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Can your Preschooler truly learn from educational videos for kids? ( Part 1)

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Educational videos for kids often attract and hold children’s attention. it is  not difficult for young parents to decide to allow screen time, knowing that they are in good  company, while juggling with other needs. But does your pre-schooler really learn from such media?  

Modern parents want to be able to do what is right by the child and educate them despite their busy schedules. Many would think that parents turn to media as an electronic babysitter for their children. This is not true (Rideout, 2007) because these parents truly believed in the educational potential from these educational videos for kids (Zimmermen, 2007). These parents’ desires for these products to promote holistic development have turned digital media programmes (videos and Apps) targeting at educating children into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Afterall, they may think that having the little ones watch some educational media not only benefits their learning, but allows for some precious downtime. This begets the question: do young children truly learn from the media?

Can your kid truly learn the 8 smarts from watching TV

The “Video Deficit” phenomenon

However, deeper research has put paid to the concept of very young children learning from multi media. In 2005, Anderson and Pempek coined the term video deficit to characterize their findings that infants usually learn less well from video than from live displays. Typically, researchers get infants observe a model (either live or televised) perform a sequence of novel actions on a set of novel objects. For example, they might see someone assemble a toy rattle from a set of three or four objects. The infants are then given a chance to reproduce the actions they have observed after some time. The typical findings in such studies are that infants and toddlers who observe a televised model perform a series of target actions produce fewer of those actions than do infants who observe a life demonstration of the same actions. In fact, researchers reported that 12-month-olds were able to successfully imitate what they had seen the live demonstration do even after a 24-hour delay, while a different group of 12-month-olds showed no evidence of learning if they saw the video.

Other than imitation, video deficit could occur in speech perception as well. In one such study, Kuhl and colleagues (2003) exposed English-speaking, 9-month-old infants to several presentations, either live or video, of an adult speaking mandarin. A month later, the researchers found tested whether this exposure had prolonged the infant’s sensitivity to the Mandarin speech sounds. Only infants who experience the live presentation showed positive effects of the exposure.

Word learning from TV

So, we have seen that a young child learns better from live demonstration, and worse when imitating actions and perceiving speech from a video. How about the child’s ability to acquire learn new words as claimed by many an advertisement?

In their investigation of early learning from video, Richert, Bobb, Fender and Wartella (2010) looked into the effectiveness of a commercial DVD designed to teach words to 12- to 24-month-old children after 6 weeks of viewing. Independent of parental intervention, the experimental group showed no evidence of learning words highlighted in the DVD compared to the control group.

You may ask, would children learn more if we changed some conditions in which children view videos? DeLoache and colleagues (2010) explored this question, where she randomly assigned 72 parent-child pairs into 4 different groups: 1) Video-with-interaction (Parents were instructed to interact with their child while viewing the video) 2) Video-with-no-interaction ( The children watched the video alone), 3) Parent-teaching ( Children were not exposed to videos, parents were given a list of words to teach the child), and 4) No intervention.

Graph comparing vocabulary learning in different learning conditions

After one month, the children in the Parent-teaching group scored the highest and was the only group that performed above chance (p < 0.5) ( Please see diagram above). The children who had extensive exposure to the video did not learn any more new words than the children who had no exposure to the video at all. The researchers highlighted that the absence of learning was not due to the lack of attention.

DeLoache went a step further and looked into perception of parents involved in the study. Surprisingly, parents’ predictions on their children’s learning did not correlate to the children’s actual learning. Instead, there is a strong correlation between parents’ preference for the DVD and their estimation on how much their child had learned. The more a parent liked the DVD, the more he/she believed the child had learned from it, despite actual results suggesting the opposite!

Thus, parents who liked the educational videos thought that their children had learned more from it than parents who were less positive. In actual fact, many reproducible studies have shown that the educational videos made no difference in the numbers of words that children learnt. This meant that there is no real vocabulary learning from these DVDs at all! Quite possibly, parents could have misattributed normal language development (which often comes in spurts) to their infants’ video exposure.

If educational videos for kids doesn't work, what about Apps?

