Picture an arborist puzzled by an ailing tree. He has tried giving it more water. He has protected it from blight. Why won’t it grow?
If the tree stands for public education, the arborist is today’s education reformer. Ideas continue to pour forth on how to help students, fix schools and revamp No Child Left Behind. But none tackles the environments the tree experienced as a sapling, when its roots never got the chance to stretch out and dig in.
Few would dispute that public education is in trouble. Last month’s reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that two-thirds of U.S. fourth-graders cannot read well enough to do grade-level work. Many schools are not measuring up to federal standards.
Now consider what dominates the debate on how to make amends: charter schools, public school choice, dropout prevention programs, linking teacher pay to student performance. President Obama has embraced many of these ideas, which might help some children in some districts.
But have we forgotten to look underfoot? Experts talk too often about poorly performing middle or high schools and dismiss elementary and preschool time as the “cute” years. But these are the years we should focus on.
Science continues to provide insights — and warnings — about how much of a person’s capacity for learning is shaped from birth to age 8. Young children need to experience rich interactions with teachers, parents and other adults who read to them, ask questions of them, and encourage their exploration of myriad of subjects.
Unfortunately, the state of early education is not good. In a 2007 national study in Science, researchers found that only 7% of children in the elementary grades were getting consistently high-quality instruction and attention to their emotional needs.
Kindergarten, which faces unstable funding, is troubled, too. School teachers get little training on the best methods for reaching 5-year-olds.
Lag in preschool
And many children are still not getting the benefit of preschool. While a few states, such as Georgia and Oklahoma, offer universal prekindergarten, in others only 10% of children are enrolled in a public preschool program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Expensive private programs are not an option for many working families.
To earn the label of true education reform, the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind must recognize these earliest years. The law should include a fund that extends to third grade. It should encourage districts to use their Title I dollars (which go to districts with economically disadvantaged families) to build better programs and partner with existing preschools. It should require districts to integrate data from children’s earliest years with K-12 data so that parents, schools and communities can track how their children are progressing relative to the kinds of programs they experienced before and during elementary school. It should ensure that funding for professional development extends to preschool teachers and principals.
Above all, the law should reward states, districts and schools that create high-quality programs and have the data to show that they work.
If No Child Left Behind cannot help foster better learning environments from the beginning, we will forever be that arborist, scratching his head at why, despite so many fixes, our students still aren’t reaching for the sky.
Our education system starts at age 5, pays little attention to children’s development and achievement until third grade, and is strewn with remedial programs to get older children back on track.
Meanwhile, studies keep pouring forth that highlight the importance of children’s earliest years – birth to age 8 – in developing the mental capacity that enables life-long learning.
In short, our education policies don’t align with the latest science on how and when children learn. American public education is out of whack.
Two new books drive home this point: Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills All Children Need and Britain’s War on Poverty. A third piece of reading — a landmark study in the journal Child Development published this spring – also makes the argument for getting smarter about policies that affect young children and their later achievements in school.
Now, I don’t mean to get too heavy. I know summer is for beach reading about the girl with the dragon tattoo, not education and child policy. So let me summarize as quickly as I can:
Mind in the Making is, in essence, a parenting book. But author Ellen Galinsky, the president and co-founder of the nonprofit Families and Work Institute in New York City, doesn’t talk about diapers and baby food.
She bases her arguments on dozens of experiments on how and when children form ideas about the way the world works and what they need to learn. The science makes clear that children need adults in their lives who recognize that abilities are not preordained by genetics. When parents and caregivers engage in one-on-one conversations with toddlers, for example, they help children develop the language skills needed to succeed at reading, writing and communicating in their later years.
Britain’s War on Poverty, by Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, is a book for policy wonks. It tells the story of a country getting it right.
In 1999, the United Kingdom pledged to halve the poverty rate among the nation’s children. At the time, 26 percent of children lived in poverty – a number that was higher than any other European country and mortified many Brits. Ten years later, the rate is 12 percent, while the rate in the U.S. is on track to hit 22 percent, according to recent data from the nonprofit Foundation for Child Development.
