THE BLOG
02/01/2016 12:02 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2017

Missing the message: What do children really learn from educational media?

This blog post was written by our wonderful postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Rebecca Dore.

"It's a twain," almost 3-year-old Amanda said when I asked her to name the picture. But Amanda thought that trains were magical and only existed in Thomas the Tank Engine videos. How was she supposed to know? She'd never been on a train or seen a train in real life, so it makes perfect sense for her to assume these smiling, talking, autonomous creatures had no analogue outside of the fictional island of Sodor.

But sometimes we do want children to expect new information from their media to also be true in the outside world. Take Dora the Explorer for example: Dora is a wealth of information! She teaches kids about problem solving, friendship, and even how to speak Spanish!

But wait, Dora also has a backpack that can talk and a monkey friend who wears bright red boots. She has to solve a riddle for a troll in order to cross a bridge and in another episode saves a trapped mermaid. So how are kids supposed to know that they should expect Dora's problem solving skills to apply to real life, but not expect a troll to come out to play a game every time you drive over the interstate?

This question of what information children take from fictional worlds to the real world is one that child development researchers have been grappling with for years. A 2014 study highlights the issue. The researchers showed preschoolers an episode of Dora and then asked them whether they thought the new information in the show was real or "just pretend." More than 75% of 3-year-olds said that the Spanish words in the show weren't real, or that they weren't sure if they were real. Not surprisingly, children who said the Spanish words weren't real were less likely to learn them! A quote in the article's title reflects the problem: "Vámonos means go, but that's made up for the show." Fortunately, older preschoolers were better able to recognize that the educational content in the show would apply to the real world and learned the Spanish words better, but even 5-year-olds sometimes doubted the reality of the information, obstructing their learning.

So what is a concerned parent to do? Ban Dora and Thomas the Train from our children's media diet? Certainly not. The most important message for parents and teachers to take away from this research is that we shouldn't expect media to be doing all the work for us.

Why would a 3-year-old think vámonos was a useful word if she'd never heard anyone use it in real life? Why would a child who has never seen a train in the real world expect one to exist? Here is where we come in. Take a trip to see a train! Link it up to Thomas. Or barring that, if we talk to children about the messages and content they encounter in their media, we can help them make them make that leap. Tell them that vámonos is a word in a language called Spanish and that trains are a nice way to travel even though there isn't one to take to Grandma and Grandpa's.

Children's media has come a long way, but the TV screen just can't educate our kids on it's own - we have to help. And when we do, we help children figure out what information from Dora is real (Hola means hello in Spanish!) and what information is not (Trolls and mermaids - only in your imagination). As usual our recommendation is to talk with your kids - about their television experiences, about their visit to the dentist, and even about "twains!"