Research: Digital media could aid early math skills

Study of early learners reveals media content from the show PEG + CAT could help improve children’s critical math skills

math-skillsChildren who used media content from PBS KIDS’ series PEG + CAT showed improvement in critical math areas involving ordinal numbers, spatial relationships, and 3-D shapes, according to researchers at EDC and SRI International.

Parents and caregivers also showed greater comfort and confidence in supporting their children with math concepts and problem-solving strategies.

The randomized Ready To Learn study was based on a sample of 197 children ages 4 to 5 years old, primarily from low-income families, in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area.

The study examined how digital media contributes to learning in the home, looking specifically at children’s engagement with PEG + CAT, a multimedia animated PBS KIDS series produced by The Fred Rogers Company.

Over 12 weeks, EDC and SRI examined children’s and families’ home use of selected PEG + CAT resources, which features characters and storylines extended across multiple media platforms. Study materials included full episodes of PEG + CAT, video clips, online games, a tablet-based app, and print activities, all of which allowed children and families to engage with the same characters, settings, and narratives on multiple devices.

Researchers found that children who were assigned to the PEG + CAT group showed stronger improvement in key math skills than children who were assigned to a comparison group. Parents and caregivers in the PEG + CAT group felt more confident that they could help their children learn math, and they agreed that technology and media were effective tools for math learning.

Parents and caregivers in the intervention group reported interacting more with their children around viewing PEG + CAT, playing digital games from the series and using screens, than did the control group parents, who did not use the PEG + CAT materials.

Key findings of the 2015 Ready To Learn study follow:

  • Children who used PEG + CAT media showed stronger improvement in critical math areas involving ordinal numbers, spatial relationships, and 3-D shapes than children in a control group.
  • Parents and caregivers in the PEG + CAT group felt more confident that they could help their children learn math and they agreed that technology and media were tools for math learning than did parents and caregivers in the control group.
  • At the close of the study, a higher proportion of parents and caregivers in the PEG + CAT group reported engaging in problem-solving strategies with their children than did those in the control group.
  • Families reported that they found PEG + CAT resources to be fun and engaging, providing children with opportunities to practice math skills. They said the games and videos complemented each other, making the content more meaningful.
  • Parents and caregivers in the PEG + CAT group reported a higher frequency of joint parent-child technology use, more joint game play, and more conversation connecting digital media and daily life than did the control group of parents and caregivers.

“In our 10 years of studying public media in the Ready to Learn initiative, we have seen a pattern that these resources can indeed help with school readiness,” said EDC’s Shelley Pasnik, vice president and director of the Center for Children and Technology. “Introducing young children to key mathematical skills and providing positive models of social and emotional behaviors as well as technology use all serve to prepare children for preschool and kindergarten.”

The study culminates five years of research studies commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the PBS Ready To Learn initiative to evaluate public media resources in supporting children’s mathematics learning. Previous studies have looked at how PBS KIDS digital media can contribute to children’s learning while in preschool, on their own, and at home. The initiative, which creates educational programming and engagement activities for local public media stations and their communities, is funded by the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

“Ready To Learn research has been able to say more over time about how media can be used to support interactions between children and the adults in their lives,” said Savitha Moorthy, senior researcher at SRI Education, a division of SRI International. “It’s important for children to have well-supported experiences and for adults to have the tools and resources to support children’s learning. Most parents and caregivers want to be children’s learning partners, and our research shows how high-quality media experiences can play a role.”

The study was funded by ED through a Ready To Learn grant to CPB and PBS. Ready To Learn was created by Congress in the early 1990s to enhance the reach of, and access to, public educational media to help millions of children—particularly those living in poverty—learn the basic reading and math skills they need to succeed in school.

Learn more about the initiative and read the full study here.

The next cycle of Ready to Learn research will examine how media can be used by families at home to promote children’s science and literacy learning.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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