“Educational” Videos for Infants – A Waste of Money?

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New parents are always looking for ways to make sure their child is smart from the start. A whole industry has grown up around the idea, promising to do just that. It seems like a new – and expensive – generation of educational books, movies, games and toys come out every year.

But at least part of that industry seems to be misleading parents with its marketing, according to a new scientific study conducted at the University of Virginia. The research found children between 12 and 18 months learned almost nothing from infant-learning DVDs designed to improve vocabulary, even after watching them several times a week for a month. So be smart, baby: do a little research before you buy something dumb.

Though the study above doesn’t disclose the specific DVD, this isn’t the first bashing of brainy-baby media. Non-profit activists from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood fought for years against Disney’s popular Baby Einstein series of products – and last year, they won, convincing Disney to remove misleading marketing on the packaging and to offer a refund to parents who purchased their videos.

A similar study was done at the University of California, which not only found zero improvement in children around the age of 24 months, but found in younger babies that viewing actually seemed to delay language development. That suggests these movies might be worse than watching nothing at all.

While it’s possible that some baby DVDs are better than others, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended no TV or movies for kids under age 2 and did a study noting that TV had little impact – positive or negative – on 3-year-olds. Age is obviously a major variable in deciding what media are appropriate for your child.

Of course, we don’t want to throw out all baby boosters with the bath water. Here are some low-cost ways to make sure your toddler is one of the brightest on the block…

  1. Look for toys that involve multiple senses. If you watched TV in a language you didn’t understand, all you’d get out of it is the pretty pictures. Welcome to your baby’s world. But they’re eager to learn any way they can. So give them a variety of experiences, not just passive visual learning. Give them things they can touch, manipulate, and experiment with, things that make sounds. Though these toys – with all their noises and flashes – might quickly get on your nerves, they’re very useful and exciting for babies. Added bonus? They’ll probably cost less than ineffective, high-brow learning systems.
  2. Try music. Not all media is bad for babies. While listening to Mozart probably won’t make your kid a genius, music can provide creative and interactive outlets for babies. Singing and dancing are productive ways to play with media.
  3. Make time to talk to them. Parents are the first teachers in their kids’ lives. How would you feel if your kid’s teachers spent all day sitting idly by while the kids watched movies? TV is a convenient babysitter, but babies need verbal interaction to develop their creativity and language: talk with them and read to them. These are proven – and inexpensive – ways to help your child’s development.

For an interesting conversation about what products and practices help children develop, check out this NPR segment from last year: Can You Make Your Baby Smarter, Sooner?

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