Time with Adults Matters Most

For Infants and Toddlers in the Digital Age, Time with Adults Still Matters Most

The Rogers Center’s Michael Robb takes a look at what we know from the research about infants and media and shares suggestions for how to use technology and interactive media in age-appropriate, intentional ways.

When it comes to infants and toddlers have long been considered a special audience. Although several public health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, discourage any screen media for children under age 2, recent suggests a disconnect between what pediatricians and advocacy groups recommend and the reality of children’s home lives. The research, for example, finds a growing prominence of screen media in the lives of children under age 2.

Child development researchers and educators regularly point to the critical importance of the first years of life for children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. Unfortunately, researchers are just beginning to study how media use actually influences early development. As has been noted elsewhere, families have easy access to a variety of digital devices, each with its own set of affordances and usage patterns including tablet computers, digital cameras, smartphones, and digitally enhanced toys. Yet most of the research to date has examined infants and toddlers exposure to television, and has been narrowly focused on small groups of children without taking into account the many contexts in which children are exposed to media (see The Future of Children for a summary). Although television research cannot answer all of our questions about how young children are likely to be affected by new technologies, it can offer some guidance.

Cognitively, children under age 2 are still learning to mentally represent their environment. Until around 18-24 months of age, children represent information and experiences through physical action. For example, when putting a toy block through a hole, an infant younger than 18 months would be unable to solve the problem internally through a mental representation, but could use physical actions such as trying out different blocks until he or she finds the right block that fits in the hole. By 24 months, children are better able to mentally represent objects (through language, play, and mental imagery) so they can solve problems without having to physically manipulate objects.

Learning from media can be particularly difficult for infants and toddlers because the various platforms are more demanding than physical reality: media offer images and video that play with time and space, placing greater strain on limited mental resources. Children may also find it more difficult to learn from television’s representations of real-world objects, which offer a much richer perceptual experience. Studies with television have also found that it takes children under age 3 much longer to learn simple actions from televised images than from people.

Does that mean that there are no practical applications of digital media for young children? No, we may just be looking for learning in the wrong places. Instead of focusing on whether young children are able to learn their ABCs from an app, we should be looking at what child development research has been telling us all along and asking whether the warm, language-rich interaction between young children and their caregivers that is so critical for developing the cognitive, social, emotional, and linguistic skills children need for school and life success is happening when they use digital media. This exchange is where early learning is most likely to occur. The smartphones, computers, tablets, and digital cameras are already in children’s environments. That is not going to change. It is up to caregivers to find ways to appropriately use the digital objects that permeate young children’s lives.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center have compiled some examples on how to use technology tools and interactive media in age-appropriate, intentional ways. Although these examples are meant for early childhood programs, they are also relevant for families. Here are a few:

  • Use a digital camera or computer to show images and video of family, friends, animals, or events to children, especially when children might not otherwise have exposure to them.
  • When reading an e-book, treat the experience the same as if you were using a print book: put the child in your lap, point to objects on screen, talk with the child, and introduce new vocabulary.
  • Allow children to play with play versions of technology or old computers or cellphones that don’t work anymore (with the batteries removed).
  • Video chat with a loved one.

While we wait for additional research, parents should remember that the most important part of the experience is not the technology itself, but the warmth and support of an adult play-partner. Let’s keep the focus there.

To reach children through media, we have to start with understanding children. On Rogers’ 85th birthday, a close colleague who worked alongside Rogers for many years shares why parents and media makers still have a lot to learn from this TV pioneer. To reach children through media, we have to start with understanding children. On Rogers’ 85th birthday, a close colleague who worked alongside Rogers for many years shares why parents and media makers still have a lot to learn from this TV pioneer.

It’s hard for me to believe, but it was 46 years ago when I began working with Fred Rogers and his small nonprofit production company! I first met Fred in 1965, before Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I had just graduated with a degree in psychology from Carnegie Mellon University. Hoping for a career in children’s television, I went to WQED (Pittsburgh’s PBS station) for an interview. At the time there were no jobs, but the person who interviewed me suggested that I talk with Fred Rogers. I knew Fred’s name from his work behind the scenes on his earlier local program Children’s Corner, so I figured I’d get some pretty good advice from him.

Fred’s Advice
It turned out to be superb advice. Fred was working with young children as a follow up to his graduate studies in child development at the University of Pittsburgh. After he heard about my interest, he suggested graduate school. But he wasn’t talking about studying television production or mass media. He was talking about a master’s degree in child development, and I remember him specifically recommending Pitt because their program emphasized real time with children.

Long after that, I came to realize that he was telling me that if we want to be effective communicators with children through television, the place to start is not with understanding the medium, but with understanding the audience. And that’s not easy for most of us. Yes, we were all young children once, but it’s virtually impossible to remember what that feels like.

I remember Fred saying that the question is not so much. “What can we give to children through the television set?, but rather, “What are they bringing to us?, What are their inner dramas?, What makes them scared?, Happy?, Angry, Proud?.” It’s all about listening. That’s what made Fred such a gifted communicator, he was first and foremost a listener.

Rather than focus on academics, Fred was more interested in helping children develop the “tools” they’ll need for success in school and in life: persistence, curiosity, getting along with others, self-control, and self-regulation.

A year later, in my second year of grad school at Pitt, Fred received funding for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He remembered my interest and asked if I would serve as assistant director. There I sat in the control room at WQED, watching Fred translate the complex child development theory that I was learning in my classes into a television experience for young children.

What he was offering looked simple, but I could see how thoughtfully it was crafted. I was in a unique position to recognize the many ways he was supporting children’s development: offering rituals and transitions; dealing with challenging feelings like aggression, separation, and fear; and helping children differentiate between reality and fantasy. I remember Fred once telling a reporter that rather than focus on academics, he was more interested in helping children develop the “tools” they’ll need for success in school and in life, like persistence, curiosity, getting along with others, self-control, and self-regulation. Isn’t it interesting that Fred knew long ago what research is now confirming?

For Today’s World
Over the past four decades I’ve had the great honor of speaking about Fred’s life work all over the country at hundreds of early childhood conferences. He was offering such fundamental themes in early childhood that it’s no wonder his work is valuable for today’s professionals. It’s timeless. As he often reminded us, “even though children’s outsides have changed, their insides have not.”

But what has surprised me lately is that I’ve been able to take his work into a whole new arena that’s in demand these days-STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). Even early childhood educators are being held accountable for teaching STEAM concepts, but I hear over and over that many of them feel inadequate and unprepared.

When I show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood videos in my presentations, teachers can see that Fred wasn’t “teaching” science or math, but he was offering core STEAM concepts in natural, everyday, developmentally appropriate ways. Just look at the ever-popular factory videos, like the crayon factory, and his songs, like, “If you will look carefully, listen carefully there’s a lot that you can learn”, or, “Did you know when you’re wondering, you’re learning.” At the end of a recent STEAM workshop, I was really touched to hear a preschool teacher say that she had felt uncomfortable with science and math-related subjects, but now Fred had given her confidence, and she was actually looking forward to offering them to the children. I know what she means because I, too, keep finding encouragement and new insights from Fred’s work, even after all these years.

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