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.
Related: 8 smart ways parents can manage screen time and not lose their minds
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.
– A timer. I like using a kitchen timer, but you can certainly use your smartphone timer as well.
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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.
Related: Osmo Coding is screen time you can feel good about.
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.
Related: 6 screen time management solutions that work, from been-there-done-that parents
Why I love it:
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.
Related: Screen Time Manager: A cool free app
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Photo Credits: Wayan Vota via Compfight cc , Toca Boca via Compfight cc
Related: Meet Curbi, the screen time management solution parents have been looking for.
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!
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.
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. 😉
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.
I love it! I’m going tinted this and love that either you eat it or pay me too!!
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 –
I agree that reward systems don’t work out so well for us either. Also, I generally stray from the theory of rewarding children for every good deed. That’s just not real life, and you are setting them up to EXPECT some sort of reward every time in life they do something good. So I struggle with the theory of it as well. We like to be more spontaneous with rewards, after a string of good behaviors.
However, screen time has gotten out of hand in our house as well, especially during the summer. I had a plan similar to the marble jar (except we were going to use paper play money so it can be clipped to the fridge). We are going to set a weekly screen limit time. I am much more for the weekly than the daily, especially as kids get older. If you give a daily limit, I feel like the first thing they want to do is do those electronics. And they use up all their time in the morning (or if you’re like us and not as strict, they do it ALL morning!). So the weekly ‘budget’ system will allow them to choose. There are some electronic games that you can easily get wrapped up in for a few hours. I don’t think there really is anything wrong with that, as long as it’s not every day. So if they choose to play Minecraft for 3 hours the first day of the week, well then they’ve used a big chunk of their electronic time for the week in one setting. But that’s their choice.
Previously, we’ve done this some, but just been more random about it so when they ask to play electronics, if they did it a lot the day before, we just say no for today. But this weekly system should allow them to really have the control over what to do with this time. We havent decided on a weekly time amount yet for summer, but I have already talked to the kids about it and they like the idea. We will see how it goes this summer!
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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!
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
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
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.
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.