Why Videos Aren’t the Best Way for Kids to Learn

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Dean Mitchell / Getty Images/Vetta

DVDs and educational programs on TV have a growing place in helping young children to learn. But there’s new evidence that they may not be as effective as old fashioned conversation.

Even before birth, children hear sounds and words and can babble a variety of noises that will eventually coalesce into into language. “Before nine months of age, a baby produces a babble made up of hundreds of phonemes from hundreds of languages,” Elisabeth Cros, a speech therapist with the Ecole Internationale de New York told TIME in April. “Parents will react to the phonemes they recognize from their native tongues, which reinforces the baby’s use of those selected ones.”

(MORE: Understanding How the Brain Learns Two Languages)

It’s that dynamic interaction between the infant and her caregiver — a back-and-forth that static videos and television programs can’t provide — that is critical for efficient language learning. And a group of researchers from the University of Washington, Temple University and the University of Delaware explain why.

The scientists studied 36 two-year-olds who were randomly assigned to learn verbs in three different ways. A third of the group trained with a live person, another third learned through video chat technology like Skype, and the final third learned by watching a pre-recorded video of a language lesson from the same person.

(MORE: Midday Naps Help Preschoolers Learn)

Their results, published in the journal Child Development, showed that kids learned well in person and in the live video chat, likely because both scenarios allowed for an interaction between the child and the teacher, allowing the youngsters to be more responsive and therefore retain more from their experience. The children using the recorded videos, by contrast, did not learn new vocabulary words by the end of the 10 minute learning and testing task.

The findings confirm previous work that connected live conversations with better vocabularies among young children, but add another layer of understanding about why one-on-one interactions are so important to a developing brain. Nerve connections responsible for language building requires repetition and reinforcement, which can help to strengthen the correct and appropriate words or sounds and discard extraneous or inappropriate ones. It’s not that educational programming or DVDs are harming young minds; it’s more that they aren’t maximizing the infants’ ability to absorb and learn and pick up words and verbal skills more efficiently. So parking a child in front of screen for a few minutes isn’t going to hamper his ability to talk, but interspersing those videos with some one-on-one time engaging  in conversation could help to speed along the learning process.

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