Helping parents effectively support their child’s science learning with educational media

kid and parent playing with blocks

This is an article by Sarah Nixon Gerard, an education researcher at SRI Education.

kid and parent playing with blocks
Photo credit: Burt Granofsky, EDC

Examining the positive effects of educational media on young children’s understanding of science and engineering

Children are naturally interested in science and engineering from an early age. A solid understanding of science concepts and science and engineering practices can prepare young children for success in school and foster a lifelong love of inquiry. Yet research conducted by Education Development Center (EDC) and SRI Education shows that half of parents of young children do not feel confident in their ability to support their children’s science learning (fewer than areas like reading or math). Our research found that while parents want their children to understand science, they are unsure as to how they can help their children learn.

Educational media has been around for decades, and there is evidence that quality media programming can be effective in helping children learn. However, traditional programming had limited interactivity and tended to stay in one medium (e.g. broadcast television). Recent work funded by the U.S. Department of Education through the Ready To Learn Initiative seeks to take advantage of technological advances to increase interactivity and provide families with transmedia resources that allow children and caregivers to engage with characters and concepts across media formats (e.g. shows, games, apps, and offline hands-on activities).

Most recently, those of us on the Ready To Learn Initiative evaluation team, led by EDC and SRI Education, explored whether educational science content delivered via tablet computers, combined with hands-on activities and guidance for parents and caregivers to engage in their children’s science learning, would result in gains in children’s understanding of science and engineering. Before we discuss the findings, let’s take a look at this collaborative effort in more detail.

Ready To Learn: Understanding how technology can support children’s learning

For over two decades, the Ready To Learn Initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, has combined the efforts of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS KIDS to enable producers, researchers, local public media stations and other partners to create multiplatform content that facilitates learning experiences. Since 2006, EDC and SRI Education have partnered to serve as the evaluators of this initiative.

Content created under Ready To Learn span a variety of mediums such as broadcast television, interactive digital games, mobile apps, and hands-on activities targeted at young children and their families, especially those who live in low-income communities. More than 15 million children watch Ready To Learn-funded science programming, making the initiative one of the widest-reaching educational programs in the country. For the 2015–2020 grant cycle, Ready To Learn is focused on supporting the creation of science and literacy-based content, including The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! (Cat in the Hat), focused on science and engineering content and practices.

Evaluating The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!

In 2019, EDC and SRI conducted a study to test whether providing young children and their families with science and engineering-focused digital media leads to improvements in children’s science and engineering knowledge and practices.

We designed a randomized control trial, or RCT, randomly assigning half of families to a “treatment” group with tablets with Cat in the Hat media and half of families to a “control” group with tablets without Cat in the Hat media, instructed to look for educational media.

Our research found that the children who were provided the Cat in the Hat materials demonstrated statistically significantly stronger early science and engineering skills than children who were not provided these resources. Children’s science and engineering skills were assessed by a validated digital preschool assessment of a broad range of physical science and engineering concepts and practices, and by having them engage in hands-on activities such as deciding the most suitable material for a bridge or predicting how different surfaces impact how quickly an object slides down an incline. The children’s performance on the hands-on assessments provides evidence that access to the Cat in the Hat educational media can result in children increasing their ability to engage in hands-on, real-world, science and engineering activities.

In the words of one of the parents whose child participated in the study:

One thing I was never really interested in doing in my household was science, just because I didn’t know how, as a mom, how to bring that into the mix with young kids. I didn’t know how to make it more home-based and family fun. So I would avoid science projects or science-related things. And so, like, I learned through playing the [Cat in the Hat] games with her or watching the videos with her, that there are other ways to make it kid-friendly and it still relates back to science. I didn’t realize that like, building a slide or building a bridge could relate back to science.

Another parent shared that:

She’s always liked to build and everything. But now it’s more not just building but seeing the differences in the buildings she makes. Is one stronger or not? She’s questioning — why one fell and the other one didn’t. So she’s looking at the structure of the buildings she makes.

In addition, access to the resources had a clear positive impact on children’s interest and engagement in science. Parents in the treatment group rated their children’s excitement about science higher than parents in the control group. These parents also reported that children engaged in more science activities over the past month than control-assigned parents.

The study provides evidence that interacting with high-quality media can empower parents to help their children learn, even if parents aren’t experts in the subject matter, by supporting both digital and hands-on engagement in science and engineering activities. Further, the results provide exciting evidence of children’s ability to transfer learning from a digital environment to a real-world setting. By providing parents with well-curated digital media and ideas for transferring those concepts into hands-on activities, science media can meet a real need — and provide a confidence boost for — all parents who want to be more involved in their child’s learning.

The full study can be downloaded on the SRI website.

SRI Education, a division of SRI International headquartered in Menlo Park, California, is tackling the most complex issues in education and learning to help students succeed. We work with federal and state agencies, school districts, major foundations, nonprofit organizations, and international and commercial clients to address risk factors that impede learning, assess learning gains, and use technology for educational innovation.

This material is based upon work supported by the Department of Education under Corporative Agreement No. U295A150003, CFDA No. 84.295A, Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Education Development Center, Inc.

Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Education Development Center, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or the U.S. Department of Education.

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