DO go for educational content.
“For children who are age 2 or older, there are educational shows and DVDs, such as Sesame Street and Blues Clues, that are developed with scientific input and do in fact improve a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development,” says Christakis, who has reviewed studies about the effects of educational programming on infants and preschoolers. The findings, reported in the journal Pediatrics, suggested that children not only learn content, but also make cognitive gains by viewing educational programs. Shows that feature imaginative play such as Mister Rogers tend to make children engage in that kind of play after watching, particularly if an adult is with the child and discusses it afterward. Also look for shows that offer age-appropriate lessons in counting, letters, geography, nature, science or identifying shapes, colors and objects. Examples (some are now in syndication): Bill Nye the Science Guy, Sesame Street, Zoboomafoo and Dora the Explorer.
DON’T expect significant learning to come from gadgets.
When it comes to real learning, “there is no substitute for caregiver interaction,” says Christakis, one of the group of researchers who found that the Baby Einstein videos were ineffective and in fact inhibited learning, prompting Disney to change its claims for the product. No video or game, or particular music that accompanies a game, will make your child brighter, he says. “In fact, it has been shown that children will learn language better from a live person than they would from a video with that exact same person teaching the same thing,” he adds. “There is subtle communication between a live person and a baby, social cues that are given off and received.”
It’s easy to think that apps from which children can memorize the ABCs would give them an educational boost, but there’s no evidence that this is true. “Rote memorization is not really learning in the sense of being able to take a concept and apply it to real life,” says Lerner. “No research shows that kids who can say their ABCs at age 2 do better in the long term. It’s much more useful to take a walk with your child around your neighborhood and say, ‘That’s a blue house’ or ‘That’s a yellow house.’ This learning is more meaningful because it’s in a context, part of your child’s everyday world.”