How did Britain do it? Waldfogel goes into rich detail about the multitude of policies that were changed to help families with young children. These included generous paid maternity leave, better benefits for single parents on welfare, improvements in the quality of child care, universal access to preschool and improvements in elementary schools.
The Child Development article, led by Greg Duncan of the University of California at Irvine, showed that babies, toddlers and preschoolers who grow up in poverty are more harmed by its effects than older children.
Other studies have shown that the effects of poverty on brain development are linked to cognitive ability in later years. But Duncan demonstrates that the impact of being poor is still evident, 37 years later, in incomplete schooling and jobless rates.
The harm starts at birth, with poverty elevating the stress parents feel, which can cause an increased likelihood of harsh parenting practices. These have the greatest impact during the early childhood years when the mother-child relationship serves as the foundation for a child’s ability to regulate his emotions.
That regulation, in turn, has an effect on children’s achievement, behavior, and health.Meanwhile, with little money to spare, parents cannot afford to financially support emergent literacy with books and high-quality child care or preschool.
All three readings lead to one conclusion: It’s beyond time to give all American children – especially those in poor circumstances — exposure to language-rich and cognitively stimulating environments in their earliest years. This doesn’t mean just increasing access to preschool, though that would help.
(More than 5 million children under age 6 live in poverty, according to Kids Count, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Head Start, the federal preschool program for poor kids, is available to about a million children birth to age 5. State-funded pre-k, where it’s available, covers another million. That means we’re leaving more 3 million children out – and that’s not including families with moderate incomes who still find preschool and child care unaffordable.)
An education system aligned with the latest science would help poor parents increase their incomes so they can provide for their children. It would create better parental leave and “extended time off” policies to help parents find time to care for their children and learn along with them.
And it would offer a comprehensive early childhood system with effective teachers who help children develop and learn, starting at birth and including preschool if parents wish, and extending all the way up through the early grades of elementary school.
Yes, the recession and the federal budget deficit make this difficult. But there’s no better time to revamp public policies to match up with our new understandings.
Cognitive and social development starts in the womb and requires sustained, high-quality nurturing throughout childhood. We can keep waiting for more books that make us feel like we live in a backward country. Or we can start transforming policies to revise our education system with children’s earliest years in mind.
Do digital books help young kids learn to read,or are they mostly fun and games?
When Julie Hume, a reading specialist in University City, MO, first saw the potential of a children’s ebook, it was larger than life. The book was projected on a smartboard at the front of a classroom, with huge, easily readable words, brilliant graphics, and an engaging recorded-voice narrator. A teacher trainer stood nearby, demonstrating to Hume and other reading specialists how to pause the narration to point to artwork on the page and ask students questions about what they were hearing.
“It gave me chills,” says Hume, who works with third, fourth, and fifth graders who are struggling to read fluently. It wasn’t just that she was overcome with that feeling of “wow, cool,” she says, but also that she could imagine how the ebook program—called Tumblebooks—might help students at her new school, Pershing Elementary.
Hume didn’t have $400 in her budget for an annual subscription to the program, nor was she entirely sure, despite her excitement, that it would make a positive difference to the more than two dozen students she would see in “pull-out” sessions each day. So she requested a grant from a local education foundation to fund an experiment. At the beginning of the school year, she divided the children randomly into two groups. One group got the “Tumblebook” treatment, spending time at a computer reading and listening to ebooks that were either at or just above their reading level. The other small group received the same reading interventions that she had used in the past, with Hume sitting at a table and assisting them as they read along in their paper books. Which group would show the most improvement?
Hume didn’t know it at the time, but she had just set out to answer a prime question descending on preschools and elementary schools this year: Are electronic picture books good for kids, and can they get them hooked on reading by expanding access to engaging titles? Or are digital books one more step down that slippery slope to less and less interaction with print just when children need it most?
