How Kids’ Television Inspires a Lifelong Love of Science

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

(TM & © 2009 The Jim Henson Company)

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“Sid the Science Kid, which originated with KCET, a public television station in Los Angeles, was designed to overturn that thinking. If adults could see that science doesn’t mean having all the answers, they might feel more comfortable introducing their kids to scientific concepts. Instead of being expected to know the answer to “Why is the sky blue?” parents and teachers could add value by simply saying “That’s a great question,” and then using online and offline resources to find out.

“Sid the Science Kid” is one of the first preschool shows to be explicit about teaching science and spurring children to think of themselves as scientists. The characters in the show, which is based on a curriculum called Preschool Pathways to Science, take notes on decaying fruit, peering at and smelling the differences between brown and yellow bananas. They figure out how to lift heavy objects with pulleys. They wonder what would happen if they didn’t brush their teeth.

On the PBS Kids website, parents can peruse a library of science investigations created for each of the show’s 66 episodes. The investigations are designed to be easily done at home, with on-hand materials. PBS and “Sid” advisers have been attending community science fairs to show these investigations to parents and children. A science curriculum based in part on “Sid the Science Kid” recently became a part of Florida’s Hillsborough County School District voluntary Pre-K summer program.

To determine whether the show was having its intended impact on teachers, parents and child-care workers, Bachrach’s group conducted several studies. One was a survey of more than 3,000 child-care professionals who viewed the “Sid” videos and received training on how to use them in classrooms. Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported they were more interested, confident and comfortable doing science activities with preschool-aged children after the trainings than they were before.

Bachrach’s group also conducted an experiment with 211 families in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Boston. She split the families into three groups: One group was asked to watch five episodes of “Sid,” another group was asked to watch five episodes and visit the “Sid” website, and a third group was told to maintain their typical TV viewing and web usage. Parents were asked to keep diaries of their daily activities, and researchers visited the children at the end of the experiment to play with them and examine differences in their actions. Results showed that after children watched “Sid,” they were more likely to ask questions about how things worked. The parents in the viewing and website groups said the show expanded their definitions of science and helped them realize how many science activities they were already conducting with their children.

Another research group called SRI International is also zooming in on teachers using “Sid” content in an eight-week science education program. Typically, when teachers in preschool classrooms mention science at all, they tend to resort to telling children facts. On the “Sid” program, however, Teacher Susie does the opposite, focusing instead on scientific methods, such as questioning, observing and analyzing. Using video recordings of teachers in the classroom, researcher Ximena Dominguez and her colleagues at SRI hope to examine whether Susie is an effective model for teaching teachers how to talk with children about science.

This emerging evidence on the teaching implications of a show like “Sid” is raising a host of new questions on how to use TV content wisely during the preschool or kindergarten day. Evidently, there is value to children and teachers seeing science on-screen. But how much watching, for example, do children need to do? 

Possibly not more than a few minutes, according to Rachel Schechter, a recent doctoral graduate student at Tufts University. Her dissertation focused on whether the use of one brief “Sid” song—about a pulley—might be enough to help children learn. “I was expecting that the children wouldn’t learn from the song by itself,” she said. But, in fact, even with a few minutes of video pictures and a song clip, “children actually learned a lot,” she said, and were able to actively explain how a pulley worked. 

These insights may make one wonder if the full-length show is better for adults than kids, since it gives adults someone to watch over time—a model for how to talk with children about science. As Schechter said, “A lot of people have come to me and said, with something as simple as talking about a pulley, I never thought of that as science!” 

“I’ve been amazed,” echoed Kimberly Brenneman, an author of the curriculum behind “Sid the Science Kid” and an assistant research professor at Rutgers University. “I hear many stories from adults about how much they get out of the show—as much as I hear them say that their students get something out of it.”  


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