Playing Along: Why Parents and Educators Need to Use & Discuss Media With Children
2.14.12 | Turns out sitting your 5-year-old in front of the PBS Kids website while you make dinner or encouraging your fourth grader to play “Math Missions” on your iPad after school is not necessarily enough to ensure they learn from the experience.
So say researchers of a new report, “The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning Through Joint Media Engagement.” The report is part of a new research effort by The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the LIFE Center—a coalition of researchers from University of Washington, Stanford, and SRI International that examines how adults are using newer forms of media with children. The report offers guidance to parents, educators and media producers on how to better take advantage of the opportunities new media offers for learning.
In the early days of children’s media (think “Sesame Street”), researchers discovered that kids who watched and talked about the shows with their parents learned more from the show than the kids who were watching alone.
Today, of course, kids are doing a lot more than just watching television. In fact, new data from Nielsen last week shows that TV-watching time is down among 12-34 year olds, though online and mobile viewing is up. Kids are using mobile devices on the bus, playing video games with siblings, using iPads at museums, playing on laptops with grandparents, adding numbers on desktops in math class, and watching videos in the backseat of the family car.
And today, with more parents in the workforce, many parents are just too busy to sit down with our kids and their media. In fact, parents are often grateful for the breaks new media affords to make dinner or a phone call, or return an email. The New York Times recently called the iPhone “the most effective tool in human history to mollify a fussy toddler, much to the delight of parents reveling in their newfound freedom to have a conversation in a restaurant or roam the supermarket aisles in peace.”
And as we do this, many of us assuage our own guilt, by choosing media content for our children that we believe to be educational—which, in fact, it may be. But this research affirms what child development experts have said for years: Kids learn the most from back-and-forth interactions with adults – from having someone who can answer their questions, reinforce the value of what they are learning, and show that their ideas, questions and contributions matter.
So media experiences are the most valuable when they’re social. And kids’ media is social a lot more than we think, according to Lori Takeuchi, research director at the Cooney Center and one of the authors of the report. Takeuchi was interviewed in a recent podcast at the New America Foundation’s Early EdWatch blog.
“A lot of people tend to think about the way people use media as a very individual experience,” she said. “People playing video games, you think of the one-on-one experience of the child playing the video game. It’s actually a truly social experience.”
As the authors note in the report’s introduction: “When people comment on Facebook posts, mount a collective quest in Azeroth, or report a tweet, they are clearly doing things together.” But notably, authors say the most important learning opportunities may exist outside the content of a video game, or a TV show, for example, but in the social interactions that take place during the play—- like when kids ask questions or showoff what they are seeing and doing. They write “One of the most basic senses in which all media are social is that when people are engaged with them—perhaps as individuals—other co-present people are often drawn to get involved.”
These researchers are looking to better understand whether there are ways to design media that is more social and takes advantage of these opportunities for people to learn together. They are asking: “How we can we learn how to design outside of the interface?”
For educators, this means that taking advantage of new media tools in the classroom requires doing a whole lot more than simply rolling in the TV for passive viewing, Takeuchi says. Educators need to do what many do instinctually – stop, ask questions, point out what the children should be paying attention to, and help kids make connections between the content on screen and what else they are learning in the classroom. Educators and parents should be thinking about how to encourage kids to participate, to retell parts of the story, or to tie things that happen on screen or in the game to kids’ own lives.
“You really need to provide a lot of scafolding for children in order for media to be effective in classrooms,” Takeuchi said.
The report is worth a read for educators and parents. It includes case studies from researchers and designers about lessons they’ve learned from projects that aim to examine how media can better encourage interactive learning experiences. [Including a case study about the PBS Ready to Learn study I wrote about last year.]
The takeway for me is a reminder that as much as we may need it, engaging our kids with media should not be our cue to take a break. Children need our guidance here as much, if not more, than they do everywhere else.
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