The young ereader
Until recently, ebooks for young children haven’t been part of the hyped vernacular of “game-changing” technology. Instead, ebook conversations have focused on textbooks for older students or text-heavy, adult-oriented titles downloaded to ereaders like the Kindle, Nook, and Sony e-Reader.
The arrival of portable, full-color, touchscreen devices is rapidly changing that. A year ago, Apple’s iPad tablet arrived on the scene, turning digital glossy magazines and colorful digital books into a reality. The iTunes App Store is now brimming with vivid graphics and creative games for kids, including hundreds of booklike offerings, such as Green Eggs and Ham and Pat the Bunny. Not long after the emergence of the iPad, Barnes and Noble unveiled the NookColor—a $250 device with a color touchscreen slightly smaller than the iPad’s. It features Nook Kids, an online shop where you can purchase from a growing collection of classic and popular picture books. Judy Schachner’s “Skippyjon Jones” series (Dutton) and Barack Obama’s Of Thee I Sing (Knopf) are among them. Now you can sit on the sofa with a five-year-old and experience a digital version of cozy co-reading, still basking in a book’s beautiful illustrations and even hearing the pages turn. The bonus is that, unlike with print books, readers can pull up additional titles, at any time and in any place, as soon as a child says, “I want to read that one, too!”
School librarians who receive commercial pitches know well that e-picture books are not, in fact, brand-new. They’ve been available on the Web and in software packages for many years, dating back at least to the electronic version of Stellaluna published by Living Books in 1997. In addition to Tumblebooks, other options include Scholastic’s BookFlix, One More Story, Big Universe, Disney Digital Books, and MeeGenius. Those services require some form of payment, usually as a subscription, but some ebooks cost nothing. For example, Storyline Online, sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, has many well-known picture books read by celebrities such as Betty White, James Earl Jones, and even Al Gore. And the International Children’s Digital Library, a nonprofit website created eight years ago by researchers at the University of Maryland at College Park, offers nearly 4,500 free books in 54 languages from more than 200 countries, complete with an iPad-friendly interface and an iPhone app.
School libraries: Ready to adopt?
Yet elementary school libraries haven’t been major adopters. According to School Library Journal’s (SLJ) 2011 technology survey, only 29 percent of elementary schools had ebooks in their collections, compared to 64 percent of high schools. Online ebooks have been typically seen as extras, mere drops in the bucket when it comes to a library’s goal of exposing young readers to new stories and high-quality children’s literature.
What if, however, those drops in the bucket formed a tidal wave? School librarians appear to be bracing for a shift: SLJ’s survey showed that a majority of elementary school librarians said they either will (18 percent) or may (46 percent) purchase ebooks in the next two years. States and school districts are starting to make deals with ebook companies to provide yearly subscriptions to thousands of students at a time. Starting this summer, Iowa’s department of education will offer access to BookFlix to any school in the state that wants it. Another sign of change comes from Scholastic’s 2010 reading habits survey, which shows that the youngest respondents—six- to eight-year-olds—were more likely than their older counterparts to have read an ebook. That exposure, says Judy Newman, vice president of Scholastic Book Clubs, may reflect the fact that little children have younger parents who may be introducing them to online content at home.
Checking out books from the school library will start to take on new meaning as more teachers and parents insist on 24/7 access in school and at home. Instead of waiting for library day at school, students can log in at any time (provided they have access to a computer and can find the password that might be on that flier at the bottom of their backpack) and browse digital bookshelves. In some media centers, children may be able to borrow Nooks and iPads to take home. More likely, they will start pestering their parents to let them use theirs.
And it’s not just the small portable devices that’ll change the paradigm. As Hume witnessed in her Missouri school, e-picture books are starting to be coupled with computerized whiteboards, meaning that more children are experiencing literature on big screens. Picture books are already morphing into something much more flexible than those traditional hardbound beauties that have come to symbolize quiet one-on-one moments between an adult and a child.
