What Makes for Good Educational TV?

Image: tomislavmedak via Flickr/CCL

Image: tomislavmedak via Flickr/CCL

My 3-year-old has recently begun reading and spelling words with his alphabet magnets. He’s not quite up to chapter books yet, but he’s doing a fine job of sounding out sight words and recognizing environmental print.

I can take some of the credit considering he is, after all, one my favorite guinea pigs for learning activities, but I think I need to give some of the credit to some of the wonderfully crafted educational TV he watches, like WordWorld, SuperWhy!, and Blue’s Clues. In fact, I literally gave credit to Angela Santomero (creator of Blue’s Clues and SuperWhy!) on Twitter the other day. (She’s @AngelasClues, I’m @AmandaMorin.)



I know that the American Academy of Pediatrics wouldn’t be thrilled to hear me say he’s watching TV, as their stance of “No TV under 3” is pretty firm, but I don’t completely agree with them. I think letting an older toddler and preschooler watch carefully selected television for a limited time period has the possibility to enhance learning.

What Does a Meaningful, Educational TV Show Look Like?

My littlest guy is the youngest of three children, and the span between kids is fairly significant (>5 years between each one). To keep him away from TV completely isn’t practical, but making sure he was watching something educational and meaningful was.

A TV show can help your child learn if it:

  • Encourages active engagement, not with cute characters and catchy songs, but by creating a learning opportunity with goals. That means the show is focused on one concept, sets out a few things your child will learn about that concept and teaches about it in a variety of ways.
  • Uses wait time to give your child time to think about what is going on. There’s a reason the characters in SuperWhy! use the phrase “What do you think?” and look patiently at the screen, just as there’s a reason that your child is encourage to find “a clue, a clue” during an episode of Blue’s Clues. Wait time is a teacher trick every parent should know–it’s a 5 to 7 second span of silence after a question that gives your child an opportunity to gather and form an answer.
  • Asks opened-ended questions instead of giving your child the answers. This is another teaching trick to know. When you ask a child a question that can be answered with “yes” or “no,” he’s likely to give a yes/no answer. If you give the answer in your question, he’s going to parrot it back. But, if you ask questions that challenge your child to explain his thoughts, you’re actively engaging him in learning. Open-ended questions often start with “What do you think…” or “Why do you think…”
  • Has a familiar, consistent way of solving problems. Most good educational TV shows have a recognizable format. Whether it’s Blue finding the clues and sitting down to think about them, SuperWhy! finding a familiar story from which a lesson can be generalized to real-life problems or Dora the Explorer following the map, there’s a way to approach a problem and solve it. And that problem-solving technique is used over and over again so that it can be added to your child’s skill set.

Am I telling you that it’s OK to sit your toddler down in front of the TV in lieu or participating in games, learning activities and play with him? Absolutely not. I’m saying a little educational TV can be one tool to add to your parenting toolkit. Don’t all parents need more tools?

About Amanda

Amanda Morin is author of The Everything Kids' Learning Activities Book, a former teacher/early intervention specialist and mother of three. She is the writer and editor for About.com’s Kids’ Learning Activities site, a regular contributor to PopSugar Moms and her parenting articles have been featured on Education.com and ModernMom.com, among other sites. Amanda knows that hands-on, fun activities are the best way to promote learning and wants to provide parents with the information they need to find products that promote fun learning.

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