Young children spend a bigger chunk of time watching TV, using smartphones, video consoles, and tablets than they spend in school. The hopeful news is that, especially for the preK set, a large proportion of this time is spent on content that is educational.
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a non-profit think tank focused on the intersection of learning and the media, released a report in January on their national survey of 1,577 parents. Participants were interviewed about the out-of-school viewing habits of one of their children, aged 2-to-10, on a particular day. The definition given to parents for ‘educational media’ was “good for your child’s learning or growth, or that teaches some type of lesson, such as an academic or social skill.” Media platforms included computers, video games, television, smart phones, and tablets.
Learning at Home: Families’ Educational Media Use in America, written by Vicki Rideout for the Cooney Center, reports that on average 44% of the time spent with media is educational, ranging from 78% for 2-4 year olds to 27% for 8-10 year olds. The highest proportion of educational time is spent watching TV, the least on video games. Further, 54% of the parents say the educational media the child watches often influences a subsequent action, such as talk, play, or a project.
Because the price of many devices has dropped, technological inequities among ethnic and economic groups are smaller than they once were. Nonetheless, for cultural and financial reasons, children from wealthier families clearly have a greater range of electronic options and may use them differently. 98% of the surveyed homes have television, 83% high-speed internet access, 71% have access to a smart phone, but only 41% have a video-gaming device. Lower income parents estimate higher usage of educational media, mainly watching television, but they also tend to attribute higher educational content to the programs watched.
In terms of subject content, there are significant differences. Parents believe that their children learn the most from media about cognitive, reading and social skills and the least about math, science, health, and cultural topics. Black parents assess their children’s learning higher in almost every subject area than do white and Latino parents. Latino parents are the least likely to say that their child has learned from educational media.
Despite the enlarged menu of options, children continue to spend more time with television than they do any other media platform. And when they sit down to read a book, they’re still more likely to actually read a book, spending an average 29 of 40 minutes with old-fashioned paper.
Images from Learning at Home: Families’ Educational Media Use in America
From May 5-11, you can join thousands of others in Massachusetts by pledging to “watch no TV or DVDs, play no video or mobile games, and only use the computer if it’s required for work.” Smart phones are allowed, but only for communication, adds Josh Golin, Associate Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), sponsor of the annual Screen-Free Week. This movement is endorsed by numerous groups, including the National Head Start Association, the American Public Health Association, the Massachusetts PTA, and Boston’s Mission Hill School.
Although more than a few adults may benefit from the TV/DVD/video diet, it’s the children about whom there is the greatest concern. Recent research reveals that 29% of babies under 1-year-old are watching the screen 90 minutes a day; 64% of 1-2-year olds are watching for almost two hours; 2-5-year olds are watching, on average, more than two hours daily. Hispanic, African-American, and lower-income children generally spend more time with screens than their peers.
Even though a significant proportion of viewed content is considered educational and beneficial to early childhood education, there is strong agreement among educators that TV, video, and video games displace other activities that are more important to intellectual, emotional, and physical development. CCFC summarizes research published in The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine: “Children who spend less time watching television in early years tend to do better in school, have a healthier diet, be more physically active, and be better able to engage in schoolwork in later elementary school.”
If you’re wondering how to use all of that freed-up time, go to http://www.screenfree.org/ to find an activity in your neighborhood, ranging from biking, yoga, and a family games night to a discussion of what it means to be screen-free.
The children are listening.
Educational theory tells us that they learn by doing, by questioning, and by self-guided learning. It is the role of both the parent and the educator to provide environments to facilitate this exploration. However, when children don’t directly experience phenomena that are abstract or remote, say germs, oxygen, or God, they learn from what others tell them, usually granting more credibility to those who have established trust.
In Trusting What We’re Told: How Children Learn from Others, Paul Harris of the Harvard Graduate School of Education compares children to anthropologists who observe others carefully and cultivate trusted informants. Harris’s research indicates that children as young as 18-24 months adapt their understanding by incorporating others’ testimony. He suggests that the combination of young children’s imaginative play and early language facilitate trying out new information and creating their own reflective ideas. By the time they are three, as much as one-third of children’s speech may refer to concepts that are beyond their immediate experience.
Children do “monitor the messenger,” trusting adults whom they know better and longer and whose previous testimony hasn’t been disproved. Harris suggests that this is one of many reasons that children need to have caregivers and teachers who remain in their lives for extended periods of time. He points out that cultural and religious beliefs are most easily transmitted by these same trusted informants.
In a Salon interview, Harris noted, “If a child spends one hour a day between the ages of 2 and 5 with a caregiver who is talking to them and interacting with them, they will ask 40,000 questions in which they are asking for some kind of explanation. That’s an enormous number of questions.”
His research tells Harris that more questions are asked at home than at schools and other early education settings, and that children’s questioning correlates with both economic well-being and mothers’ education. That children are vulnerable to unverified claims makes it important for parents and teachers to help them develop ways to critically evaluate what they hear. One way is by fostering extended discussion; another is by helping them develop discernment about information they receive, whether in discourse or in perusing the internet.
The importance of ongoing relationships with trusted caregivers reinforces the need to train and retain early educators. The Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children has developed measures to secure and professionalize the workforce through development of a career ladder and tax credit that reward training and through our Early Educator’s Roadmap to a College Degree, which helps explore programs and funding for educational advancement.
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