Coinciding with all these possibilities is the growing urgency centered on the literacy crisis in the United States. Two-thirds of fourth graders aren’t reading at grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that’s administered to a large sample of children across the country every two years and is referred to as our nation’s report card. The numbers are even worse for black and Hispanic children, with roughly 84 percent not reading at grade level. Policy makers and education experts see school librarians and reading specialists as key allies in the battle to improve children’s literacy skills. Researchers such as Stephen Krashen, an advocate of free voluntary reading (see www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6367048.html), and others who study what helps children learn to read, consider providing kids with easy access to an abundance of nonfiction and fiction books of paramount importance. Should libraries turn to electronic picture books to help them provide that access? Will ebooks help or hurt?
When Hume set out last September to experiment with Tumblebooks, she didn’t have much to go on. The pace of change has far outstripped what traditional reading research can tell us. If ebooks are destined to be a significant part of a young child’s early literacy experiences, how exactly should they be used?
What’s an ebook anyway?
Jeremy Brueck, an Akron, OH-based pioneer in children’s digital reading research, spends his days grappling with the cacophony of questions raised by children’s ebooks. With help from grants from the U.S. Department of Education, he’s examining how electronic materials should be used in early childhood programs, including Head Start.
He’s urging librarians, teachers, and parents to pause to get a handle on exactly what they mean when they say “ebook” in the first place. “We have to get out of saying ‘ebooks,’” argues Brueck, who codirects Akron Ready Steps, an early literacy program, and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Akron. “It’s just too broad.”
At one end of the spectrum, there are PDFs of printed titles, while on the other end are electronic resources with animated characters, interactive quizzes, and online games that accompany texts that can be “played” while each spoken word is highlighted on the screen. With such a range of possibilities, “there is not enough known yet to know what best practice is,” Brueck says. Akron Ready Steps is now developing a “quality rating tool” that can help identify the features in an electronic title that will help children learn and become engaged with a story—and which ones are merely bells and whistles. Brueck often targets vendors of ebook subscriptions. “It’s frustrating to see people put money into developing something that isn’t sound from a pedagogical standpoint,” he says.
Brueck is still collecting data, but he’s already concerned about the quality of what’s commercially available. In ratings of nearly 100 ebooks, his research team found very few titles with high marks for their ability to support emerging readers. “Good ebooks for the purposes of literacy instruction for young children are hard to find,” he wrote in a recent post on his blog, Raised Digital.
Help or hindrance?
Consider the myriad ways in which children interact with what, at least for now, people still call ebooks: In William Steig’s Pete’s a Pizza (available from OneMore Story), kids can only hear a narrator read the book—that’s it. The service intentionally avoids any form of animation. In Bruce Degen’s Jamberry (available from Nook Kids), on the left-hand page there’s a cute white duck that quacks when a child touches it. In Robert Munsch’s 50 Below Zero (Tumblebooks), the artwork becomes animated and the words on one page light up as the narrator reads them. Meanwhile, on the opposite page, a character jumps up and down and doors creak open. In Toy Story Read-Along (Disney Digital Book), some pages have no text at all and online games are at the ready. Children watch the story unfold as if seeing clips from the movie. Which, if any, of these features are necessary to enhance engagement and improve a child’s comprehension of the story? Which ones are nothing more than distractions, eye candy, elements that derail the very act of reading?
Ben Bederson, codirector of the International Children’s Digital Library, last year downloaded Toy Story on his iPad for his five-year-old daughter. “She loves it,” he says. With the animation and the sound track, “it feels like it’s alive.”
But Bederson isn’t sold on the Toy Story book for its reading experience. “I felt like it was a slippery slope,” he says. “It was 25 percent book and 75 percent movie.” The way his daughter requested the title was telling: “Could I watch a Toy Story book?” she asked.
