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Television and Learning

Dear Debi,
Lately I’ve been hearing terrible things about TV and how bad it is for children. I have a 3-year-old who is starting to notice TV now, and I’m concerned that it can be a distraction from learning literacy skills. Is there any benefit to watching TV or videos?
Yessica Campbell, Mother of a 3-year-old
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Establish limits on what you watch
  • Watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day
  • View TV together with kids
  • Talk back! Good TV should be interactive
  • Find related books & activities
Expert Advice
Tessa Jolls
Tessa Jolls
Media literacy educator, mother of two
TV is a tool, just like any other media. We can use TV to help our children get ready to read, by calling their attention to colors and shapes and sounds. We can teach them the difference between ads and television shows, so that they start learning the difference between content that’s trying to tell them something versus sell them something. Such critical thinking is a lifelong learning skill. TV is a great teacher, especially if we help our kids interpret what they see and hear.

To me, “good” TV is something that is age-appropriate for the child and that responsibly furthers the child’s development by showing positive characters and values. For preschoolers, shows that are research-based and intentionally teaching the children are probably the best bets. But regardless, ask yourself, “Do I trust the people who made this show to be good teachers for my child?” Make sure the answer is “yes” or don’t allow your child to watch.

You really can make TV and video viewing fun for the whole family. First, watch the ratings. They’re not foolproof, but they can help you make sure that a young child won’t be uncomfortable with violent or sexy scenes. Second, be open to new experiences. I have found that I really have enjoyed some of the shows that my children liked, such as “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street,” and that they liked some of the classics that I liked, such as “Charlotte’s Web.” We made TV time a sharing time and we bought books or stuffed toys that related to our favorite TV shows and videos and played with them, too.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two hours maximum of television viewing per day. Certainly, parents need to keep in mind that watching other kids on TV exercise or play with each other is very different from having our own kids play outside or socialize. Balance is the key.

The most important thing to remember when using television as a learning tool is that you’re in charge of the clicker. If you’re watching a video, you can stop it to discuss something funny or scary, or a behavior that you think is a great example. Sometimes when you know that your child is dealing with a particular issue, like whining excessively or sharing toys, you can discuss a TV scene that shows these behaviors and discuss the characters’ choices and feelings. Media provides a great opportunity to discover such issues in a safe way, and to reveal the child’s own feelings about what is taking place on the screen.

Interaction shows encourage children to be active viewers and to participate. Often, these shows encourage children to call out letters or to learn rhymes or to clap in time to music. These are all excellent pre-reading skills. The more a child is taught to notice and discern, the more the child will be ready to read.
Child Care provider Comments
David Palomares
David Palomares
Father of three children
You have to be selective about what you’re watching. You can’t simply plop kids in front of the TV and expect that they’ll learn anything by just sitting there. If we’re watching one of his shows, like “Thomas the Tank Engine,” we’ll talk about how that relates back to himself. He always seems to find some kind of connection to his own life.
Alma Martinez
Alma Martinez
Child care provider for 10 years
My grandson likes videos with lots of visual stimulation. After he watches a video, I like to extend the learning process with him by singing songs with him. We’ll sing a song relating to one of the videos to reinforce what he’s just seen.
Diane Ferguson
Diane Ferguson
Child care provider for 3 years
I try to illustrate what’s happening in the video. For example, if they’re learning the words and concepts for “large” and “small,” I physically show them what that means. I might show them two stuffed animals, one large and one small.

Interactive TV Play Featured Activity:
Interactive TV Play
TV/Videos to Encourage Literacy Featured Video:
TV/Videos to Encourage Literacy
Topic: Early Learning Areas
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