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

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.”  

“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.”  

Brenneman also gets tickled hearing stories like that of the “Henry” measurement system created by Trina Helfrich’s son. The measurement episode, in fact, appears to have struck a chord with more than just those two. Recently Brenneman heard about a father coming into a preschool that had been using the “Sid” curriculum. He asked, half-jokingly: “What are you doing in here? My child is coming home asking for a ruler.”

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