Making Smart Phones Do for Kids What Sesame Street Never Could

Successful as it is, the television show has never reached one key group of children. Research suggests touch screens can.

Big Bird attends the 86th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 22, 2012 in New York City. 
National Journal
Patrick Reis
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Patrick Reis
Oct. 24, 2013, 1 a.m.

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.”

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