familywatchingtvHave you ever noticed that two good things are often better when they’re combined? Macaroni and cheese. Peanut butter and jelly. Bert and Ernie. Sometimes, the right combination of people, ingredients, or sounds can create something that is worthwhile, lasting and maybe even magical.

Kids believe in magic. But somewhere along the way we adults stop believing. I too stopped believing in magic long ago, until I became familiar with research related to children’s learning from educational television. Research shows that spending time with educational programming is good for kids. And we all know that children benefit from the quality time they spend together with their parents. But when the two are combined, something happens that can only be described as magical.

Research shows that joint media engagement — parent and child spending time together with media — has a profound effect on children. In other words, to help our kids we don’t need to change their activities, we simply need to join them! I recently reported on a study involving children’s learning from watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. One of the key findings from that study is that children learned from the show, but only when their viewing experiences were accompanied by parent-child interaction. Said differently, the magic happens when parents and kids watched TV and talked about what they watched.

But that’s not even the coolest part. The coolest part is that the mere presence of a parent while children watch TV is enough to help them learn. That’s right, even without saying a word, by simply watching together, kids learn better. Scholars argue that the simple act of watching TV with a child communicates that (1) what the child wants to do is important to the parent, and (2) the parent approves of the content. When those things happen, children tend to pay more attention to the program, and ultimately, learn better.

The power of a parent’s influence on children’s learning from media is so evident that parent-child interaction is often an integral part of research studies today that explore the ability of media content to teach children. For example, in one study children learned math skills from watching PEG + CAT, and a key part of their learning involved parent-child engagement with the show’s curriculum. Similar results have been found across a host of PBS KIDS’ content on a variety of platforms, such as The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That, Curious George, and Sid the Science Kid.

To help your child benefit from the TV shows and other media that they are already watching, there are several simple things you can do:

  1. Sit down and watch your child’s favorite show with them. We’ve all used TV as a babysitter. But if we let the dishes sit for just 30 more minutes, our kids will get much more out of the shows they watch.
  2. Say positive things about the shows they watch. When children know that parents like their favorite characters and shows, they tend to pay attention more, and thus learn more.
  3. Avoid watching “questionable” content with your child. Just as kids learn positive things from educational media, they’ll learn the “bad” stuff better when they watch it with a parent. If you enjoy a show that contains adult-oriented content, wait to watch it until after the kids are in bed.
  4. Make watching your child’s favorite show your “thing.” Kids love to have something that they do regularly with a parent, even something routine. They will look forward to this special parent-child time, helping them enjoy the educational programming better, and ultimately helping them learn better.

I’m a grown man, but I still pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch nearly every day. Sure, it may be childish, but for me it serves as a reminder of the old cliché that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. A reminder that we, as parents, have a greater influence than we think. A reminder that learning happens at the intersection of good media programming and parent involvement. That’s where the magic happens.

And I think it’s high time for parents to start believing in magic again.

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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