Scrambling the context of what makes a book a book is what worries Gabrielle Miller, national executive director for Raising a Reader, a nonprofit organization that distributes picture books to families. She’s not against digital media; she sees it as an important way to increase access in disadvantaged communities. “But without the balance of children holding and touching and learning how to take care of a book, you run the risk of children losing a sense of what books are and how they feel,” Miller says. “You lose the understanding of how they came to be.”
Scholastic’s Newman dismisses anything with 75 percent animation, saying that at that point, “it ceases to be a book.”
Then there’s the question of what will happen to the physical space of school libraries. Could the easy availability of downloadable picture books—whether “static” or packed with animation—render the stacks obsolete and give children fewer reasons to visit? Marsha Hauser, a K–12 librarian for the Edgewood-Colesburg District in rural Iowa, is a proponent of ebooks but also worries that they could eventually crowd out printed books because many libraries can’t afford both print and digital collections. She plans to hold fast to old-fashioned storytime in her elementary school library. “This won’t change library time—not for Mrs. Hauser,” she says.
The most pressing question may be not if but how teachers and librarians should use ebooks. In one of the projects at Akron Ready Steps, teachers are taught to be very intentional when using them with young children. Before starting the electronic part of a reading activity, children are introduced to new vocabulary words. Tumblebooks are used on touchscreen computers with small groups of three or four children, guided by teachers who pause the ebook’s narration so that they can ask young children to predict what will happen next. And they continue to use printed books throughout the day. Local libraries deliver print copies of books that children see on screen.
Pam Oviatt, a literacy coach at Akron Ready Steps, says she has seen the power of ebooks. One time last year, she saw three Head Start boys giggling along with the narrated e-version of Doreen Cronin’s Diary of a Worm (Tumblebooks). A week later, she says, when the boys’ teacher announced that she had received a printed copy from the library, the children rushed to see it. “They would pore over it,” Oviatt said. “And they would say, ‘Oh, I like this page!’ They were connecting what they had read with what they had seen before on the touchscreen.”
To Oviatt, the audio features are “another way of hooking them into new stories.” Plus, ebooks are much easier to use than the Books on Tape of yesteryear, she says, which required listeners to turn the page after hearing a “ding”—something that many children would miss.
Bigger collections, easier access
Some librarians and teachers are intent on using e-picture books simply to increase how many books kids get their hands on. The possibilities of 24/7 access to new content are a big factor for Pamela Jackson, a media specialist at the Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering in North Carolina’s Wake County Public Schools. Children should be able to check out new materials at any time, Jackson says. “I say to my kids, ‘We’re going away for the holiday but the library is still open.’”
Laura Hodges, a principal at Churchville Elementary School in Augusta County, VA, says Tumblebooks are helping her school attain its goal of “embedding technology into instruction,” while saving money on books. Teachers who want to give children access to picture books in their classrooms can make them available on computers without the school having to buy multiple copies of the same book.
Then there are the teachers like Hume in University City, MO, who are motivated by one primary goal—helping struggling readers. When she decided to experiment with ebooks, she had an inkling that the narration and animation might help, but she wanted to be sure. Hume tested her two randomized groups before they started their reading intervention programs to get a baseline of their abilities. And she assesses them on a regular basis, using texts that are different from what the children hear on Tumblebooks or in her traditional small-group reading sessions.
The results are remarkable, she says. The students using Tumblebooks leapt ahead of their peers. Last November, three months after starting the project, the average fluency rate for the Tumblebook group was 23 percentage points higher than that of the control group. Students using the ebooks had moved from a Lexile level of K to M. By January, the entire group of children in the ebook program had achieved fluency to the point that they were “exited” from her pull-out sessions and integrated back into their regular classrooms. It took the control group two months longer. She credits the success to the ebooks’ ability to narrate the story, while allowing students to feel like they’re in control of what and when they read. “When students repeatedly have a strong model of fluency, the more they hear that, the better they get it,” says Hume. The experiment was so successful that her school district decided to pay for Tumblebooks for all four of its elementary schools in the next school year.
