Learning from Television—Kids Do (and so Can Media Developers)

In my prior post, I argued for thinking about a media “diet” rather than focusing only on the amount of time spent with media. Like food, media provide children with content that is both good and bad for healthy development. sesamestreet-298x229

Because television remains children’s most-used electronic medium, a good media diet for children includes educational television. By educational television, I mean content that is designed to benefit healthy development. In addition to the three Rs, television can teach beneficial lessons about society, arts, nature, emotional understanding, self-control, practical skills, and safety, among other things. The key is that it have a deliberate curriculum, and that all other aspects of program design effectively influence children’s positive learning.

Deliberate design starts with a clear idea of the intended child audience. Rather than programming for the widest possible viewership, educational television must take into account the background and developmental level of children. After all, you don’t teach three-year-olds the same content or the same way as you teach nine-year-olds. Likewise, children from impoverished circumstances have different kinds of background knowledge and vocabulary than children from more prosperous backgrounds. Girls often have different interests than boys, and these differences change with age.

Television becomes a powerful teacher only after children are able to comprehend it. By about18 months, children begin to pay selective attention to comprehensible content. A year later, they begin to comprehend typical preschool programs. Their comprehension continues to grow after that. Highly effective and successful educational programs, such as Blue’s Clues, have carefully considered the target audience’s ability to understand both the content and standard TV production techniques, such as the relationship between shots separated by cuts. If the program is too difficult to understand, children will not watch it. If it is too simple, they will not watch it repeatedly.

As children gain in language, cognitive maturity, and life experience, they are able to deal with more complex and diverse forms of content. Interest in general audience and adult programming begins during the elementary school years as interest in children’s programs diminishes, especially programs aimed at preschoolers. Beginning around age five, children become more interested in TV characters like themselves, leading to increasing gender and ethnic differences in their program preferences.

Contrary to popular perceptions, television programming can have lasting, positive effects on children—if it’s high quality.

And contrary to popular perceptions, television programming can have lasting, positive effects on children—if it’s high quality. For example, children eligible for Head Start who watched Sesame Street were better prepared for school than children who did not. In a long-term study that followed children from preschool through high school, the positive impact of watching Sesame Street and Mister Rogers Neighborhood were traceable through high school. After statistically controlling for variables such as parent education, the study found that the more children watched Sesame Street during their preschool years, the more likely they were to achieve better grades in high school English, math, and science. Those who watched Mister Rogers were more likely to participate in the arts.

An important recent study by Christakis and colleagues, focusing on positive emotional behavior and social competence, randomly selected parents of preschoolers and encouraged them to promote educational TV programs. After six months, compared with control families who did not get this encouragement, the educational TV viewers watched as much TV as the comparison children, but also showed significantly more positive emotional control and social competence. These skills, along with academic knowledge and cognitive skills, are the focus of preschool educational programs such as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

Many other studies find that educational television has a positive impact on cognitive, emotional, and social development, like those by Ball and Bogatz (1970), Linebarger, Kosanic, Greenwood, and Doku (2004), and Mares and Woodard (2005). But as part of a healthy diet, is educational TV the broccoli?  Do children like it? The answer is, if the program is well designed, yes. As an example, the preschool portion of Nickelodeon’s programming began to attract large (and profitable) audiences only after starting to broadcast educational shows such as Blue’s Clues. With a curriculum and a clear understanding of the audience, educational programs can be hits.

As we thread our way into the era of tablets and other mobile media, I am optimistic that history will repeat itself and we will learn how to use these tools, not just to occupy time and entertain, but to truly benefit children.


Photo/ Tim Baker.

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