A brilliant way to manage screen time for your kids over the summer: The marble jar

How to manage screen time for kids in a way that really works | Cool Mom Tech

With my kids officially out of school, I, along with lots other parents I’m sure, am gearing up for loads of free time. And that means trying to figure out how to manage screen time for the kids. Over the last few months, I’ve put together a very simple marble jar system to help manage their incessant requests for the iPad, television and MORE MINECRAFT PLEEEEASE, and it has made my life so much easier.

Even better, it’s teaching them valuable lessons that they can apply to life beyond the computer screen.

What you’ll need: 

– One jar for each kid, labeled with his or her name. I found these at a local craft store, but plastic is fine too. And we used our Mabel’s Labels but a Sharpie works too.

– Marbles.

– A timer. I like using a kitchen timer, but you can certainly use your smartphone timer as well.


Creating a screen time management system that works | Cool Mom Tech

How it works: 

Your kids earn marbles by doing chores, making good choices, or whatever you feel in your household warrants a marble.

In my home for example, marbles are earned for regular chores, or individualized things like my oldest emptying the dishwasher or my toddler staying in her bed all night. There are also one-off opportunities like washing my car, or weeding the garden. Really, it’s what works best for your family so determine how many marbles can be earned then dropped in each kid’s jar.

Next, determine how much screen time each marble is worth.

In my house, each chore generally earns one marble which is worth 15 minutes of screen time. However I set limits: The kids can cash in a maximum of four marbles every day–though I might allow a little more over the summer, especially if they’ve been playing outside for some of the day.

When the kids want screen time, they know to check their jar and pay me the right amount of marbles. Then I set the timer and let them know when time’s up.

Then, there are some times when we have movie night, or I just need them to watch a show for a bit so I can finish up with dinner so I allow a few freebies. Rules are made to be broken (or at least bent) after all.


What not to do:

Really important: This works best when it’s not a reward/punishment system. In other words, don’t take away marbles as punishment for bad behavior;  instead, have the children pay you in marbles for certain choices that they get to make.

For example, if my kids are whining about cleaning up a mess they made in the living room, I tell them that they can either do it themselves for free, they can pay me three marbles for me to help, or they can pay me ten marbles and I will do it for them.

Let’s just say I’ve never had to clean up their rooms for them since instituting this system.


Why I love it:

Toca Boca Birthday App via flickr

Unlike lots of other token systems that involve star charts or checklists (that as a mom of four I can never keep up with), this is a system that really teaches my kids about rewards and making good choices. They are gaining an understanding of expectations and of limits. They’re learning how to budget and spend wisely. Also, I really like that they are getting some level of control in all of it–I’m not simply doling out rewards haphazardly.

But most of all, while they’re definitely not in front of a computer or TV screen day and all night, they still get some time to enjoy their electronics. It might even make them appreciate that time more.

Need more handy tech tips and tricks for parents? Check our archives and follow our Tech Tips and Tricks pinterest board
Photo Credits: Wayan Vota via Compfight cc , Toca Boca via Compfight cc


Kristen is CEO/Co-Founder of Cool Mom Picks and a busy mom of four kids who lives in the Philly 'burbs. Though really, what mom isn't busy?


  • Reply June 18, 2014


    I love this idea! We have a 1 hour screen time rule but it gets way too flexible in the summer. We try to implement learning time when extra time is used, but this doesn’t always work out like we want it to. Do you have a minimum screen time you allow, THEN they can earn more? Or would you have a ‘fun screen time earned’ jar and a ‘learning screen time earned’ jar? Trying to work out details that I know will crop up with tweens. Thanks!

  • Reply June 18, 2014


    Hi Helga: I don’t separate things out but it’s worth a try. You could do freebie time that’s purely educational, and then just track the fun stuff with marbles. Then of course, you get the “what constitutes educational and fun.”

    With my tween, we have a standing rule that if she keeps her room clean, she gets auto-30 minutes of time every day. The marbles didn’t work as well for her as it did for the little kids.

    Hope that helps.

  • Reply June 18, 2014


    Thanks, any advice with kids & tech management helps. Happy summer!

  • Love this idea Kristen!

    I have not succeeded with reward systems over the years — mostly my fault really. I just have way too much going on to consistently follow “the rules” and remember to dole out the stickers, etc.
    Now my son is 12 and a half and so I don’t think a marble system will go over with him. But I might try it with my six year old daughter.
    My problem, is I am just not a “rule” kind of person. I don’t like following rules or systems or schedules myself, so I have a hard time being strict with my kids. We do have a pretty basic schedule though that works. Although on rainy days, or when I am trying to work and multi-task, screen time is definitely higher than I would like to admit. 😉

    • Liz
      Reply June 19, 2014


      Janice, YOU ARE ME. I am so terrible with systems and regimented anything at all. But we started this yesterday (thanks, Kristen) and so far my 7- and 9-year-olds are so excited about the idea. Bonus: I can get my youngest to try some new foods, because the alternative is that she has to pay me to eat it for her.

      I will let you know if we’re able to keep it up.

      • Reply June 20, 2014


        I love it! I’m going tinted this and love that either you eat it or pay me too!!

      • Reply June 22, 2014


        That is genius!

        I, too, am horrible at sticking with reward systems. Mostly because my kids don’t feel rewarded by stickers. I’ll give this one a try –

  • Reply June 20, 2014


    What ages would you recommend starting this? It’s such a great idea, but it wouldn’t work with my 3 yr old. Maybe my 5 yr old?

    • Reply June 23, 2014


      Hey Shoshana: I actually use this with my 3-year old but not for video games or even TV time really, but rather as a straight-up behavioral incentive program.

      She earns tokens for staying in her bed at night and not coming in at 3am to say “hi!” She can also earn them by doing chores.

