girlwatchingontabletLike most parents, my wife and I stumble our way through this parenting gig hoping that we don’t make too many big mistakes. And every now and then, we surprise ourselves by doing something right — these moments always result in a high-five to each other, and sometimes, a celebratory bowl of ice cream. But the truly drop-the-mic parenting moments occur when research confirms that what we were already doing is good for our kids. Whether you realize it or not, you are likely already doing something important for your child’s development: letting them watch TV.

That’s right, television. The ol’ goggle box itself. By letting your child watch TV, you may be giving your child the boost they need to succeed academically in the years to come. For example, early math skills are especially important. Kids who develop fundamental math skills at a young age are more likely to succeed at reading, math and science in middle school than children who enter school with low math skills. But as you might guess, not any old TV show will help your child learn these vital skills.

Research shows that kids who watched PEG + CAT and Odd Squad exhibited significantly improved performance on critical early math skills. In one study, 59 children ages 4 to 5 participated in five one-hour laboratory sessions in which they viewed PEG + CAT videos and played PEG + CAT digital games. At the end of the study, the children’s ability to identify shapes had improved significantly compared to baseline measures at the start of the study. In another study, 83 first-graders spent time over several days watching Odd Squad and playing digital Odd Squad games at school. Each participant also watched Odd Squad videos and completed other Odd Squad learning activities at home during the study period. Over the course of the study, kids improved in the following mathematical areas:

  • knowledge about number and operations and algebraic thinking
  • skip counting
  • pattern recognition
  • addition
  • subtraction

When it comes to the TV shows and digital games we let our kids access, the choices are endless. Some programs are meant only to entertain. And some programs are educational, but more often than not they bore our kids to death. Entertainment is good. Education is good. But the magic happens when the two are combined. It’s like peanut butter and jelly — they’re good alone, but magical when they come together. Shows like Odd Squad and PEG + CAT can educate our children in a way that engages them and their imagination, and an engaged child is a learning child.

I’m a children and media scholar. But I’m also a parent. I understand that sometimes kids need TV time. Whether it’s to help them relax after a long day at school or so we as parents can get something, anything done, kids seem to gravitate to the TV. It is heartening as a parent to know that if we dig hard enough, we can find shows that not only won’t corrupt our children but also will help set them on the right academic trajectory. So how do we know which shows to let them watch? Here are some things I look for:

  1. Interactive learning approaches. Children tend to engage more with programs when the characters address the “camera,” when it seems like the characters are talking to and directing questions toward child viewers.
  2. Elements of fantasy or make-believe. Kids love to use their imaginations. Stories that encourage them to explore concepts from a variety of angles, including imaginative angles, help engage them.
  3. Relatable characters. Kids learn well from characters who are like them, who have similar struggles and similar questions. Kids like to learn from kids, whether real or make-believe.
  4. Lessons embedded in the story. Educational shows have two parts—the plot and the lesson. Kids learn best when the plot and the lesson are intertwined, when the lesson being taught is part of the story.

Chances are, your child has already watched PEG + CAT, Odd Squad, and other similar shows. If that describes your family, my advice for you today is to scoop yourself a bowl of ice cream and find someone to high-five. Without even knowing it, you’ve likely helped your child learn math skills that are critical for future success. Doesn’t it feel good to know that you’re doing something right as a parent?

About Eric Rasmussen, PhD

Eric Rasmussen, PhD, is a husband, father of four, professor of communication, and children and media researcher. He is the author of ChildrenAndMediaMan.com, and his mission is to get research about children and media off the academic shelves and into the hands of those who need it most—parents.

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