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Spinning the Learning Curve

You want the best for your infant -- but will educational DVDs really give her a step up in the world?
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After a decade of furious growth, educational DVDs for preschoolers continue to be of high value to parents. What's more, there's no sign that that growth is slowing: If you think it is, just look at retailers' shelves, which are stocked with such educational brand names as Baby Einstein, Baby Genius and more.

Academics may not disagree that the trend continues to grow, but they do have a different appraisal of its actual worth.

"The American Academy of Pediatrics says that any TV before the age of three really doesn't cut it, that kids should be outside the house exploring," says Kathryn A. Hirsch-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. "From a development point of view, there isn't any evidence that they're learning from TV or DVDs."

Pasek and others blame entertainment marketers for making parents fear that their kids are behind academically. "We artificially inflate goals that just can't be reached," she says.

Other industry professionals see it differently -- and are even backing new educational ventures themselves.

One of these projects, "Phonics 4 Babies," is the brainchild of Mallory Lewis. The daughter of famed children's entertainer Shari Lewis, who delighted generations of kids with her winsome hand puppet "Lamb Chop," Mallory Lewis has developed a program of vocabulary- and language-development skills for children aged 6-36 months.

"Our children require more education," says Lewis. "We need to prepare our kids for preschool. They need to be smarter sooner. Many kids in the U.S. don't speak English as their first language. You can't function without it."

Dr. Karen Kovacs North, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist who served as a consultant on "Phonics 4 Babies," believes preschool DVDs have a place in the fast-moving lives of modern parents. "The best thing for your child is real-life human interaction," she says. "But in reality you can't interact all the time -- especially if you are a working parent or a tired parent."

In that regard, she says, DVDs are better than TV. "It's better to raise kids on DVDs than on TV," she says. "DVDs have a definite ending, as opposed to TV programs." This gives parents better control, she says, because they can fast-forward through scenes they don't like and watch scenes they do like over again.

Still, other parents' groups say moms and dads need to be leery of the claims made by educational DVD producers.

"While occasional exposure to infant DVDs may be fine for a quick wrangling of the laundry, parents should not abdicate their role as baby's first teacher to 'educational' DVDs, no matter what the manufacturer claims," says Claire Green, president of Parents' Choice Foundation. "Each year [we] review hundreds of DVDs produced for children. Frequently, those claiming to boost an infant's intellectual competency are not much more than eye candy."

In the last decade there has been an explosion of preschool DVDs. The first was Baby Einstein, followed quickly by competitors Baby Bumblebee, Baby Genius, Amazing Baby, and Brainy Baby. Jocelyn Longworth, editor of KidsScreen Magazine, says although sales may have plateaued somewhat, "It is still a fairly healthy market."

While Temple University's Hirsch-Pasek believes DVDs and TV are, in general, educationally empty, that doesn't mean that they're harmful. As a matter of fact, she recommends the Disney Channel's new "Johnny and The Sprites" live-action music and entertainment show.

"There are some exceptional products," she says. "But parents need to use them sparingly. Disney Channel's 'Johnny and the Sprites' is great. Some of the songs are really good."

The end result is that parent entertainment groups advise moms and dads to do a lot of homework. Says Green, "Read between the lines of the advertisements for 'educational' videos developed for infants; pay attention to current research; but most of all, pay attention to your child. That's where the learning -- and the fun -- begins."

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