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Anne Zachry is a pediatric occupational therapist in Tennessee with some radical advice for parents: She wants them to raise "retro toddlers," abandoning glitzy technology for low-tech things most families already have around the house

SALT LAKE CITY — Want to raise healthy, happy and smart children? Go retro, advises a pediatric occupational therapist in Tennessee, who says parents should abandon glitzy technology for low-tech activities and toys they can make themselves.

Anne Zachry’s 2013 book, “Retro Baby,” was the result of research for her Ph.D. in educational psychology. Its call for a return to vintage practices in parenting caught the attention of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is publishing her new book, “Retro Toddler,” on May 15.

Zachry is chair and assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and she's also a mother of three who blogs about child development. She spoke with the Deseret News about why going retro is important for kids, the biggest mistake parents can make, and why you should never watch violent TV shows when a baby or toddler is in the room.

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In advance of the May publication of her book "Retro Toddler," The Deseret News interviews this mother of three about why going retro is important for kids, and what activities are important for a toddler's physical and mental development.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Deseret News: How did you come to the topic of “retro” parenting?

Anne Zachry: I was looking into the research about how much baby gear babies were being put in throughout the day, and how that affects their motor skills, because I’m an occupational therapist. In the school system, I was seeing a lot of referrals for children who had weak hands and weak shoulders, and I started sending home surveys to the parents. One of the questions was, “Did your child crawl as an infant?”

It turns out that many of the ones that were getting referrals for OT (occupational therapy), the ones who were having these fine motor issues, didn’t crawl, and spent a lot of time in carriers or swings or bouncer seats. … When they’re in the bouncer seats and carriers, they’re also getting exposed to screen time. That’s a double whammy, and all of this is negatively impacting their development and their attention span.

DN: You have three children, ages 18 to 27; were you doing this research when they were young, and how did what you learned affect your parenting?

AZ: My son was born in 1990, and back then, I was a single mom and had no baby gear, no equipment. But then, when I had my next two, we went to Babies R Us and registered for every piece of equipment under the sun. It was like night and day. That’s when the seed was planted; I was thinking, "Wow, there’s a lot of pressure for us to buy a lot of equipment and accessories and toys." That’s about when I started my Ph.D.

DN: So did you resist putting your youngest two in bouncers and swings?

AZ: Well, it was a gradual process. I initially did receive all this equipment; in fact, we had this equipment at the grandparents’ house, but then as I started doing the research, I was like, oh, no, we don’t need that, and we don’t need that. And let’s avoid these highly stimulating TV shows that they were watching when they got to be 4 and 5.

DN: So what exactly does it mean to raise a “retro” toddler?

AZ: It means you can be back-to-the-basics with your parenting. You don’t feel like you have to entertain them constantly, put them in front of screens, give them high-tech toys that light up and blink. You can spread a blanket out on the floor with some building blocks and puzzles, and let them learn to entertain themselves. Children will develop better that way in terms of their motor skills and perceptual skills.

And even just back to the way you praise your child — praise them for hard work, instead of just saying, “You’re so smart.” It’s a back-to-the -basics approach. But it’s definitely about balance. I know what it’s like to have two kids crawling around and there are times you’ve got to take a bath, but follow the AAP guidelines for screen use and equipment use, and know that you have to have a balance.

DN: What’s the most damaging aspect of modern life when it comes to raising children?

AZ: My biggest concern would be TV or screens that have violent content. The research shows nothing good comes out of that. They’re not learning, and there are so many negative consequences. And even if a parent is watching a show, and a baby under 2 years old is in the room, they're taking in some of that content even if the parent thinks that they’re playing. Research shows that they do pick up that inappropriate content.

Another study found that if a TV is on in the background, toddlers — even if they have a new toy that they’re playing with — are taking it in. They’re spreading their attention out. They look at the TV and then back to the toy and then back to the TV.

DN: Your book promises more than 100 “old-school” activities to help boost development in toddlers. Which ones stand out for you as especially effective?

AZ: Playing with building blocks. And they don’t have to be commercially bought — I’ve made blocks out of milk cartons and duct tape. It encourages creativity, and they’re actually having to use their motor skills.

And just reading to your child and reading with your child — that’s another huge one. And physically active play to keep them moving, activities such as making an obstacle course out of simple things in your home, having them climb through it. That helps them develop that upper extremity strength and coordination they need, so much more than if they’re sitting in front of a screen playing a video game.

And I love “Simon Says” with toddlers; it teaches them to pay attention and follow directions and they also have to visually watch the movement that the parent makes, so that’s a fun one.

DN: Do you have any advice for moms who work and have to put their children in the care of someone else for 40 hours a week? What should they be looking for to keep the “retro” in their toddler outside of their own home?

AZ: Oh, I love that question, and all three of my kids were in child care, so I’ve been there, and sometimes it feels like it’s out of your control. I don’t have a preference as to whether it’s at home or in a facility, but just tour and see if screens are on in the room. Definitely you want a facility where there’s not a lot of TV, even if it's just on in the background. Also look for physically engaging activities — outdoor play, or play that involves construction or building.

I would not be impressed if there were iPads in a room for toddlers. I don’t think it’s appropriate, and I’ve seen it.

DN: You have more than two decades of experience as an occupational therapist. How do parents differ today from how they were when you first started your career?

AZ: That’s tough, but I think there’s been a trend toward higher expectations of teachers, instead of saying that it’s the child’s responsibility to learn and be successful. I have a hard time with that. I always tried to teach my children that you’re responsible for your learning, and you’re going to have teachers that are really entertaining and you’re going to have some that are boring, but what you get out of it is what you put into it. I hate to sound negative; not all parents are that way. I think we’re going back in the other direction, but for a time, that trended upward.

DN: What about parents who think it’s too late, that they already let technology consume their kids’ lives?

AZ: One thing that I want to say to parents is not to feel guilty. What’s in the past is in the past. If your kids have been exposed to too much screen time, or your baby was in a carrier all the time, move on and change what you can change now. Just do better moving forward. When we know better, we do better.

4 comments on this story

Everyone’s busy, they’re working and doing a million things, but if you can make the time to do some of these DIY activities and toys, the memories your child will have will be much greater than driving to a T-ball practice. At least once a week, try to do something like that.

And have a screen-free mealtime at least. Stack your phones, and don’t let anybody look at their phones during mealtime. Just talk, make eye contact, communicate and spend time together. Sometimes you have to start with the small baby steps, I think.