A recent study has confirmed that children are developing screen habits earlier and earlier – perhaps unsurprisingly, given our increasingly digitally driven world. Researchers found that the average time children spend watching TV or using a mobile device increased from just under an hour at the age of twelve months to more than 150 minutes at three years. What’s more, evidence suggests that these viewing habits can affect everything from children’s thought processes to their cognitive ability.
As we already know that education increases cognitive ability, it’s not a stretch to suppose that educational television could have a positive effect on children’s cognition, too. But the analysis underlines the importance of making sure that children are watching age-appropriate programming that’s designed to aid, rather than hinder, their development.
Making a difference at home and abroad
Obviously, establishing a connection between cognition and screen time is a complex undertaking but some of the most compelling research ever conducted was based on a television programme that was first broadcast in the late 1960s: Sesame Street. The show was designed to help pre-schoolers develop early skills, which meant that a large proportion of its output (around 80 percent) was educational. The research tracked the progress of two groups of low-income children aged over six months and found that the children who watched Sesame Street frequently gained more than five IQ points relative to those who rarely or never saw the show.
More than 40 years after this ground-breaking study, a 2015 report recently published in the American Economic Journal confirmed the original findings, claiming that millions of children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – are likely to have benefited from access to the show.
For its part, Sesame Street is still continuing to positively impact children’s lives. In partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Sesame Workshop has just launched a new Sesame Street show in Arabic, aimed at raising the educational standards of Syrian refugees. With tens of millions displaced due to the conflict in Syria – almost half of them children, according to the IRC – young people are missing out on vital early educational experiences. The first season of ‘Ahlan Simsim’ (Welcome Sesame) is aimed at children from three to eight years and will be broadcast across the Middle East from February 2020.
Turning the TV into a teaching resource
Sesame Street isn’t the only show that’s providing a valuable viewing experience for children. Classic US show Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood – currently enjoying a renaissance thanks to a biopic starring Tom Hanks – served as an invaluable emotional education for legions of children, while studies have shown that long-running PBS show Curious George has helped children become more interested in science and technology (STEM) subjects.
Almost 900 episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood were broadcast during the show’s 30-year run, with the eponymous host guiding kids through tough times using puppets, songs – and simple kindness. Little wonder, then, that parents are finding this type of show – where actions that involve empathy and caring are valued – to be a reassuring presence in a world in which they seem in perilously short supply. If parents are looking to support their children’s first cognitive experiences as a foundation for success, engaging with Mr Rogers’ calm and compassionate world is a great place to start.
The right fit
Naturally, the key to making sure children’s ‘edutainment’ serves its purpose is designing content to fit with children’s unique psychology, capturing their attention while imparting something useful. While Sesame Street is an acknowledged pioneer in the field, the best new shows are also showing their child-development credentials, supported by well-researched principles and coupled with a practical understanding of how kids learn from media—which all adds up to richer screen-time experiences for kids.
Hong Kong-based Fun Union, a joint venture between global food producer Food Union and market-leading Russian animation firm Riki Group, has seen great success with Baby Riki, its educational show for preschool children. Baby Riki has already taken a number of international markets by storm, swiftly becoming one of the top 5 shows watched by pre-schoolers on American on-demand service Kabillion.
As Askar Alshinbayev—founding partner of Hong Kong-based investment fund Meridian Capital Limited which counts Food Union among its numerous investments—put it: “Fun Union’s series entertain children across the globe while helping them learn through play and sparking interest in the world around them from a young age”. Baby Riki’s success is in part due to its focus on developing young children’s communication and critical thinking skills through innovative segments. The format of a five-minute animated show featuring 3D CGI and live video helps pre-schoolers to learn through play, while each episode illustrates an age-appropriate learning concept, reinforced through music and kinaesthetic learning.
Disney Junior’s Doc McStuffin, meanwhile, has earned praise for its portrayal of a little African-American girl who likes to play doctor. Creator Chris Nee developed the show after her son, who has severe asthma, became anxious when faced with a visit to the doctor’s and it’s playing well with parents who are reporting that their own children are soothed and reassured by the McStuffin stories. It’s also been praised for featuring women – such as Dottie’s doctor mother – in powerful roles, including a guest appearance from Michelle Obama.
Making smart choices
We’re often reminded that we’re living in a golden age of television, with the best programmes offering the same enriching experience as literary fiction. There’s little doubt that high-quality programming for children can be educational; in fact, there are some experiences – especially science and nature shows from far-flung corners of the world – that many of us would find hard to replicate in any other medium. But research shows that our choice of programming can impact, for good or bad, our cognitive ability – a process that begins early in childhood. Selecting shows that offer a good mix of education and entertainment, then, can provide the right balance for the whole family.
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