Kids, Shopping, and Brain Development

The first time I walked into our local grocery store about 8 years ago and saw the row of shiny new TV carts for kids, I was dumbfounded. Here was a contraption for children to sit in with their faces in front of a television screen while caregivers shopped.

On the one hand, I get the allure of having kids sit in mesmerized silence while the parent gets the shopping completed. As a professional dealing with child neurodevelopment, however, I was horrified at the thought of kids losing out on valuable engagement and learning by spending even more time in front of a screen.

Fast forward to the present, and those TV carts are a thing of the past. I’d love to think it’s because people were as dismayed as I was about sticking kids in little cave-like carts to passively consume inane animated cartoons while missing out on important life lessons at the grocery store. But I am enough of a realist to know that this is sadly not the case. No, the TV carts are a thing of the past because of the advent of tablet devices. Ah yes, we no longer need a special cart with television screens when we can stick kids in a regular cart with a tablet or smart phone in their hands to passively consume content while real life passes them by.

What ever happened to kids learning by actively observing and participating in the world around them? While it may be challenging for caregivers to manage and engage kids during activities such as shopping, it is very important for appropriate development and learning. Children need to watch what happens in places like the grocery store – witness how people relate to one another, observe how adults work their way through the store and manage lists of items, see the items on the shelves, talk about what they see and hear, smile and interact with other people walking by, be bored because they would rather be playing, and so much more. These kinds of experiences are like gold for children’s minds, and we are robbing them of important learning opportunities when we stick them in front of screens while life happens around them.

For those caregivers who may be unsure how to engage children in places like the grocery store, I offer the following suggestions:

Check things off the list – Have your child cross items off the list as you find and put them in the cart.
Play I-Spy – Give your child specific things to look for as you go through the aisles. “I spy something green.” “I spy something that starts with the letter S.” “I spy something that we cook in water and eat with a fork.”
Push the cart – Younger (or unruly) children can stand in front of you and help push the cart, while older children can be given more responsibility to push the cart or carry the shopping basket on their own.
Find and place items in the cart – Have children look in the aisle to find the items needed and bring them to the cart. Younger children can sit in the cart, and reach out to take the items you hand them to put in the cart.
Play the Alphabet Game – Challenge your child to spot something that starts with each letter of the alphabet in order. This is a great game to play together or as a group while you shop, as people can take turns finding things with the next letter.
Scavenger Hunt – Make a list of items (words or pictures, depending on the child’s reading abilities) for your child to find as you shop. Offer a small prize or treat if they find everything on the list.
Let your child be the GPS/Navigator – For children with some reading skills or who have become familiar with the layout of the store, have them direct you to find each item on your list. This helps children work on communication skills as well as learning directions.

There are many ways to turn shopping experiences into learning opportunities, and hopefully the above ideas get you started. Whether you engage kids in simple games while shopping or simply allow them to sit and be bored, keeping their faces off screen while at the store allows for important learning in the real world.

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