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It’s a family thing – Sesame Workshop uses mobile tech to connect parents and tots with easy-access literacy learning

Given the amount of attention devoted to the influence of mobile technology on older kids in the last couple of years, you had to know that the spotlight would slide down the age scale sooner or later. So it's not surprising that preschool superserver Sesame Workshop recently set out to assess the potential for using cell phones to improve literacy amongst three- and four-year-olds.
September 1, 2007

Given the amount of attention devoted to the influence of mobile technology on older kids in the last couple of years, you had to know that the spotlight would slide down the age scale sooner or later. So it’s not surprising that preschool superserver Sesame Workshop recently set out to assess the potential for using cell phones to improve literacy amongst three- and four-year-olds.

Over the course of an eight-week study funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education through PBS’s Ready To Learn program, Sesame sent four cell phone messages a week to 80 California-based caregivers and their kids. Half of the project’s participants came from low-income households, which aren’t as likely to have literacy-driving print materials on hand as middle-income ones, but rate on par in terms of access to media devices like cell phones.

Hosted by Sprint, the program included text messages for parents, audio messages for both parents and kids, and video aimed directly at kids. The parents’ messages featured Sesame Street cast veteran Maria introducing a letter of the day and suggesting activities to teach the letter during daily routines, such as helping kids look for food at the grocery store that begins with the letter C. Next, the parent was prompted to hand the phone to their child to watch a message from Elmo, who talked about the letter and then segued to a related video clip from the Sesame Street archives. The videos were available to watch again at any time during the study.

The portability of cell phones and their widespread use amongst families from all income brackets catered to an important aspect of the program – encouraging parents to be more involved in their kids’ early education. ‘Almost all of the parents reported watching the segments with their kids, not just handing them the phone and then going to do something else, the way they sometimes do with TV,’ says Glenda Revelle, VP of research, creative development and digital media at Sesame Workshop.

In terms of results, 75% of the lower-income parents and 50% of the middle-income parents said the video clips helped their kids learn letters. Parents told researchers that the mobile delivery method made it easy for them to access the content at home, waiting in line, or anywhere else they happened to be. And they said Maria’s messages reminded them to foster their children’s early literacy development. The Sesame team was also pleasantly surprised to learn that kids could sing the alphabet song after the study, something that wasn’t even part of the program’s curriculum. So obviously, parents were taking the lessons one step further and reinforcing the letter learning with familiar tools from their own bag of tricks.

The kids had no problem using the cell phone to play videos on their own. Instead, accessibility hinged on whether the parents were willing to hand over their cell phones for the kids to handle, and in this case, says Revelle, they were. But as dexterous as kids were with the devices, Revelle says she doesn’t foresee a time in the near future when kids this young will carry their own cell phones. ‘It’s a shared experience between parent and child for this age range,’ she says.

Sesame Street segments are currently downloadable through Verizon, but the Workshop is hoping to eventually develop an outreach program based on the findings and offer cell phone educational materials at a reduced cost or possibly for free.

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