I remember the first day of second grade for our youngest daughter. She was wearing the outfit she carefully picked out the night before, her backpack was filled with her new school supplies, and we had taken the obligatory first-day-of-school photo in front of our house. As parents, we were worried about the normal things: whether or not she’d like her teacher, if she’d make a new friend, if she would have someone to play with at recess. 

But when she got home that afternoon, she informed us that we had forgotten to send her to school with perhaps the most important thing: her lunch. That’s right, our second grader arrived to the first day of school without anything to eat.

Thankfully, most schools are prepared for forgetful parents and for the many children whose families can’t afford a daily lunch. We often can’t do everything to prepare our kids for school each day, and we’re lucky to have educators fill in the gaps left by well-meaning of parents.

Of course, preparing kids for school involves more than just remembering the lunchbox. When a child arrives in kindergarten with basic academic and social skills, they are much more likely to succeed in the classroom and beyond. These skills are collectively referred to as “school readiness” — and one of the most important of these indicators is early literacy skills. 

Because early literacy skills are so foundational, the U.S. Department of Education has spent millions of dollars over the last several years on its Ready to Learn initiative, which funds media designed to help kids develop these skills.

You and your kids have undoubtedly seen some of this Ready to Learn-funded media, including shows like Between the LionsSesame StreetSuper Why!, and WordWorld. And according to new research, the DOE’s investment in these shows has yielded strong dividends.

Dr. Lisa Hurwitz, now at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston’s Children Hospital, recently released a study on the effects of literacy-based children’s media. She conducted what’s called a meta-analysis of the research related to children’s learning from Ready to Learn media. A meta-analysis is academic-speak for using statistics to look at all the research about a topic — in this case, 45 Ready to Learn studies involving nearly 25,000 children.

Hurwitz found that kids — especially preschoolers — who viewed Ready to Learn programming exhibited significantly higher early literacy skills, especially vocabulary and phonological concepts. She notes, “These effects are equivalent to about one-and-a-half months of literacy learning above and beyond typical growth.”

Vocabulary is, of course, what you think it is: the ability to accurately label objects and knowing the meanings of words. Phonological concepts include skills like knowing language sounds, understanding that certain letters correspond to certain sounds, and being able to combine language sounds to form words. Both skills — vocabulary and phonological concepts — are strongly related to future reading.

In other words, your child likely benefits significantly from time spent watching PBS shows and engaging in literacy-related PBS activities on the tablet.

As a parent and researcher, I’ve learned this fundamental truth: Parents cannot do and be everything for our children. Sometimes we forget to pack a lunch. Sometimes between work, making dinner, changing diapers, running errands, and the host of other things parents do, we need a little help — and sometimes that help comes in the form of a show or an app. It’s a parenting reality. I do it, too. And now research provides a welcome finding: Time spent with many quality PBS KIDS shows is time spent helping to prepare your child for school. You may still forget the lunchbox or pencils sometimes, but it’s reassuring to know that the educators and researchers behind our favorite shows are also getting our kids ready for success.

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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