Research has shown that television can be educational for young children. For example, years of research on Sesame Street has shown that the show can improve preschoolers’ abilities in a variety of academic areas, like reading, math and social skills. In general, when television programs are designed to be age-appropriate and when the content aligns with its educational purpose, pre-school aged children can learn from television.
But television has its limitations in being an educational tool, especially for young children. Although television can be beneficial for children’s learning, young children learn best from people who can respond to their questions and direct their attention. For example, one study found that 12- to 18-month year olds did not learn any new words from watching an educational video (Baby Einstein) over four weeks, but they did learn the same words when their parent taught them through natural interactions.
Most important, parents can help young child learn from television by watching television with them, This is called “co-viewing.” When parents co-view with their child, they often elaborate on the content of the show, or direct their child’s attention to a certain aspect of the show. For instance, if Elmo is demonstrating how plants grow, a parent who is co-viewing may remind the child that they have plants in their home too, or point out that Elmo is feeding the plant water so it will grow.
One way co-viewing can help children learn is by directing children’s attention to important learning events on the screen. For example, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, observed parents and children’s looking patterns toward a television screen and found that one-year-olds will follow their parent’s eye gaze toward the screen. This is important because children’s learning from television depends on their attention to the screen, so parents’ attention to the screen can also help children stay focused.
Another way parents help children learn from television is by using it as a teaching opportunity. One study conducted at the University of California, Riverside, found that 12- to 25-month olds were more attentive while viewing a show and used more vocabulary words from the show when their parents engaged in more teaching interactions compared to children whose parents did not engage in many teaching interactions. Therefore, parents do not only direct their child’s attention to the screen, but can emphasize important learning concepts that are represented in the show.
It is important to note that having the television turned on generally reduces parent-child interactions. Parents talk less with their children and scaffold their children’s play less when the television is turned on compared to when it is not turned on. However, when the TV is turned on, children have the opportunity to learn the most from television when they are viewing with a parent who can direct their attention, answer their questions and elaborate on the storyline of the show.
There are some great educational shows on TV for children to watch, and parents can help their children learn more from the screen and apply that learning to their everyday lives when they co-view with their children. Once you spend some time watching television shows with kids, you’ll be surprised how much you learn, too!