Media for Kids

One great thing about kids — especially kids who have not been overexposed to TV media — is how easily entertained they are. We recently showed Esther some Looney Tunes cartoons from the 1940’s (on a real TV, no less!) and she couldn’t stop laughing. It is refreshing to see someone spellbound by animated content that didn’t require a rendering farm to create. I’m sure she’ll be jaded soon enough, but we’re trying to drag it out as long as possible by providing only very occasional small doses.

This piece on the end of reading as a cultural activity is chock full of interesting statistics. This excerpt, in particular, is relevant here:

In August, scientists at the University of Washington revealed that babies aged between eight and sixteen months know on average six to eight fewer words for every hour of baby DVDs and videos they watch daily. A 2005 study in Northern California found that a television in the bedroom lowered the standardized-test scores of third graders. And the conflict continues throughout a child’s development. In 2001, after analyzing data on more than a million students around the world, the researcher Micha Razel found “little room for doubt” that television worsened performance in reading, science, and math. The relationship wasn’t a straight line but “an inverted check mark”: a small amount of television seemed to benefit children; more hurt. For nine-year-olds, the optimum was two hours a day; for seventeen-year-olds, half an hour. Razel guessed that the younger children were watching educational shows, and, indeed, researchers have shown that a five-year-old boy who watches “Sesame Street” is likely to have higher grades even in high school. Razel noted, however, that fifty-five per cent of students were exceeding their optimal viewing time by three hours a day, thereby lowering their academic achievement by roughly one grade level.

It certainly doesn’t surprise me that television–even educational TV–is generally not good for kids. The “inverted check mark” bit was a surprise, though. Who would guess that two hours a day is optimal for the nine-year-old brain?

On a related note, Kiddie Records Weekly (recommended by here) is an astonishingly extensive source of free children’s books in MP3 format. It’s also an excellent example of the increasing relevance of bittorent in enabling wide economical distribution of legitimate content. The content is primarily (exclusively?) digitized vinyl records from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Fortunately, Alice in Wonderland gets no worse with age.

To complete the nostalgia circuit, who can forget “loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter” (via sketchelement, quite a while ago):


These are good times to be a kid. Or maybe just to be a parent.

[Tags]Looney Tunes, Alice in Wonderland, Reading, TV, Cartoons, Sesame Street, Bittorrent[/Tags]


  1. mikko Dec 24

    The single most important thing parents (atleast in a western, “text-based” society) can do for their children is to read them stories. (edit: apart from giving them food, shelter and love, obviously)

    The advantage over tv is that the reader/listener needs to imagine and think. The advantage of reading in person over audiobooks is of course interaction. I think this is a very big advantage.

    Abstract thinking (as in for example understanding that words are representations or understanding genres (timetable, letter, shopping list, fairytale…)) becomes increasingly important. Trouble with abstract thinking leads to difficulties understanding schoolbooks from about year 3 or 4 in school.

    Kids also need to be socialized into revering the written word. They should be exposed to adults using writing and reading in all sorts of contexts.

    (See for example Scollon & Scollon, -79, -81, -84)

    It just struck me that geeks in the information age may be using computers too much. We should write letters, notes and shopping lists with pen and paper and involve the kids in these activities. We should read various kinds of things in forms other than on the computer screen. (edit: Not just when reading to them directly, but to show kids the joy of reading a book or a newspaper etc.) (Of course the computer should be in there among the various things we use for reading and writing.)

    Hart & Risley (1995) identify seven things that parents who get successful school kids do:
    1. “Commenting on whatever they were doing”
    2. “(Use language to) create and sustain social closeness”
    3. “…alternates between short simple labels and the mature language of adults.”, “… included the children in adult culture”
    4. “Undertake the role of a receptive social partner”
    5. “.. makes her interest clear by never commenting on the form or clarity of the child´s utterances”
    6. “Involve the children in decisions!”
    7. “They Passed Their Interactional Style On to the Next Generation”

    Also, don’t use a pram where the baby faces away from the one pushing. Babies can’t make meaning of the visual input, since it takes a few seconds for them for example to recognize a face. Have the baby face you and interact with them. Interaction FTW.

    edit: with regards to the the pram-rant, see Frith & Wolpert “The Neuroscience of Social Interaction: decoding, imitating and influencing the actions of others”.

    (final edit I hope: I haven’t quite internalized the fact that one should plan ahead and write a draft when composing a long and clever piece of text like this one. That’s one thing school (apparently atleast in my case) often neglects. Kids should be taught that real writing isn’t a one-quick-sitting kind of thing, but that you plan and make a draft and later also come back to the text (after for example peer-review) and make it better. Oh, and happy christmas, if you’re into that kind of thing :-)

  2. adam Dec 24

    Mikko: excellent (and well-supported!) comments. I agree completely. We are fairly parsimonious with our YouTube and television rationing — we read many books together every day with our children but reserve video entertainment to short doses every few days. The linked New Yorker article has a slightly different but compatible perspective to yours.

  3. mikko Dec 24

    Thanks. I got a bit carried away since I’m very much into this kind of thing (I’m studying to become a teacher for small kids). It makes me glad to see that some people have their kids cognitive and linguistic development under control, so to speak.

    I now noticed there was a leap between my second and third paragraph. The connection is of course that I believe that reading to kids is beneficial to the development of abstract thought since you talk about what you’ve read while you’re reading: You go sort of meta and also highlight the difference between everyday language and that of the fairytale (different words, syntax (perhaps) and melody (when reading aloud) etc).

    Also, in the part about Hart & Risley I should have said “seven additional things with regards to linguistic interaction”, since the one, most important thing was reading with the kids.

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