I have a toddler who would rather watch TV than play with toys. If he does play with toys I have to play with him. How do I get him to engage himself in toys?
Many 3 year olds will prefer to watch TV than play by themselves, so your toddler isn't unusual. The problem is that television, if it is turned on the background, is likely to capture a small child's interest and interfere with the child's turning full attention to play materials which take more active concentration. So the best thing is to turn off the TV. Since your son is already apparently accustomed to his TV, however, you have an additional challenge on your hands--you want to phase out the TV as your son's companion without making this transition seem like a punishment or deprivation. You want to avoid a sudden new prohibition: "no TV around here!" (If you suddenly forbid television, you will likely provoke a battle with him because he will--naturally--feel entitled to the television and baffled why you have taken it from him).
I suggest that you put the TV in the closet or cover it with a bed sheet. Then, if your son asks about it, say kindly that it's just turned off right now and immediately distract him with something fun for the two of you to do together--drawing or reading a book or making music on pots and pans or whatever activity he might enjoy. You will have to substitute yourself as a companion at first. Then, once your son is involved with something, gradually you can withdraw as an active partner while you remain handy. You might read a magazine or work on the computer. His attention span at playing on his own may be pretty short initially. Learning that it is possible to amuse himself is a skill he will acquire slowly. You might decide that he can watch certain favorite shows at certain predictable hours--your goal is not to wipe television off the earth but to help your son gradually develop the ability to play, draw, run around, make up stories, and entertain himself on his own.
The presence of other children may encourage your son to play more actively. A few hours of nursery school or play dates with other youngsters can help him to expand his horizons beyond TV and Mommy's company. All children have an imagination inside. You want to help your son discover the joy of his own imagination--not make him feel as though he is punished by depriving him of his customary television set. So it may work best to approach this goal gradually through small transitions and using materials that require some creativity: paper and crayons, dress-up materials, musical instruments, big pillows, blankets and card tables to make a secret tent, etc. At first, you will have to be his guide in learning how to entertain himself through his own resources.
Elizabeth Berger MD
Child Psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character.