Still, Hume isn’t ready to proclaim that all children’s books should go digital. “I think Tumblebooks should be for intervention only,” she says. For confidence-building and self-esteem, she explains, the electronic book is unparalleled. But at some point, she says, you have to stop “the hand-holding.”
Hume’s experience highlights what reading experts have come to recognize about emergent readers in general: you can’t treat them as a monolithic group with one-size-fits-all needs. The same could probably be said of ebooks and how they should be used. But researchers will need to tease out the variables—what works with what kinds of children in what settings under what conditions? Says Brueck of Akron Ready Steps: “There’s a lot of work to be done yet.”
When Mindless TV is Too Hard to Follow
SpongeBob SquarePants is not the sharpest sponge in the ocean, despite his angularity. In fact it’s his amiable cluelessness that probably endears him to a large segment of American TV viewers, who appear to be sustaining a robust market for T-shirts and toddler sippy cups blaring out his bright yellow spongey self.
But just because SpongeBob is a bit bumbling, don’t assume that watching SpongeBob takes no brains. There are some real cognitive challenges involved. Scenes switch every 11 seconds on average. What we see isn’t labeled or explained, nor does it have any connection to what we might expect in a real undersea world (pineapple houses? igloos?). Strange-looking characters arrive with no introduction – it’s assumed we already know Patrick the Starfish and Sandy Cheeks the Squirrel – and use words that have no immediate relationship to the objects around them. They speak in snippets of conversations that require our brains to process concepts that aren’t touchable or concrete: ideas about the future, references to past disagreements, and allusions to the latest American fetishes (in one episode, Sandy’s TV is broadcasting the “eating channel”), often served with a side of snide.
Adults and older children seem to make sense of these rapid changes and abstract references without much mental effort. But this ability to grasp what is going on without clear stage directions isn’t something we’re born with. It takes years to develop the necessary cognitive equipment – the neuronal connections and background knowledge – that are required to make SpongeBob make sense. (Even with all of our mental capacities in full bloom, there’s a case to be made that the show feels like gobbledygook, or a bizarre dream induced by eating dinner too late, but I’ll leave that for the TV critics.)
So how old must a person be to comprehend the show? A widely-noted study released in Pediatrics last week about four-year-old viewers doesn’t attempt to answer that question directly, but it seems to conclude that four is too young. The study found that SpongeBob has a negative impact on four-year-old children’s short-term thinking skills.
The show wasn’t designed for preschoolers – Nickelodeon says it is aiming for ages 6 to 11 – but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming part of the American media diet for children of that age. SpongeBob is perennially at or near the top of cable and broadcast ratings for two- to five-year-old viewers. I’ve seen the show’s popularity firsthand, as a journalist who has interviewed families about their use of TV and as a mother with two girls who, long before they entered kindergarten, would point excitedly to SpongeBob’s image in the supermarket as if greeting a long-lost friend.
Ever since I started digging into the science of early learning and technology, SpongeBob has represented a strange paradox in our society: American adults seem to be ignorant of what young children may be able to handle in real life at age four. Despite the push for public investments in pre-kindergarten programs, good preschools are still not the norm for most children; education policies continue to treat four-year-olds as if they aren’t ready to be challenged. And yet we park those same children in front of cartoons designed for kids more than twice their age and assume they have the cognitive wherewithal to manage the flood of information streaming their way. Actually, we never think of it that way – we tend instead to feel guilty for parking our kids in front of mindless TV that we don’t believe will engage their brains, when in fact this zany TV may overwhelm them.
In the study, psychologists Angeline Lillard and Jennifer Peterson of the University of Virginia randomly assigned 60 four-year-olds to one of three nine-minute activities. One group of children watched a SpongeBob episode, another group watched an episode of Caillou (a slower-paced cartoon that runs on PBS Sprout about a little boy and his family), and a third group was invited to color with crayons. Before the experiment, each group seemed pretty similar. They came from relatively well-off families, and their parents had reported no differences in their behavior or ability to pay attention. There was no significant difference in how much TV they watched at home.
