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How Kids’ Television Inspires a Lifelong Love of Science

Television shows for preschoolers are teaching a whole new audience about science—their parents

smithsonian.com

When you’re a parent in the thick of raising young children, the days go by in such a blur that it’s hard to remember what your kids learned when. But Trina Helfrich, a mother of two, has a vivid memory of the day her son Henry, who was around four, learned one of his first science and math lessons.

The TV had been tuned to “Sid the Science Kid,” a show for children ages three to six. The theme of the episode was measurement. The children on the show—puppet-like creatures created via 3-D animation—were learning about how all sorts of objects can help them measure and compare the sizes of large things.  One of the main characters, a preschool-aged boy named Gerald, lit up. He jumped to the floor and suggested using his own body as a measuring tool. “Let’s measure in Geralds!” he exclaimed. The teacher on the show, Teacher Susie, smiled encouragingly. Soon the TV class was creating life-size paper cutouts of themselves and measuring the whole room. “The rug is three Geralds long!” Gerald exclaimed.

Watching the show, Trina’s son Henry was enthralled. “Immediately my son dropped to the floor and said: ‘Measure Henrys! Measure Henrys!,’” she recalled in a podcast interview about the show. “We ended up making a life-size Henry, on the floor on a piece of paper.” In addition to employing their customized tool for measuring things around the house, they sent the cutout to Trina’s brother so that he could see how big Henry had grown.

For years, people have worried about television having a negative impact on little kids.  Books such as The Plug-In Drug and Endangered Minds ask whether TV, as a monolithic entity, is doing something “toxic” to children’s developing brains. Meanwhile, science is not often considered a preschool subject.  The National Science Teachers Association, for example, does have a blog for Pre-K to second-grade science, but the website is organized by sections that start with elementary school.

“Sid the Science Kid,” a production of the Jim Henson Company and now broadcast on PBS stations around the country, is overturning both of these assumptions. Other television and digital media programs for children are making the same bet. The science, technology, math and engineering subjects—known as STEM—are showing up in many children’s TV programs, including “Curious George” (science and engineering), “Peep and the Big Wide World” (science), “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That” (science), “Dinosaur Train” (life science and literacy) and “Sesame Street” (math and a new science curriculum that revolves around scraggly bearded Murray Monster and his science experiments).

Meanwhile, child-development experts stress that children need to be able to learn using all of their senses, instead of just watching something unfold in front of their eyes. They learn best, according to guidelines from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, “when they can safely encounter and explore many interesting things in their environment.” Shouldn’t children be outside observing ants in the crevices of the sidewalk and testing what happens when a chocolate bar is left on mommy’s car seat?

The creators of these shows would agree. What they want to test is the “both/and” hypothesis—the idea that children may be able to learn and get excited about doing these hands-on activities by watching characters talk about and engage in science first. Already, evidence from academic studies shows that children can gain STEM knowledge from well-designed preschool TV shows. A recent analysis of more than 100 studies of “Sesame Street,” the gold standard of educational programming, showed significant positive effects on children’s cognitive skills, including learning numeracy and concepts from environmental science.

Now the question is whether TV shows, and increasingly, digital media and games, can also help children learn science by sparking hands-on exploration. To test this idea, researchers are asking whether shows like “Sid the Science Kid” could lead parents and teachers to offer more chances for real-world experiments and more “science talk” with kids. Studies show that many parents are, in fact, in the same room with their young children, and even watching with them in a growing number of cases, when these shows are on TV or pulled up on YouTube.

Could it be that these adults might be the ones to learn the most from tuning in?

“Parents and teachers are nervous about science,” says Elizabeth Bachrach, senior research associate for the Goodman Research Group, which has evaluated the impact of a series of “Sid” episodes on children and adults. “They think that if their child asks a question, they won’t be able to answer it without a science background.”  

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