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All Edutainment Not Equal

21 Sep, 2005 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Classical Baby

Edutainment may be the darling of TV and home entertainment executives, but experts on childhood learning have mixed opinions on its effectiveness.

Research shows programs such as Nickelodeon's “Dora the Explorer” can help preschoolers build their vocabulary, according to Jane Healy, an educational psychologist, educator and author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds — And What We Can Do About It.

“And if your child wants to watch the same [video] over and over again, that's good,” she said. “It's a sign that they really want to grasp the meaning, like reading Goodnight Moon over and over again.”

Seattle pediatrician Don Shifrin, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Communications, is a big fan of “Hey, Arnold,” also from Nickelodeon.

“It's a beautiful story, and each episode is a great lesson,” he said.

However, even the most commendable edutainment DVD is no substitute for reading to your child.

“What we're always looking for is a teachable moment,” Shifrin said. “That's just not going to happen with something on the screen.”

Healy agrees. Too much TV, even of the edutainment kind, “might habituate [children] to become a stimulus addict and, secondly, deprive them of some of the activities they really need to get smarter.”

Experts say the value of edutainment DVDs is much higher when parents watch the programs with their children instead of simply plopping the kids in front of the TV.

Suppliers increasingly are creating DVDs with more interactivity and parent involvement. HBO Video's Classical Baby was designed for babies and parents to watch together with activities for the family during and after viewing the program.

“These [programs] should be watched with the parents as mentors,” Shifrin said. “Even animatronic dolls that are speaking or telling stories, none of these have the infinite varieties of expressions a parent's face can have, or tones.”

Some experts have harsher words for edutainment videos and programs aimed at babies.

Michael Rich, a physician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston, said there's no value in anyone under 2 years watching TV, regardless of what's playing.

“What is optimal for brain development is three features: connecting and bonding with other human beings; interacting with their physical environment, such as stacking blocks, playing in the mud or getting a Cheerio into their mouth; and creative, problem-solving play,” he said.

Shifrin is even more blunt. “Mozart never watched ‘Baby Mozart,' and Einstein never watched ‘Baby Einstein,’ he said. “We're subject to the demographic targeting of very enterprising companies.”

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