      She also has the older siblings to model off of, so that probably helps. She has decided, as of late, that she prefers to have me do pretty much everything for me (all of which she can very well do herself), so I’ll often charge her to put her shoes on, or go upstairs and pick out her clothes. Funny, when she sees that she can purchase items at Target (we do that with her, 25cents per token, rather than the video time which she doesn’t care about), she realizes she’d rather put on her own shoes and get a prize later in the week.

      • Reply January 8, 2015


        Any suggestions for a newly turned 2 year old? Our daughter does have a hand me down iPad 2. My husband and I are in senior tech related positions, so tech is big in our house and I am seeing the effects on our daughter. There are Sunday mornings when all three of us are on iPads on our couch. I used to try to minimize her time with distractions but found myself struggling to meet the same limitations, meaning, I have had her tell me “PHONE, NO MOMMY!” She is barely two and I am watching my innocent baby girl becoming addicted to tech like the two of us. Aside from the “oh hi” 3AM example, I don’t really know when to allot marbles. Would it be good to do this say, after she cleans up a mess or doesn’t throw her food on the floor? Or, is she still too young?

        • Liz
          Reply January 8, 2015


          Hi Sandy, we really try to be a “no judgement” group of parents so you need to do what’s best for your family. That said, we don’t recommend screen time for kids under two on this site–there are so many other great ways for her to engage with the world as a toddler! But as far as your specific question, she probably doesn’t even understand a reward system like the marbles at this point. Children aren’t generally capable of making decisions that involved delayed gratification at that age. Two is is all about the id! You’re the parent and you have the right to set rules and limit her screen time as you see fit.

          That said, if it’s a problem in your house, maybe try making Sundays “No-Screen Sundays” where you can all read, hang out, play board games, do a crossword. I totally understand living in a tech household, trust me! But the same way parents eat veggies in front of their kids so their kids will do the same, you might try saving your own screen time until she’s napping or in bed, so that you’re all in this together.

          • January 8, 2015


            Thanks for the feedback. I too am a believer in little to no screen time prior to two, but well, that went to the wayside a few months ago. It’s been tough when she sees nearly everyone in her life, cousins, us, aunts, etc… all on devices. We use positive parenting and the philosophy of trying to listen to her instead of just imposing rules/discipline, but I am definitely struggling on the balance with the iPad.

            Is age three about the time the marbles system would work?

          • Liz
            January 10, 2015


            I’d say about five for the marble system, Sandy. It relies in part on a system of actively working to earn rewards, and the ability to delay gratification to “pay” for time. You can try any reward system you’d like for good behavior, and pay it off however you’d like. But until about kindergarten she probably isn’t developmentally ready for the system as Kristen described it here. It’s why so many pre-k and kindergarten teachers utilize very very simple red/green/yellow card systems to keep the class on best behavior.

            I’ll just add on a personal level, rules aren’t such a bad thing. Especially for a toddler. You can still be positive and listen to her, while establishing the rules of the house–and two is the perfect age to get that going. I know (I know!) it’s super hard. But keep in mind that young kids can be rewarded with other things besides screen time. Stickers have been known to work wonders! Hang in there.

  • Reply June 21, 2014

    Shelly Kramer

    I’m a lot like Liz and Janice — I suck at systems. But I really love this. What I love most isn’t really limiting screen time, I don’t care so much about that. I love the concept of teaching them what they really need to know in life: you have to work for what you want. So, if you love whatever it is you’re doing on the screen, work your butt off, learn the concept of “buying” in a way that it’s impossible for eight-year-olds to really do, and learn the value of saving. That’s infinitely more valuable to me than keeping them away from screens. I love this – implementing today, thanks Kristen!

  • Reply June 22, 2014

    Korinthia Klein

    I was skeptical, but boy are we loving this system! Thank you so much for sharing. So far it’s been a good thing in our house this summer: http://the-quiet-corner.blogspot.com/2014/06/a-marbleous-idea.html

  • Reply July 28, 2014

    Hello Muddah…

    […] be too many. Bring on the exclamation points! The more the better. I think next year I might start awarding the girls marbles for every exclamation […]

  • Reply August 5, 2014


    Cool! I’ve been looking for a better way to do rewards. Paying back for expected behaviors is what I was missing. Now to figure out the going rate for marbles.

    Mark, yes! It is really the magic missing element that’s worked for us. No kid wants to give us 4 marbles to “help them” eat a salad, we’ve found. also, 15 minutes per marble has worked great for us. -Eds

  • […] An ingenious way to manage media time using marbles […]

  • Reply April 26, 2015


    another perspective here from a family (4 kids) that is “low” tech. Definitely the screen time in all homes needs to be managed or the screens will take over the kids lives! The problem I see with the reward system, as the reward is video/screen time, is that the family is putting an emphasis on the computer activity as being a very valuable or special activity. The best reward for a child, in my opinion, is time NOT on a computer device but time with a parent getting an ice cream cone, or going to the park, or making cookies together as a reward. Our culture over-emphasizes the value of screens, smartphones, computers, social media, etc…. and by allowing our kids to get involved in these activities too young, it will affect what other activities they do and do not participate in. It’s a slippery slope!

    In our home, we use computers for school activities and to watch educational videos, that’s it. We got rid of all video game consoles, TV’s in bedrooms, etc….and it has made a huge and positive impact on our family. Just my 2 cents.

    • Liz
      Reply April 26, 2015


      Glad you found a system that works for you, Ellen. That’s what matters. Hopefully families that have found a happy medium with the video games kids have enjoyed for the last 40 years or so are also going to the park and taking the kids out for ice cream too.

  • […] to manage screen time by using a marble jar (Cool Mom […]

Reader Comments