It wasn’t so long ago that the typical American home had a telephone on the wall and a typewriter in the den. Today these tools of communication have been replaced by cell phones, tablets and laptops streaming videos and games at a rapid-fire clip.
What does this mean for children’s learning? How does exposure to unprecedented amounts of media stimulation affect children’s brains? Kids as young as 2 are engaged with it for hours every day. Scientists are just starting to understand what this means for cognitive development.
A small study published last year suggests the animated stories kids watch on their tablets or on Dad’s phone during a grocery run might not give young brains the workout they need to develop cognitive skills. The study, by scientists at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, used MRI to explore how preschool-age children’s brains respond to stimuli when exposed to three different types of storytelling.
Researchers dubbed the results The Goldilocks Effect. The sound of a voice reading a story was “too cold”—the MRI showed children’s brains weren’t fully engaged in the activity as it takes more at this age to process the story without visuals. On the other hand, the sounds and fast-paced visuals of the kind of animation typically seen in cartoons were “too hot.” They required less imagination and dot-connecting at a deeper level.
The children experienced the “just right” level of brain stimulation when a picture book was read to them. Images in a book don’t move, allowing the child to become absorbed and to explore them for awhile. This exploration is work, but it’s fun work; the child has time to make connections between what he sees on the page and what he has seen in daily life or in other books, or what he’s hearing as the story is read. This creates brain synapses that will help him process increasingly complex stories later on, experts say.
The children in the study were in an MRI machine. Can you imagine the results if they had been curled up with someone reading to them? We already know that collaboration and interaction enhance learning in young children. Maybe kids crave story time for very good reasons that we don’t even yet fully understand.