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TV Viewer's Guide: Preschoolers

Other ages: Grade Schoolers | Teens

Screen time for preschoolers is like chocolate — it's a delicious pleasure in small portions, but consuming too much can lead to a lifetime of bad habits. How can you make healthy viewing choices for your child?

Consider what experts aim for when making a first-rate TV show for preschoolers. Despite simple appearances, researchers, educators and producers rely on a great deal of expertise when figuring out how to teach preschoolers while they entertain them. Although there's no single recipe for producing a successful program, here's a quick list of what those in the know put into a high-quality television series — and why you might want to look for these elements, too.

  • Activities Worth Repeating
    Preschoolers are notorious for imitating what they see and hear. Because repetition is a big part of how they learn, some programs are filled with lots of activities worth copying. Super Why!'s emphasis on letter recognition and Curious George's explorations of math, science and engineering are examples of activities and topics preschoolers can pursue when the TV is off.
  • Constructive Ways to Resolve Conflict
    Preschoolers experience strong emotions, including frustration, jealousy and anger. Help them manage these feelings by introducing them to characters who express their feelings using their words rather than their fists. The characters on Clifford are constantly getting into situations where they have to resolve differences and learn that acceptance is part of belonging to a community.
  • Strong Male AND Female Characters
    Children develop an awareness of gender differences during the preschool years, so you'll want to avoid programs that suggest an activity is "just for boys" or "just for girls." Programs that give an equal voice — even if the characters are animals, like the dog that gives Martha Speaks its name — send the message that both girls and boys are capable and strong. They also help show children that that girls and boys have many choices — from choosing a job to expressing powerful feelings.
  • Positive Social Models
    Sharing doesn't come naturally to preschoolers. They need to learn about self-esteem and good relations with others. Watching programs like Caillou, which features a 4-year-old navigating his way through a new world of friendships, will highlight what's good about cooperating with those nearby.
  • Characters from Around the ;World
    Preschoolers' imaginations can take them anywhere. Introduce them to programs that include traditions different from your own to widen your children's views of the world. Maya and Miguel will introduce them to characters who speak Spanish, English and American Sign Language. And, it gives prominence to the rich heritage of Hispanic culture. Likewise, characters who share your family's background can validate what is familiar. Programs like Sesame Street, which features an urban setting, remind children that families thrive in many different environments.
  • Lessons That Foster a Love of Learning
    In addition to focusing on skills that are easy to identify as academic, like math and reading, some programs also help children get ready for school by shaping their attitudes toward learning in general. For example, Dinosaur Train builds off of children's love for trains and dinosaurs to promote critical thinking skills.
  • Humor That Appeals to Parents AND Children
    Whenever possible, watch TV with your child so you can discuss aspects of the program. While overextended parents know this isn't always feasible, you'll be more likely to watch with your child if the show features humor that appeals to the whole family. Alistair Cookie's "Monsterpiece Theater" on Sesame Street or "Gawain's World" on Between the Lions will keep you and your preschooler smiling.
  • Characters from Different Age Groups
    A show that features a cast filled with grandparents, aunts, uncles, teenagers and preschoolers can help children see how people of different ages are important to one another. For example, Sid the Science Kid's "grandma" picks him up from school everyday and tells family stories.
  • Few or No Commercial Messages
    Programs that are free from commercial messages and interruptions allow the focus to be entirely on the learning and enjoyment. Preschool viewers are not overcome with a desire to have a toy or product but can give their full attention to other interests, such as imaginative play, the value of sharing or something else they take away from their viewing.

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