than television viewing, they should be able to do it over the long term," said Henry Labalme, executive director of TV-Free America.

Start by having plenty to read in the house, Labalme said. Get your child a library card and use it. Organize book trades to get children talking to each other about books.

"Book trades make it cool to read books," Labalme said.

Parents should begin reading to their children before age 1 and, some say, into the teen years, according to Robert Kay, a psychiatrist for community mental health centers in Philadelphia.

They should also set a good example by turning off the television and reading the newspaper every day, with an occasional book or magazine.

"The good example is absolutely crucial," Kay said. "Children rarely listen to their parents, but they rarely fail to imitate us. Express pleasure in what you're doing, and show your child what a pleasure it is to read."

Children often turn to television to take their minds off school -- particularly after a stressful day, said Emory Woodard, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

It's better to relax, he said, with fun books such as the "Goosebumps" series, which provide cognitive stimulation, instead of promoting passive television viewing.

"By sitting down and reading with their children, pulling out the newspaper or a novel, parents can model good alternative relaxation techniques," said Woodard, who has done research in children's television for the past four years.

Clinical evidence has shown that television viewing can cause concentration to drop, depending upon the type of program and the type of child, said Lee Reinert, a Philadelphia educational specialist who treats children with attention disorders and learning disabilities.

Instead of watching the news on television, parents might consider subscribing to a children's news magazine, she suggested.

They also might promote reading by designating a "No TV" day each week and using that time for reading together as a family.

"Children may get bored reading at their ability level," Reinert said. "Their listening vocabulary is so much bigger than their reading vocabulary, and in many cases their interest level is beyond their reading ability. Reading to children paves the way for them to become better readers as they're exposed to richer language. And it's a wonderful bonding time."

Jane Healy, an educational psychologist, speaker and author of several books about brain development and learning, agreed.

"Read to them and with them," said Healy, who is based in Vail, Colo. "Make it a family affair. Parents have to show their children that reading is important to them. And don't worry if your children are older. You should still read to them, and you can still have a lot of fun."

TV-Free America is selling an organizer's kit for National TV-Turnoff Week, including posters, bumper stickers and suggestions for promoting group participation, and ideas for activities that may be substituted for tube-watching.

To order, call 202-887-0436 or send $10 to: TV-Free America, 1611 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 3A, Washington, D.C. 20009.

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