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Early education technology makers can learn about intergenerational learning from Sesame Street. - Slate Magazine


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This call-to-action prompted pioneers such as Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett to pursue a simple but revolutionary idea: use TV to teach the basic skills and values that children would need to begin school. Their response to Minow’s challenge was Sesame Street. World-class creative talents like Jim Henson joined leading educators to create television content that would engage both the child and the parent. In addition to providing great entertainment grounded in research, the programming fostered “co-viewing.” Children who watched Sesame Street with their parents learned more from the show than those who watched it alone. Parents encouraged their kids to apply their own background knowledge to what they saw onscreen—so when they saw a word or a number they might count further or recite the alphabet.

Now, more than 40 years later, Sesame Street remains a preschool staple, positively impacting youth throughout the world. In fact, the success of the format has stimulated an entire media industry sector with tens of thousands of engaging educational programs on various platforms that parents and children enjoy together.

In many ways, today’s video games are analogous to television in the 1960s. The perception of many policy makers, educators, and parents is that video games are “a vast wasteland.” Certainly video games have become ubiquitous; 80 percent of 5- to 8-year-olds regularly play games. The number increases to 97 percent for teens. 

So, can a portion of the billions of hours of highly engaged, “lean-forward” participatory video-gaming be channeled toward research-based intergenerational games? Can we convince deeply skeptical moms and dads to embrace the medium not as a distraction or baby-sitter but as a means to engage with and empower their children? Will we be able to entice increasingly sophisticated youth gamers to engage with their newbie parents, perhaps taking on the role of mentor and guide? Accomplishing these goals will not only foster more valuable family time—it has the potential to drive meaningful learning and literacy gains.

There is an emerging body of research highlighting the great potential of intergenerational gameplay. For example, in 2009, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (which one of us directs) and the University of Southern California studied video game play between adults and elementary school children. They found that kids were more engaged in learning with digital games than traditional board games and that adults learned technology skills from their kids. This work helped inspire an intergenerational game, Electric Racer, to help children and adults play together to deepen family literacy skills development. Another recent research report developed by the National Science Foundation-funded LIFE Center (based at the University of Washington, Stanford, and Northwestern) and the Cooney Center presents six case studies on the subject and found, among other things, that “joint media engagement is often initiated by children rather than parents.”

The irony of using non-immersive video games is that video games helps folks learn WHEN it is a simulation; ergo, a video game that is not a simulation... Seems to be a glorified interactive quiz. Not unhelpful, but not the same thing.

Great article and great point. Thank you for sharing!

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