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Getting the Most Out of Screen Time: The PBS KIDS Approach to Learning Through Media

**Sara DeWitt**, PBS KIDS Digital, Arlington, Virginia

Published on December 17, 2020


This article provides an overview of the PBS KIDS production process and discusses how the network approaches the creation of educational media for children in this digital, multiplatform age. Multiple research studies show that children can benefit from high-quality video and digital games, especially when parents also engage with that media through co-viewing, co-play, or conversation. Based on this research, the article outlines PBS’s recommendations for how parents and educators can best promote learning through media.

It’s hard to remember, in today’s age of always-on connected devices and thousands of media choices, that there was ever a time when there were very few media options for young children. At the advent of television, there were just a few programs truly created with the child audience in mind, and they were primarily designed to entertain rather than educate. In 1968 and 1969, two unique truly innovative programs premiered on the nation’s first public television stations throughout the county. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street were to become not only cultural milestones in the United States, watched by millions of children, they revolutionized the public’s understanding of how television could be a positive influence in the lives of children. Those two programs predated the creation of PBS–the Public Broadcasting Service–but they had a significant impact on both its establishment and its approach to content development for children.

The creators of these programs, Fred Rogers and Joan Ganz Cooney, respectively, were visionaries who brought a child development perspective to media, recognizing that a television screen had incredible power to connect with and educate children. But their influence did not stop with television; they laid the groundwork for a research and production process that could guide newer kinds of media and technology as they evolved. They recognized that children would not only learn from their shows, but then take those lessons and ideas into the world around them. They laid the foundation for generations of producers, storytellers, and game developers to educate using the forms of media available to children today.

Perhaps most important, they set a new bar for what “screen time” could achieve. In 2001, researchers interviewed 570 teens who had taken part in a summative research study about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street when they were 5 years old. Commonly referred to as “the recontact study,” the researchers found that teens who had watched these two shows as preschoolers had a number of positive outcomes, including better grades, more time spent reading, and less aggression (Anderson et al., 2001). The long-term positive impacts of programs like these prove that all screen time is not the same.

I joined PBS in 1999, as one half of the then two-person team dedicated to a PBS website for children (see Figure 1). Amazingly, Fred Rogers himself had an influence on this initiative within PBS; he wanted to bring his much-visited Neighborhood to the online space, recognizing the opportunity the Internet provided for children to actually interact with the characters and stories in his program. He also recognized that children were going to be using the Internet within their own lives, and they needed spaces that were designed specifically with their abilities, interests, and social–emotional needs in mind.

Figure 1. The PBS KIDS Website Today

One of the things I find so remarkable about Fred Rogers’ approach is that he saw new media forms as additive, new opportunities to help children learn about the world around them. He was very clear that children need in-person conversations and hands-on experiences to grow and thrive, and he also recognized the possibilities for “active play” that came with new technology. In an interview with Family Computing in 1985, Fred Rogers said, “We have to help give children tools, building blocks for active play. And the computer is one of those building blocks. No computer will ever take the place of wooden toys or building blocks. But that doesn’t mean they have to be mutually exclusive” (Wallace, 1985, p. 32).

This is the approach my colleagues and I at PBS KIDS still take to the creation of media, regardless of the platform and technology being used. We believe in the power of media to educate, inspire, and inform young children. Our approach has also evolved: We know that media itself has the power to inspire conversations and interactions with the grown-ups in children’s lives. And we believe that media can provide a jumping-off point for real world explorations and learning.

In this article, I will provide a high-level overview of the PBS KIDS production process and explain our approach to creating educational media for children. Next, I will share research findings about how children can benefit from high-quality media. Finally, I will outline our recommendations, based on this research, for how parents and educators can best promote learning through media.

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