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TV Viewer's Guide: Preschoolers

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Television for preschoolers is like chocolate it's a delicious pleasure in small portions. But consuming too much can lead to a lifetime of bad habits. How can you make healthy viewing choices for your child?

Consider what experts aim for when making a first-rate TV show for preschoolers. Despite simple appearances, researchers, educators and producers rely on a great deal of expertise when figuring out how to teach preschoolers while they entertain them. Although there's no single recipe for producing a successful program, here's a quick list of what those in the know put into a high-quality television series and why you might want to look for these elements, too.

Activities worth repeating

Preschoolers are notorious for imitating what they see and hear. Because repetition is a big part of how they learn, some programs are filled with lots of activities worth copying. Super Why!'s emphasis on letter recognition, Curious George's explorations of math, science and engineering and It's a Big Big World's focus on animals and wildlife are examples of activities and topics preschoolers can pursue when the TV is off.

Constructive ways to resolve conflict

Preschoolers experience strong emotions, including frustration, jealousy, and anger. Help them manage these feelings by introducing them to characters who express their feelings using their words rather than their fists. Clifford characters Emily Elizabeth and T-Bone, for example, are constantly getting into situations where they have to resolve differences and learn that acceptance is part of belonging to a community. Likewise, Emmy and Max and their Dragon Tales friends routinely find that trying and not succeeding is both natural and nothing to fear.

Strong male AND female characters

Children develop an awareness of gender differences during the preschool years so you want to avoid shows that suggest an activity is "just for boys" or "just for girls." Shows that give an equal voice even if the characters are animals, like the dog that gives Martha Speaks its name send the message that both girls and boys are capable and strong. Similarly, a collection of female and male characters who have a range of emotions and talents can teach children that girls and boys have many choices from choosing a job to expressing a powerful feeling. Sesame Street, which is chockfull of all sorts of characters, both human and muppet, recognized this years ago and added Zoe as the first primary female monster to the mix.

Positive social models

Sharing doesn't come naturally to preschoolers. They need to learn about self-esteem and good relations with others. Watching shows like Caillou, which features a 4-year-old navigating his way through a new world of friendships, will highlight what's good about cooperating with those nearby. Of course, kids need to feel good about themselves in order to feel good about others, which is a theme that runs throughout Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

Characters from around the world

Preschoolers' imaginations can take them anywhere. Introduce them to shows that include traditions different from your own to widen your children's views of the world. Maya and Miguel will introduce them to characters who speak Spanish, English and American Sign Language. Dragon Tales give prominence to the rich heritage of Hispanic culture. Each episode of Franny's Feet transports children to another place on the globe where they join Franny as she gets to know the people and their culture. Likewise, characters who share your family's background can validate what is familiar. Shows like Sesame Street, which features an urban setting rather than a suburban one, remind children that families thrive in many different environments.

Lessons that foster a love of learning

In addition to focusing on skills that are easy to identify as academic, like math and reading, some shows also help children get ready for school by shaping their attitudes toward learning in general. For example, Mama Mirabelle's Home Movies uses the natural world to foster an early curiosity about places throughout the world , Arthur and DW engage in everyday problem-solving and model reading, and the animals of Word World demonstrate how to decode words.

Humor that appeals to parents AND children

Whenever possible, watch TV with your child so you can discuss aspects of the program. While overextended parents know this isn't always feasible, you'll be more likely to watch with your child if the show features humor that appeals to the whole family. Alistair Cookie's "Monsterpiece Theater" on Sesame Street or "Gawain's World" on Between the Lions will keep you and your preschooler smiling.

Characters from different age groups

A show that features a cast filled with grandparents, aunts, uncles, teenagers and preschoolers can help children see how people of different ages are important to one another. For example, Sid the Science Kid's "grandma" picks him up from school everyday and tells family stories and The Berenstain Bears illustrate how members of a family can work together.

Few or no commercial messages

Shows that are free from commercial messages and interruptions allow the focus to be entirely on the learning and enjoyment. Preschool viewers are not overcome with a desire to have a toy or product but can give their full attention to other interests, such as imaginative play, the value of sharing or something else they take away from their viewing. All of PBS's programs are examples of where and how this is possible.

This article is from the "Understanding and Raising Girls" section of the PBS Parents website.