What preschool children can learn from TV

Teachers and parents could do a lot worse than sit young children in front of high-quality educational TV on a rainy afternoon, says Megan Dixon
10th January 2020, 12:04am
Can You Tell Me How To Get To Sesame Street?
Megan Dixon

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What preschool children can learn from TV

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/what-preschool-children-can-learn-tv

As a child, I can remember being told that I watched too much TV. But then one day, to the amazement of my monolingual parents, I started to count the food on my dinner plate in Spanish and then English. Where, they pondered, had I learned this?

The mystery was soon cleared up as I sat down to watch my favourite programme and my mother realised what a powerful learning tool the television could be. Not only was Sesame Street's The Count teaching me about numbers and counting, he was also helping me understand how different languages could sound different but explain the same ideas.

But how could something as innocuous as a children's television programme be so effective? It may be that the effectiveness lies in the serious intent with which the programme team embraced the most current research about how children learn.

From the beginning, in the late 1960s, Sesame Street was conceived as a collaborative project between developmental psychologists, preschool education experts and programme makers. They emphasised the integration of formative research as the programmes were developed and summative research to assess the educational impact of the programmes once they were broadcast (Mares et al, 2013). This model is still used today and followed by production teams in more than 150 countries.

While my personal anecdotal experience does not automatically mean that the project is effective for most, a meta-analysis of all the studies (including the research commissioned by the Sesame Workshop) concluded that Sesame Street had made a positive impact on the learning of preschool children (Mares et al, 2013).

Of course, we have to be a little careful - much of the research used had been paid for by the Sesame Street team - but nevertheless, the meta-analysis concluded that the programme does help children learn numbers and letters, to gain knowledge about the world and how it works, and how to understand and be nice to one another.

The study adds that self-initiated viewing may contribute to children's learning, with an average effect on cognitive development comparable to other, more traditional, early interventions. In short: it appears that, contrary to the prevailing attitude at the time, avidly watching Sesame Street was good for children - and probably still is.

Of course, this does not in any way underestimate the value of investing in high-quality early childhood education and care, or supporting parents to help their children learn. But reaching children in the early years can be challenging and effective high-quality television may well be a powerful tool in the toolbox of approaches we have.

There is a lesson for all of us here. Maybe putting on an educational TV programme isn't the worst thing we could do during wet play. If only all telly could be this good.

Megan Dixon is co-director of the Aspirer Research School and director of English for the Aspire Educational Trust. She is currently on secondment as a senior associate to the Education Endowment Foundation

This article originally appeared in the 10 January 2020 issue under the headline "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?"

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