Immediately after watching the shows, the children were asked to perform four tasks that tested their “executive function” – the scientific catchall term for the cognitive work involved in paying attention, focusing on and following through with activities, and being able to hold back impulses. Good executive functioning has been increasingly connected to a child’s ability to do well in school, and scientists have designed some short tests to determine whether children are developing these skills. One, for example, is a “game” called Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders, which requires a level of mental discipline. When the test administrator directs the children to touch their heads, they are supposed to touch their toes, and vice versa. Children listen and react to a repeated series of directives and are scored on their ability to follow the games’ rules. It’s all about paying close attention.
In this test and three others, SpongeBob watchers didn’t do so well. Compared to the other two groups, the SpongeBob audience performed significantly worse on all four tasks. It was as if something had impaired their ability to focus on what they had been asked to do.
Could it have been that SpongeBob was just so hysterically funny that it temporarily rewired their brains? “Everyone keeps saying, maybe the children have just been laughing so much while they’ve seen SpongeBob that they can’t focus,” Lillard said. “Trust me, they weren’t laughing. Their facial expressions looked just the same as when they were watching Caillou: transfixed and serious.”
The researchers didn’t conduct brain scans of the children, so we only have theories about what might be going on inside their minds. We also don’t know whether these same children might have performed differently on these tasks before doing one of those three activities. But one idea that has gained adherents among child development experts is that the content of what young children see on TV matters more than we think. We tend to generalize and treat most TV as interchangeable fare – TV watching is bad, we assert, or good in moderation. But not all TV, and not all kids’ TV, is the same. Can we really talk of watching Sesame Street and watching Tom and Jerry – to cite two classics that date me – as the same activity? The rapidity of scene changes, the nature of the dialogue, the way the characters interact with each other – it may all have some impact on children’s behavior and understanding. In fact, it’s possible that preschoolers’ brains will be quite taxed if they are being asked to comprehend quick scene changes and abstract dialogue without someone making introductions to what they are seeing and why. In the SpongeBob case, where children may have been trying to make sense of the quick pacing, not to mention absorb and understand the hyperactive thought processes of the characters, their brains may have gone into some sort of overdrive that could affect their ability to function a few minutes later.
By contrast, the two other conditions may have been working the children’s brains in a different way. Coloring with crayons requires mental work too, but at a child’s pace. And the Caillou show, which was designed for four-year-olds, looks and feels quite different from SpongeBob. The scenes change less frequently, and the spoken words usually refer to what actually appears on the screen at that moment. In the episode used in the experiment, Caillou’s father helps Caillou learn to swim, and Caillou goes through the motions of swimming while talking up his swimming abilities. The setting – a swimming pool – is something that four-year-olds may have already seen in the real world, and Caillou’s father speaks calmly. Instead of spinning their wheels to figure out what is happening, it’s likely that preschoolers are able to keep track of what is going on, and might be able to do so even if they turned off the volume.
Shalom Fisch, a developmental psychologist and former vice president for program research at Sesame Workshop, has offered what he calls a “capacity theory” for predicting when children learn from television. A show that is designed to guide children without confusing them frees up their brain’s capacity to follow the plot, he says, and, one hopes, helps them learn and retain information they can build on later. When a show taxes that child’s working memory with too many cognitive demands, it may stymie the child’s capacity for learning from that show.
We don’t have enough information to know if Fisch’s capacity theory holds in the Virginia study. It would be fascinating to learn more about how well the SpongeBob watchers could follow what was going on – and how that capacity changes as children age. But there is clearly something tricky about writing shows for preschoolers or designing any kind of activity that strikes a balance between challenging and comprehensible for children in their early years. It’s not easy to step inside the minds of children and see the world through their eyes. Take those SpongeBob sippy cups: who knows what such marketing triggers in a three-year-old child’s mind? Is it pure excitement over the daft character’s bright yellowness and googly eyes? Or are kids vaguely reminded of what their relatives like to watch on TV?
