An Education Department-funded study of a math enrichment program featuring characters such as the Cat in the Hat and Curious George showed that the 10-week program boosted early math skills for 4- and 5-year-olds from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The program was evaluated as part of the Ready to Learn initiative. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting System are in the middle of a $14.6 million' five-year grant to develop "transmedia content"—video, online games, apps, and interactive white board applications—intended to increase early reading and math skills.
This study measured results among 92 early-childhood classrooms in New York City and in the San Francisco Bay area. About 900 4- and 5-year olds were divided evenly among three groups:
• One group received the PBS Kids Transmedia Supplement, which included Ready to Learn videos, preschool-specific interactive white boards and laptop computers, and non-digital support materials. Teachers also received a guide of activities to follow, and were offered pre-study training and support during the project.
• A second group of children received technology resources, and teachers were trained in targeting math skills, but did not get the specific curriculum supplement. Instead, the teachers were encouraged to use the new technology, and were given pointers on where to find materials to support their classroom work.
• A third group of children, the control group, did not receive the new technology, and their teachers were not given any additional support or training.
The math supplement offered 10 to 25 minutes of activity four days a week. For example, one day's activity might be watching a 25-minute video, while other days could feature 10 to 20 minutes of games, guided reading, or computer time. In addition to Curious George and the Cat in the Hat, other characters used in the curriculum supplement were Sid the Science Kid and Dinosaur Train.
The study found that children in the group receiving the curriculum showed significant improvement in their early math skills, such as counting, number recognition, and recognizing shapes and patterns, compared to children in the other two groups. The group that received technology resources and extra teacher training did not improve significantly compared to the children in the control group.
"We know that familiar characters that kids have a parasocial relationship with can be used as learning resources if they're harnessed in the right way," said Carlin Llorente, the study's co-author and a senior research social scientist for the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International, headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif. The curriculum can be easily adapted for the center-based learning that is a feature of early-childhood classrooms, he said.
Shelley Pasnik, the director of the Center for Children and Technology at the Education Development Center in New York City and also a study co-author, said the finding suggests that technology tools can be helpful supports for education, but only when they are accompanied by support for teachers in how to use that technology well.
"There are developmentally appropriate ways that technology can be used by early educators, but it is really fundamentally important that those educators are supported and prepared," she said.