Sesame Street sets the gold standard for children's programming, but for young toddlers, research suggests that it'll soon be better to turn off the television and pass them the tablet.
Sesame Street was built with a mission: to use television to send educational, enriching content into the homes of children, particularly children who, for whatever reason, need a little extra help. And by that standard, it has been a massive success. The program — via its developer Sesame Workshop — has successfully turned television into an educational juggernaut, and a seemingly endless string of studies shows that children who watch the program benefit from it.
There's just one problem: For the first 30 months of a child's life, Sesame Street — like any other educational television program — is useless. At those early stages, developmental psychologists say, children lack the cognitive mechanism to transfer what's on-screen into real-world learning.
That cognitive gap renders even the best-crafted televisions programs pointless and exposes a hard truth for those looking to provide a leg up to children coming from difficult circumstances: At a critical stage in toddlers' development, they will either get the enrichment they need from the adults around them, or they won't get it at all.
But after decades of futility, research suggests educators are on the verge of a breakthrough in their goal to break the 30-month barrier for using mass media as an educational tool. They'll just have to use touch screens to do it.
Enter Heather Kirkorian, a University of Wisconsin psychology professor who spends her days trying to figure out what forms of media teach toddlers and which ones waste their time.
In search of that line, Kirkorian recently took 85 toddlers and attempted to teach them the name of a new object. One group was shown a standard, noninteractive video in which an on-screen adult pointed to an object and told them its name. As expected, children under 30 months in that group made no progress in learning the object's name.
A second group of children was shown the same video, but this time on an interactive device that required them to touch anywhere on the screen before the adult would point to the object and name it. But despite researchers' hopes, children under 30 months in that group had no more success in learning the object's name than did their peers who watched the standard video interview.
It was in the third and final group, however, that the researchers began to see interesting results. In that group, children were shown the same video on an interactive device, but before the video would go forward, children had to touch the screen where the object is shown, rather than just anywhere. In that group, finally, the toddlers showed progress in learning the object's name, even the under-30-month ones who were supposedly too young to learn from video.
"The implication for the real world is that there may be a way to reach these younger age groups," Kirkorian said. "It's the first step in showing there might be a possibility there."
If media developers were able to produce touch-screen compatible educational media tools for toddlers, it could go a long way toward helping toddlers be better prepared for school — even ones who are not getting the attention they need from adults, Kirkorian said.
"The earlier they have those resources, the more likely they are to be successful," she said, adding that the influx of "relatively inexpensive" touch screen devices into American homes offered more potential to connecting toddlers with educational tools.
So, if touch screens show potential for teaching toddlers what conventional television never has, should Big Bird and company be worried?
In short: of course not.
Sesame Workshop is embracing the touch-screen age, and already offers dozens of smartphone apps for kids and parents alike — including programs aimed at early-childhood learning.
The company also recently authored a guide for other app developers on how they can make their products kid-friendly. The handbook's suggestions range from big-picture design guides to minor reminders, such as a note that small children will unintentionally click buttons if they are placed on tablet screens' bottom corners because that's where kids rest their wrists.
"I think what we're trying to do is set up expectations for a touch device," said Mindy Brooks, Sesame Workshop's director of education and research. "We're asking how can we use it as a tool for education, not a hindrance."
Indeed, Kirkorian said, if touch screen devices are going to become effective educational tools for very young children, they're going to have to be designed with those children in mind.
For example, toddlers are generally poor at differentiating pertinent information from background noise, which may explain why the children in her experiment who had to specifically touch the object were able to hone in and learn its name, while children who could touch anywhere on the screen got nowhere, she said.
Ultimately, Kikorian said, neither television nor tablets nor any other technology is a substitute for attentive parenting, but for some toddlers, it may mean a meaningful improvement in quality of life.
"I don't think anyone would argue that [using a touch-screen device] is better than interacting with another person. But, unfortunately the kids who are most in need of enriching experiences often don't have that," she said. "They're put in front of the TV for hours a day."