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Educational TV: Does it Really Exist?

TV is still the most popular form of media that young children consume despite the advent of new technologies like the iPad and a range of techno-toys. However, TV has long been criticised for having a negative impact on children’s learning and development. Parents will be pleased (and relieved) to know that there is increasing research that well-designed, age-appropriate and educational TV can actually have be beneficial to children aged over two-years of age. Appropriate content can actually support children’s cognitive skills. The quality between children’s TV varies greatly. So how can time-poor parents source educational TV?


Appropriate TV for Babies-

Contrary to the marketing claims on Baby DVDs, these products will NOT make your baby smarter. In fact, some research has shown that Baby DVDs can actually have the adverse effect and impede children’s language and motor development, if used excessively. Babies will not benefit from TV, despite claims suggesting otherwise (see this TIME article for details). Babies benefit more from ‘face-time’ as opposed to ‘screen-time’. If parents elect to use TV with their baby they should look for TV shows that use simple graphics and lots of language. They should also avoid the use of ‘narratives’ as babies are too young to understand story lines. TV viewing should be used very sparingly at this age.

Appropriate TV for Toddlers-

Parents of toddlers know that young children need to MOVE. Source TV programs that encourage singing, clapping, dancing and general interaction. (See our blog post next week on ‘Interactive TV’). From around the age of 18-22 months, young children start to understand narratives (story structures) so start to introduce TV shows (and DVDs) that contain a plot. Encourage your child to recall the story after they have viewed the show. This will not only enhance their language development but will also improve their thinking skills. Playschool– based on 45 years of research, this show offers stories, music and hands-on activities. Sesame Streetthis highly-researched TV program started in 1969 and uses recognisable puppets to teach themes. In the Night Garden– this show has been designed to assist young children ‘unwind’ and relax before bed.*see Final Tips.


Appropriate TV for Preschoolers-

This is an ideal age to use TV to consolidate preschoolers’ understanding of some more formal learning concepts such as numbers, letters and shape names. Look for TV programs that include lots of language and repetition. Sesame Street– see above. Dora the Explorer– repetition and simple graphics are the cornerstones of this program. CBeebies shows such as ‘Little Human Planet’– this show follows children from around the world, providing young children with access to new information and ideas that may not be possible without TV. Charlie & Lola– this show teaches children about relationships, social and life skills. It also teaches logic and problem-solving skills which are essential ‘Executive Function’ skills. Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood– this show teaches social responsibility, respect and self-esteem.







Appropriate TV for 5-8 year olds-

Sid the Science Kid– children will develop an understanding of key scientific ideas watching these programs. Cyberchase– this adventure cartoon develops problem-solving skills.

Final tips:

  • TV SHOULD NOT replace hands-on experiences. Children still need lots of time to play, explore and interact with real-life objects and people.
  • Talk with your child whilst they are watching (if possible) and/or after they have watched a TV show. Co-viewing promotes learning.
  • Make connections between the TV show and real life examples. For example you might say, “That is like the ball that Elmo was chasing.”
  • Avoid shows that contain violent content. You may be surprised at the content of many children’s TV cartoons that are screened before school. Avoid rapid-fire (fast-paced) TV viewing before school (like ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ and ‘Power Rangers’). This sets the brain up for this rapid-fire input that they are unlikely to receive at school and can result in disengagement.
  • Where possible avoid TV 90 minutes before children go to bed, or at least rapid-fire, fast-paced TV. Current research suggests that TV viewing (in fact any form of media) before bed delays the onset of sleep. Over time, this can cause significant sleep deficits and sleep is vital for optimal brain development.

TV is not going to be un-invented. Instead of banning it we need to make informed-choices about how we can best use it. Parents need up-to-date information about what TV shows are best for their children.

American readers are advised to see the PBS website and ComonSense Media for recommendations regarding American educational TV shows.


I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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