Children’s screen-time is an important issue. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids from ages two to five consume only high-quality programming, and only for an hour a day. And studies demonstrating the potential harm of too much screen-time are released regularly, such as one from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center late last year that found that exceeding AAP’s limits was associated with reductions of brain structures that “support language and emergent literacy skills.”
Yet alongside the stern warnings and unsettling findings is evidence that screen-time, when used smartly and in moderation, can have significant benefits, and that a big part of reaping them is choosing good content. To that end, the Education Development Center and SRI Education enlisted Todd Grindal and a team of researchers to examine how a single multi-platform media property—TV show, app, website, physical materials—focused on science and engineering education impacted the learning of young, disadvantaged children.[i]
The researchers picked The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!, which comprises videos, digital games, hands-on activities, and printed descriptions of science and engineering activities. Content areas include friction, sound and soundwaves, inclines, bridges, buildings, object sorting, using all five senses, and making observations. Big, well-known corporations were involved in its development, including PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (both non-profit organizations), Random House, and Portfolio Entertainment, a private firm that distributes television programming to more than ninety countries.
Grindal et al. randomly assigned 454 low-income four- and five-year-olds from five large American metropolitan areas to receive either the Cat in the Hat material or alternative content. Both groups received a tablet computer and eight weeks of internet access and data. The treatment group’s tablet had access to the Cat in the Hat materials, while the control group had that and similar content blocked. Parents in both groups were asked to have their children watch and interact with educational content, and all moms and dads were provided with study information, basic tips for using the tablets, and text message reminders. Using assessments and a parent survey, the team collected data on the subjects’ science and engineering knowledge and practices before the experiment and then again eight weeks after it commenced.
The researchers found that, compared to the control group, “exposure to The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! resources had meaningful impacts on four- to five-year-old children’s physical science knowledge and their ability to engage with science and engineering practices.” This was particularly true in the kids’ understanding of how the strength and length of physical materials affect the stability of structures, and how texture and friction affect an object’s movement down an incline. The exposure also had a clear and positive impact on the children’s interest and engagement in science.
Despite the study’s rigorous experimental design, it has limitations that reduce its generalizability. The sample is not nationally representative. Families were also recruited on social media, so they could be different than families who aren’t on such platforms. And the entire experiment is based on kids having both a tablet and regular internet access, which isn’t true for millions of families, especially low-income ones.
Still, the study’s findings are noteworthy. They suggest, as the team writes, that “educational media designed to focus on critical science and engineering concepts and skills can help young children understand science and engineering concepts and practices.” High-quality screen-time can also improve young kids’ content knowledge—something that’s essential to teaching reading, as E.D. Hirsch argued for thirty years and cognitive scientists like Dan Willingham have later proved. Grindal et al. rightly add that “These findings are especially important given the relative scalability and low per-child cost of media-based interventions.” Technology is ubiquitous, and the degree to which it permeates our lives will only increase in the future. It’s vital that we develop methods of using that it that help rather than harm—especially when it involves our children and their education. This study suggests we can.
SOURCE: Todd Grindal et al., “Early Science & Engineering: The Impact of The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! on Learning,” Education Development Center and SRI Education (November 2019).
[i] According to lead author Todd Grindal, “The study was conducted as part of the Ready To Learn Initiative, which is funded through the U.S. Department of Education. Ready To Learn supports a range of public media developed to serve the needs of children living in low-income communities. This study is part of a series of studies that have been conducted by researchers at EDC and SRI to support this goal.”