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Can Kids Really Learn From TV?

How Sesame Workshop and other companies make sure kids’ TV shows are truly educational

Can I watch? Pleeease? This request from my 5-year-old daughter, Alex, usually asked in her whiny voice, makes me cringe. I wonder for a moment, Maybe we shouldn’t watch TV at all. But then my husband, Ken, and I would be deprived of Modern Family, 30 Rock and The Daily Show, and Alex and her sister, 2-year-old Eliza, wouldn’t benefit from the high-quality educational programming available for kids today.

Having spent the past eleven years directly involved in the development of educational media for young children, I understand both sides of the story. I know how it feels to want to turn to Alex and say, No, you can’t watch. Just play! But as a professional and a parent, I’ve witnessed the benefits of children’s educational television.

A former director of content for Sesame Street, I’ve spent the past five years consulting with various production companies developing educational media. I know how much research goes into quality children’s television that is truly educational. So how do we know that children are actually learning what we hope they’ll learn? To find out, we ask the real experts . . . kids!

As my former colleague, Jennifer Kotler, Ph.D., vice president for domestic research at Sesame Workshop, says, “We use formative testing (testing conducted during the production process) to look at specific elements of the show that we need to tweak to increase children’s comprehension of key learning objectives.” The Sesame Street research team visits schools and shows diverse groups of 3- to 5-year-old preschool children various segments of Sesame Street. Researchers observe children’s behavior while they view the show in small groups and then meet with children in one-on-one interviews to gain a better understanding of kids’ comprehension of key curriculum goals. Interview questions also gauge segments’ appeal—basically, what did children learn and what do they like about what they saw?

This research process has been a key foundation of the Sesame Workshop model for decades and has become a staple in the development process of many educational children’s programs, including those created at Nick Jr., where I recently consulted on the development of the preschool series Bubble Guppies. Animated series such as this one are tested at many stages of development: the storybook phase (where researchers read an abbreviated version of the story with rough sketches to children); the storyboard phase (where children see a more involved digital representation of the story); and the animatic phase (where children watch a rough animation of the story with some recorded dialogue). At every stage, researchers watch children’s behaviors while viewing and then ask small groups of children comprehension and appeal questions to make sure the intended learning goals were communicated.

Through summative evaluation (research conducted with children watching final full episodes or segments of a series), the Sesame Street research team assesses impact on children’s learning in specific content areas. According to Kotler, “One recent study showed that children who watched Sesame Street episodes dedicated to teaching about nature and the environment understood more concepts and vocabulary after viewing compared to children who did not watch the episodes.”

At home in my own living room, I have seen firsthand what decades of research have shown: Children do learn from television. Both of my girls were inspired to begin potty training after watching our Elmo’s Potty Time DVD. Eliza even sings Elmo and Grover’s lyrics if she doesn’t quite make it on time: “Accidents happen, but that’s okay!” And Alex recently learned the word “investigate” from Grover and now uses this great word all the time.

Courtesy of Sesame Workshop 2012

The important question we all have to ask is not whether kids are learning, but what they are learning—this is where parents can make good TV-viewing choices, and screen shows to look for strong, positive educational content. So when Alex asks for Curious George and Eliza says, “Me watch Ernie?” I consider their requests. Are they asking for high-quality shows I believe are educational? Have they played outside? And if the answers are “yes” and “yes,” then my answer is also “Yes . . . you can watch . . .”

But no whining!

Learn More:

Read Anna’s day-in-the-life account of creating educational programming in “Sesame Street: Behind the Scenes”

Related Reading and Resources:

“The ‘Street’ That Changed Everything,” Monitor on Psychology

“40 Years of Muppetology 101,” by Tom Jacobs, Miller-McCune

PBS Kids

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that rates media based on age appropriateness and quality

Find educational programs from commercial broadcast stations in your area with the FCC’s KidVid tool.