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Sesame Street Plants Seed of Achievement

Educational television prepares kids for school, says study

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 10, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Tiny tots who sing along with Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street are more prepared to do well in school than kids who stick to cartoons, a University of Texas study has found.

A three-year study shows benefits for young children who watched shows like Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, 3-2-1, Reading Rainbow and Sesame Street for even a half-hour a week, says Aletha Huston, a child educational specialist and co-author of the study, published in the latest issue of Child Development.

Compared with their peers who watched no educational television, the children who watched educational shows scored an average of five to seven points higher on tests that charted recognition of letters, words, shapes and colors.

"This means they're further along in knowing words and having number skills, which should be an advantage when they start school," Huston says. "Previous studies show that kids who watched educational television [as children] continue to do better in high school. It may be that the way they enter school -- being more prepared -- sets them on a different path."

Huston says despite the many studies of the television-watching habits of children, she and her colleagues "wanted to look at younger children because television has possibilities for reaching young children when they don't have other resources to learning. I think we would have found these [positive] effects the same even in one-year-olds, had they been in the study."

The researchers checked the television-watching habits of about 200 children, ages 2 to 7, over the three years by meeting with their parents twice a year and asking them to report on their children's television watching.

They found the children watched a weekly average of one to three hours of educational programs, 10 to 16 hours of general audience programs and a five to eight hours of cartoons.

Children ages 2 and 3 logged the most time watching general audience shows, an average of 25 hours a week, mainly because they were home with their television-watching parents.

"Little kids get a lot of secondary viewing time because their parents are watching television. They are being exposed to a lot of TV," Huston says.

At the end of the three years, the children took achievement tests to measure their knowledge.

In addition to finding higher scores for children who had watched educational programs when they were 2 or 3 years old compared with children who watched no educational television, the researchers found that children who watched many hours of entertainment programs and cartoons had lower test scores than those who watched fewer hours of such programs.

The children all were from low-to-moderate income families because they had been underrepresented in previous research, Huston says. The researchers also considered environmental factors, including the kinds of toys the children had, how often the parents talked to their children and took them on learning expeditions, such as to the library or the zoo.

"The benefits of educational television were above and beyond those controls," Huston says.

"For young children, programs that have the objective of teaching basic skills in an entertaining way can have a positive effect. I don't think it's an unusual finding," says Harris Cooper, chairman of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and author of the book The Battle Over Homework.

Huston, who is the founder of the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children (CRITC), says her findings should alert parents to the possibilities of using television in a positive way for their children.

"TV is one tool in a parents' catalogue that can be quite useful," she says.

What To Do: Tips for parents on television for your children can be found at Child Development Institute. And, to see Bert and Ernie and their tricks, go to Sesame Street.

SOURCES: Interviews with Aletha C. Huston, Ph.D., professor of child development, department of human ecology, University of Texas, Austin; Harris Cooper, Ph.D., chairman, psychological sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia; September/October 2001 Child Development
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