Learning by example

Story by Derek Langhorn


Dr. Sarah Roesberry Lytle
Dr. Sarah Roesberry Lytle

Dr. Sarah Roseberry Lytle, during a recent talk about children and brain development at Whatcom Community College, recalled the words of Mr. Rogers: “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.”

Lytle, director of the translation, outreach and education division at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS), came to Whatcom Oct. 23 to discuss “Mediating Media: Best Practices for Using Screen Media with Young Children.”

Lytle earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and Spanish at the University of Notre Dame  in Indiana and a doctorate in developmental psychology at Temple University in Pennsylvania. Her research has been focused on social interactions of children and toddlers, social cues, and how screen media affects children, said Jessica Sankey, member of the Whatcom Early Learning Alliance.

Lytle has also researched how screen media such as television, computers and video games can affect children, and how the screen can be used to benefit a child’s development.

“The more we can expose children to high quality early experiences, the better the outcome. One of the core aspects of quality early experiences is that children learn best from live human beings,” Lytle said.

“We know from decades of research that children learn best from live social partners but an increasing presence in the lives of toddlers is screen media,” she said.

Lytle said that children 0 to 8 years old spend an average of about two hours with screen media a day.

When exposing children to this type of media, Lytle said that “content should be developmentally appropriate and used intentionally.” There is a variety of specific content that a parent or caretaker should look for in educational media, and these include familiar characters, songs, and audience participation, Lytle said.

Familiar characters are good for children because they become attached to these characters, and begin to trust them as teachers, while songs are beneficial for memorization skills and getting children up and moving with the music, she said.

Audience participation is a very useful tool, because it gets children engaged and interacting with what is occurring on screen, Lytle said. When parents view and interact with the screen media alongside their children, the child is more likely to learn from it, she added.

“Caregivers and parents … engage in scaffolding, which involves asking questions and helping the child to make connections between the content on the screen and real life,” Lytle said.

It is important for parents and caregivers to watch the entertainment with their child and interact with them, Lytle said, adding that parents should introduce new vocabulary and draw parallels between the screen media and the child’s life.

“With regard to technology, the more we can integrate live social experiences with technology or the more that technology itself facilitates these interactions, the more children will learn,” Lytle said.

When searching for educational programming, parents should look for research-based programming such as “Sesame Street,” Lytle said.

Lytle also mentioned that very young children should not be exposed to screen media. “The American Academy of Pediatrics  recommends no screen time for children younger than 2 years of age and limited exposure for children older than 2,” she said.

As children get older, they are more likely to be able to learn from media, Lytle said. Screen media can be used as a learning tool if used in the correct ways, she said.

There are many products and programming being advertised that claim to promote childhood learning, but Lytle said that “a lot of what is advertised as educational is not something that child development experts would identify as truly educational.”

Because of this, Lytle said that when a parent is deciding what kind of screen media to use to facilitate early childhood learning, she recommends the website Common Sense Media as a good resource.

“Their child development experts tell parents about the content of specific games, apps, and videos,” she said. “They use unbiased raters to look at different programs and apps, so their definition of education is much more accurate than a manufacturer’s.”

Some screen media can hinder childhood learning, Lytle said. Background media, such as when adults watch a television show in the same room where a child is playing but not actively watching, has a detrimental effect. Background media contains content not specifically developed for children. Background media interrupts play, and decreases parent and child interaction, she said.

Studies have shown that when children were exposed to background media, their focused attention on their activity was decreased drastically, Lytle said.

Another detrimental factor of screen media’s affect on children is media multitasking, she said. Media multitasking occurs when children use television, computers, video games or phones at the same time.

Studies have shown that in girls ages 8-12, media multitasking is associated with negative social well-being, decreased feelings of normalcy, and a lack of sleep, Lytle said.

At the I-LABS facility where Lytle works, they engage in studies involved with brain development during the first five years of life, and they collaborate with institutions around the world.

I-LABS has recently partnered with Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute to study infants inside the womb. They have found that during the last months of pregnancy infants begin to identify the differing speech patterns of the mother’s native language and those of foreign languages. What I-LABS has learned from this is that infants are learning during their experience in the womb, Lytle said.

One study done by I-LABS showed that when an adult mimicked a child’s actions, such as clapping, the child’s electrical brain activity was much stronger than when the caregiver did not mirror the actions of the child. Although the studies are not complete, researchers at I-LABS say this shows that children start making connections between themselves and another person early on.

Another study done by researchers at I-LABS showed that a child as young as 24 months can learn cause and effect by watching researchers press buttons, and some of the buttons would activate a light.

When given the opportunity to try pressing the buttons themselves, the children were more likely to press the buttons that the researchers pressed, therefore turning the lights on. I-LABS has indicated that this means their choices were deliberate.

When a similar but separate study was done by I-LABS, where adults were not involved, the babies were less likely to press the correct buttons. I-LABS researchers say that this shows that infants watch adult’s actions, internalize the actions of the adults, and act upon them.

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