On whether your little ones could learn from Apps, we must first understand the nature of how young children perceive the world. Apps (or Applications) are software that rely heavily on videos and pictures. Video or image is a symbolic representation that stands for something in the real world. Therefore, to interpret what appears on a video screen, the young child must perceive the visual representation of image on the screen and mentally map the image to what it stands for. Children younger than 24 months of age have difficulty achieving dual representation; mentally representing both the symbol and what it stands for at the same time. The lack of understanding is displayed in infants younger than 9 months of age where they manually explored pictures by rubbing, patting, feeling and even attempting to pick up the images. (DeLoache and colleagues, 1998)

Babies learn an enormous amount from direct experience with the world, through their real-life experiences such as manipulating objects and moving through space. These includes discovering the laws of physics, exploring the basic nature of objects, and having social interactions that may lead to rewarding events (pointing to get a snack). With frequent practice in manipulating real objects, babies gradually figure out how to solve problems with the use of tools such as manipulating a spoon to get food in his mouth, pulling on a blanket to get an out-of-reach object on which it rests. It is only through real experiences that very young children develop an appreciation for the nature between video images and reality.

Researchers found that young children are able to appreciate the symbolic nature of video by about 30 months of age, but not earlier than 24 months of age (Troseth & DeLoache, 1998). The younger children in these studies seemed to assume that what they saw on a video could not be relevant to a current situation. Perhaps, that is the reason why published research on whether infants and toddlers can learn from interactive screens is scant because the young children haven’t reached a development stage that they can translate the information from the digital world into something they could relate to. Even though Kirkorian et al. (2016) observed that younger children benefited from contingent touchscreen interactions (more than the older kids in that experiment group), these simple swiping and tapping motions on touchscreens seem impoverished compared to the complex hand movements that facilitate exploration of objects (Lederman and Klatzky, 1987; Spitzer, 2013). Prolonged use of interactive touchscreens may be a distraction and cause children to miss out on other potentially more fruitful activities that foster an understanding around them that could lead to true learning and cognitive growth.

Not for education, how about its entertainment value?

Up until this point, we have explored the possible benefits of educational videos/apps to infants and young children. How about its use purely for entertainment?

Unfortunately, it appears that excessive screen time is detrimental to young children’s development. A 2019 cohort study involving 2441 Canadian children aged 2 – 5 years has found that excessive screen time in children aged 2 – 3 years is correlated with poor performance in developmental screening tests. Children with higher levels of screen time at age 24 and 36 months were associated with poorer performance when assessed on their development at 36 and 60 months respectively. Higher levels of screen exposure were associated with significantly poorer performance on developmental screening tests a year later. Researchers stressed the directionality of this relationship; Increased screen exposure leads to poorer performance on developmental screening, not vice versa. (Madigan and colleagues, 2019)


Media with educational intent holds a child’s attention. Media enterprises have marketed the value of these animation in pedagogy. With such videos being readily available in today’s media driven world, it is not difficult for young parents to decide to allow screen time, knowing that they are in good company, while taking a breather or juggling with other needs.

However, we have seen that investigations on the effect of educational videos for infants and young children have shown that they are not beneficial for learning. Nonetheless parents tend to overestimate how much the child learns from media, especially if they have favourable attitudes towards viewing of such educational videos. Often, justifying their parental beliefs in the educational and entertainment value of television. As such, these cause great confusion and poor adherence to the guidelines surrounding screen time that have been advised by American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) as well as World Health Organisation (WHO).


Anderson, D. R., & Pempek, T. A. (2005). Television and very young children. American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 505-522.

DeLoache, J.S., Chiong, C., & Sherman, K., et al (2010). Do babies learn from baby media?. Psychol Sci, 21(11):1570-1574. doi:10.1177/0956797610384145

DeLoache, J. S., Pierroutsakos, S. L., Uttal, D. H., Rosengren, K. S., & Gottlieb, A. (1998). Grasping the nature of pictures. Psychological Science, 9, 205-210.

Kirkorian, H. L., Choi, K., and Pempek, T. A. (2016). Toddlers' word learning from contingent and noncontingent video on touch screens. Child Dev. 87, 405–413. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12508

Kuhl, P. K., Tsao, F., & Liu, H. (2003). Foreign language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100, 9096-9101.

Lederman, S. J., and Klatzky, R. L. (1987). Hand movements: a window into haptic object recognition. Cogn. Psychol. 19, 342–368. doi: 10.1016/0010-0285(87)90008-9

Madigan, S., Browne, D., Racine, N., Mori, C., & Tough, S. (2019). Association Between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test. JAMA Pediatr. 173(3):244–250. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5056

Richert, R. A., Robb, M.B., Fender, J.G., & Wartella, E. (2010). Word learning from baby videos. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 64(5):432-437. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.24

Rideout, V. (2007). Parents, children, and media. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Spitzer, M. (2013). To swipe or not to swipe?—The question in present-day education. Trends Neurosci. Educ. 3, 95–99. doi: 10.1016/j.tine.2013.09.002

Troseth, G. L., & DeLoache, J. S. (1998). The medium can obscure the message: Young children’s understanding of video. Child Development, 69, 950-965.


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