We all know that it's not wise to park children in front of the television for hours. Studies have linked excessive viewing to everything from aggressive behavior and obesity to attention problems. Yet research also reveals that television is a fact of family life: The television set is on an average of 53 hours a week in U.S. homes with preschoolers, and 74 percent of all infants and toddlers have watched television before the age of two, according to a 2003 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. There are a variety of reasons television plays such a large role in homes today, many of which have to do with the demands of balancing work and family life. So, rather than feel guilty about the fact that your little one is watching television, why not take control and help him become a smart viewer?
One person who knows a lot about children's programming is Anne Wood, a mother, a former teacher, and the creator of such shows as Teletubbies and Boohbah. As a teacher and a parent, Wood recognized the deficit of high-quality, nonviolent television shows for young children and decided to do something about it. "I saw no reason why children's programming couldn't be of the same quality as a good book. It should encourage young ones to explore and be curious," says Wood.
As the creative director of Ragdoll Limited, a London-based children's television company, Wood's mission is to continue to provide developmentally appropriate programming to meet the needs of families with young children. "Producers of children's television have the responsibility to create shows that reflect the world from a child's eyes," says Wood. While programmers have become more sensitive to the learning styles and interests of young children, parents have the responsibility to stay informed about what and how long their children are watching. The editors of Scholastic's Parent & Child asked Wood for her best advice on how to choose worthwhile shows for young ones and draw out their educational benefits.
Parent & Child: What can children learn from watching television?
Anne Wood: I don't think of television as a teacher; it shouldn't be used to accelerate learning. Rather, if done well, it's something that can engage the child's imagination in a way that he can then transfer to his play. Creative play is such an important part of learning and growing up, and it's a marvelous thing to see a young child pretending to be his favorite character or making up songs or games.
Good-quality television can also help your child develop critical thinking skills and empathy. Children get to see others like themselves and can express their feelings about that. I remember observing a 4-year-old girl watching a scene in Boohbah, in which children were bringing gifts to the story people. She said, "That little girl is black, like me. But she's not me." It was an important realization for her to be able to make.
P&C: Should you be watching television along with your child?
Wood: Sometimes. It's great to have sharing time, and you can learn a lot about your child while watching how she responds to her favorite programs. Being able to cuddle up and watch television together is very calming, and it is a tremendous bonding experience for you and your child. But the reality is that parents also need time to do other things. And that's a service that good children's television, videos, and DVDs can provide. You get the security of knowing that your child is viewing something safe if you're unable to watch with her.
P&C: What is the best resource for finding appropriate children's shows?
Wood: Stick with the reputable children's networks in your area. Parenting magazines often review and suggest worthwhile programming, but always trust your own instinct about whether a show is right for your child.
P&C: There is an abundance of children's programming out there. What should I be looking for to make the right choices?
Wood: Television should be designed for children at different ages and stages. For toddlers and young preschoolers, programs should be slow-paced. The background should be clear, and the action should take place in the foreground of the screen. If there's too much going on at once, it will be difficult for your child to follow.
By around age 5, children are able to evaluate and decode television images a bit more quickly. Children's thinking develops through pattern-making, so look for repetitive actions and images. For example, in one scene, a particular character may greet your child, then decide to take a walk. This allows your child to learn concepts like "far away" and "close at hand" through the language of gesture and movement.
Young children need opportunities to consider the meaning of what they're seeing, and a chance to talk back to the characters. Programs should always allow ample time for your child to respond. The younger the child, the more time she needs to do that. Shows should help children anticipate and predict what might happen next.
People sometimes say to me, apologetically, something like, "My daughter is 4 years old and she doesn't watch Teletubbies anymore." Well, that's a good thing. We didn't make it for 4 year olds; we made it for 2 year olds! She's outgrown that program, and that's wonderful!
P&C: How can parents draw out the educational benefits of television?
Wood: I think the educational benefits manifest themselves, if you listen carefully and watch your child as he watches television, to discover what's exciting him. For example, if your toddler loves Clifford, the big, red dog, then it's lovely to suggest that you go find red things together. It's not about drilling them on colors or numbers. It's about sharing the experience together in a spirit of fun and playfulness.
Allow your child to get up and move around during the show, too. Research has demonstrated that children don't simply sit still when watching television. A lot of the time they walk away or play with their toys, yet they're still engaged with the program. That's why I was inspired to create Boohbah, a show about physical movement. It encourages children to run and jump about. JoJo's Circus also encourages movement.
If your child invites you to sing or dance along with him, of course join in the fun. But know when to sit on the sidelines, too. There are times when your child is much happier if you just watch what he can do, rather than do it with him. Let him show off for you. Build his confidence by applauding and saying, "That's great!"
P&C: Kids often want to watch the same thing over and over. Is that something to worry about?
Wood: Young children find comfort in watching familiar shows. It's reassuring for a toddler or preschooler to know what's coming next — that when this happens, that always follows — and it helps to build prediction skills. It's a stage they will grow out of quickly, so it's okay to let your child watch a well-loved video a few times in a row.
However, I do believe you need to put limits on television viewing. You can say something like, "We're going to watch our favorite show now, but when it's over, we're going to turn it off." Help your child understand that a show is finished when the characters say goodbye. A little bit of television is fine when paired with other learning experiences like reading, theater, music, and physical activity.
Must-See Preschooler TV
The Backyardigans (Nickelodeon): Five spirited animal friends rely on their imaginations — and musical expression — to embark on fantastic adventures in their own backyards.
Clifford's Puppy Days (PBS): Even as a puppy — he fits inside Emily Elizabeth's backpack — Clifford shows that you can have a big heart and lots of friendships no matter what size you are.
JoJo's Circus (Disney): JoJo, a young circus clown in training, invites viewers to stand up and sing, dance, and move along with her as she has adventures galore.
Koala Brothers (Disney): Two koala bears, Frank and Buster, send a strong message about friendship and community as they roam the Australian outback to help others in need.
Maya & Miguel (PBS): The wacky neighborhood adventures of these bilingual city twins promote pride, respect for others, and tolerance.
Miffy and Friends (Noggin): Based on the award-winning book series by Dick Bruna, little bunny Miffy teaches preschoolers about discovery and exploration with unbridled enthusiasm and limitless energy.
PEEP! and the Big Wide World (Discovery Kids): This show teaches science to preschoolers and nurtures curiosity as Peep and his friends explore the world around their pond.
Thomas & Friends (PBS): Thomas and his rail-yard friends Percy, Henry, Edward, and the whole Island of Sodor gang are back in new episodes that explore themes of friendship, humor, collaboration, and problem solving.
Check your local listings for times and channels.