On the flip side, questions and concepts that we think preschoolers cannot grasp may be not only graspable, but sparking deep thoughts – if only there were adults around to help them pull those sparks into utterable sentences and expand on what they discover. New research on mathematics is showing that three- and four-year-olds have more capacity for understanding “number sense” than we give them credit for. Studies of how children learn to read point to the importance of having adults and children talk together about what they are doing, reading, feeling, hearing and seeing. And preschool classrooms that are designed to harness children’s curiosity about nature, books, music or videos have been shown, in study after study, to help children hone their minds for even more challenges.
The shame is that those high-quality environments are few and far between for many children. Although about three-quarters of three- and four-year-olds are cared for outside the home each day, good pre-kindergarten programs are either too expensive for many working families or non-existent. What do those families turn to instead? Too often they resort to mediocre childcare where adults aren’t trained in how to challenge children socially and cognitively – and where TV shows like SpongeBob are broadcast throughout the afternoon, quite possibly taking a toll on their children’s executive functioning at just the age they need to develop those skills for school.
Will the New Federal Competition Foster Innovation and Bring More Attention to the Needs of Parents and Children?
In May, President Obama announced a $500 million federal grant competition to improve early childhood education in America. This competition, modeled on the Race to the Top program that spotlighted the need for public school reform, has the potential to increase the focus on the importance of children’s earliest years of life for healthy cognitive and social development. This comes at a time when Congress and the states are thinking about ways to improve child care.
Will innovations in child care result? Which states are already making changes to their child care systems that may give them a leg up in the competition? What resources will be needed to scale up those innovations?
Join the New America Foundation for a conversation about early learning in child care settings and how dual generational child care policies can support families.
This Thursday, the Early Education Initiative is co-hosting an event with the Workforce and Family Program at New America to shine a spotlight on the need for change in child care and early education. More than 11 million American children spend time in non-parental care each day. Millions of families rely on some aspect of America’s publicly funded programs for their children as they go to work. Most are looking for a high-quality setting in which their children can learn. Yet, current situations fail too many families. The cost of care is too high while salaries for staff are too low. There are gaps in the regulatory oversight and in the quality of care, and there is too little learning for too many children. Moreover, the fiscal pressures on states and the federal government are preventing investments of public support.
Despite the challenges, hope remains that improvements can be made, and policymakers are grappling with tough questions:
What are the biggest problems and priorities that need to be addressed? How should the federal government help? What are states doing that is working? What holes must be patched now in America to ensure dual-generational, quality early education and care that supports both the learning of children and the ability of adults to go to work?
RSVP to attend here at 1899 L Street NW, Suite 400 in Washington, D.C. on October 20 at 12:15 p.m.. We’ve got a terrific line-up of speakers and the day promises to be filled with rich discussion about how to grapple with a plethora of early education needs. We hope to see you there! (For those who are out of town, we’ll be live-streaming the event and providing an archived edition here.)
Director, Early Education Initiative
New America Foundation
Joan Lombardi, Ph.D.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary and Inter-Departmental Liaison for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Barbara Gault, Ph.D.
Executive Director and Vice President
Institute for Women’s Policy Research
Eric Karolak, Ph.D.
Early Care and Education Consortium
Director of Child Care and Early Education
Director, Workforce and Family Program
New America Foundation
A few decades ago, electronic media for young children meant little more than Captain Kangaroo, Mister Rogers, Sesame Street and Saturday morning cartoons. Today children are awash in different kinds of electronic media at a very early age – from DVDs to game-like apps for tablets such as the iPad to interactive children’s books on devices like the Nook. Families are increasingly eager to use interactive media with their children, and some early educators – especially in elementary schools – are curious to see how or if they might help children learn. But teachers and parents struggle to determine whether a product, show or game is really worth a child’s time.
Click Here to listen to the Podcast: Grappling with Guidelines for Technology Use with Youngs Kids
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