The Young Brain and the Screen Machine

Gloria De Gaetano

by Gloria DeGaetano, Founder, The Parent Coaching Institute and author of Parenting Well in a Media Age, winner of the 2007 Best Products i-Parenting Award.

Does this sound familiar?

You're home with the children and the TV is on. Your four-year old and two-year-old were singing and dancing along with a TV personality a few minutes ago, but now they are intent on a pretend trip to the store, buying Play-Doh® cookies and empty milk cartons. They are engrossed in this careful exchange. If you turn off the TV, you know they will scream, even though they seem to be paying little attention.

Who knows, in their imaginary worlds that TV personality is a customer at their store, and the children are getting the cookies she ordered! What's going on? Lots of learning, the preschool way, that's what!

This type of interactive, self-directed learning is typical at this age. Encouraging youngsters to engage directly with what's on the home screen will help prepare them for future learning. Conversely, acquiring a passive TV habit during the preschool years hinders appropriate development and puts children at-risk for learning and behavior problems later on.

Continual neural activity prompted by lots of tactile and sensory experiences throughout early childhood lays the foundation for language and thinking. Deprived of an enriched environment, the child's brain will suffer. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, for instance, have found that children who don't play much or who are rarely touched develop brains 20% to 30% smaller than what is considered normal for their age.

Too much TV creates an impoverished environment for the young brain. Taking in images from a 2-D screen while just sitting there does not allow children the 3-D exploration so necessary for building a coherent brain. Understanding the vital importance of young children's need for movement and mental challenge, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommend no television for children from birth through age two. One hour or less of total daily screen time for older children would be the ideal. Total screen time includes TV, video rentals, movies, computers, video games, and video game boys—anytime the youngsters are in front of the screen machine.

In the early years, we can help children use TV and video more actively to enhance four critical areas for optimum brain growth: physical movement, sensory experiences, thinking skills, and language development.

Physical Movement

Physical activity, of course, builds young muscles and cardiovascular systems, but it is also essential for appropriate brain growth. Crawling, jumping, climbing, skipping, hopping—all are important prerequisites to abstract thought.

Get children moving while they watch television. Have them sway and clap hands to the music; or jump up to show a change to a commercial or to announce agreement with a TV character; sing and dance along with the songs. Pantomime TV characters' body language or feelings to further understanding of the program.

Encourage children to role-play the visual action. As your children watch a favorite show, prompt them to act out scenarios that are interesting to them. A sound routine is to allow only twenty minutes of TV or movie viewing in one sitting. After twenty minutes, the children are up and moving. The next day, they get to see the next segment of the movie or another piece of a favorite show. Young bodies are not designed to sit for hours at a time. They must move for optimal growth and well-being.

Sensory Experiences

Early childhood is a time of exploration and discovery through the senses and many "hands-on" experiences. Exasperated parents often lament, "They are into everything." And well, they should be, however trying their wanderings are for us. Active stimulation of the five senses builds a foundation for future success as a learner. Viewing is not doing, and tactile experiences lost during early childhood are irreplaceable. So after taking in the screen world, get children involved in their world.

You could start by taking a walk outside after watching a favorite show and pointing out objects that were either in the show or missing from it. TV programs, especially those found on educational channels, can be starting points for a range of wonderfully creative projects. After watching a program about a particular topic, for example, make a collage about it. The topic could be animals, musical instruments, sea life, friends, or letters and numbers. Use old magazines, catalogs, child-sized scissors and glue. When the collage is complete, discuss it together and bring up important details about the program, too.

Other possible activities include using clay or Play-Doh® to let your child make objects she just saw on TV, or creating puppets from socks, craft sticks and paper plates to depict TV characters. Encourage children to re-enact what they saw or to make up their own stories.

Thinking Skills

Self-directed play exercises growing minds. In play, children solve problems, make decisions, and use their imaginations. An engaged imagination helps develop the abilities to envision possibilities and to think symbolically, exercising a myriad of important thinking skills. With TV or video, all the pictures are given; the storyline is given, the way the characters look is given. Little has to be imagined. Therefore it's important to encourage your child to use a range of ideas for play. TV can expose children to diverse settings, new people, and interesting stories, but the books they've heard, the excursions around town, a new kind of food, a visit to relatives, a church outing—these are also rich sources for play ideas.

Imitating what they see on TV is one way to play. It isn't wrong or unusual . But when television becomes the only source for ideas, children's play becomes more imitative than imaginative. When young children are engaged in self-directed play, parents and educators can expand youngsters' thinking by asking questions like:

  • Why did you choose to be that character today?
  • Did you make any changes from the cartoon you were acting out?
  • When you play alone, how many people do you pretend to be?

Simply identifying what is on TV is one way to enhance a child's thinking. And as you build factual knowledge, you can begin classifying as well. Prompt children to sort things into categories by asking such questions as, "This show is about ______. What other shows have we seen about _________?" and "Do you see any triangles in this picture? Are there triangles in our house, too?" You can also encourage comparisons. While watching TV and discussing such questions as, "Does the family have a couch like the one in this room?" "How is the dog on that show different from your dog?" Such questions groove young brains for higher level thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation.

There are other easy ways to nurture important skills like prediction and problem-solving.

Just by asking, "What do you think will happen next?" you are giving a young child, a great opportunity to use his mental muscles. Asking, "How do you think Arthur will get out of this mess?" or "What would you do if this happened to you?" can stimulate problem-solving patterns of thinking.

Finally, be creative. Originality, innovation, and uniqueness are children's inherent rights, but these traits need to be carefully nurtured in a media age. For example, on a cold, rainy day, watch a program or video featuring sunny weather and enjoy a picnic in front of the TV, complete with picnic basket, fried chicken and potato salad. Talk about weather, about the seasons, or about places you'd like to have a real picnic.

Language Development

Many experts agree that "there is no mind without language"—whether that be oral language, sign, or Braille. Alexander Luria, the renowned neuropsychologist, was the forerunner of research that shows language, i.e., any symbolic system of thought actually helps build the brain's higher reasoning centers. Ask any teacher. Children who do well in school also have a rich vocabulary and effective communication skills. The ability to express our thoughts, no matter how smart we are, is constrained by our language abilities. The family TV can easily act as a distraction from family conversations and from opportunities for a child to practice talking—some studies report that 67% of U S families eat their evening meal while watching television! But the home screen can be harnessed to spur conversation and dialogue. Here are a few ways:

Ask children to summarize or retell what they just watched. Turn off the TV and focus on what your child is saying. Ask probing questions. A two or three year-old probably won't be able to sequence the events, but by four or five, you can encourage retelling in order.

Talk with your child about a show like you would about a storybook you might read to her. When you read aloud to a child, you probably already pause to ask or answer questions, admire a picture, or explain a difficult word, and, especially if you tape a program, you can do the same with TV. When the credits are rolling, it's a perfect time to introduce the concept of authorship. Most young children don't think about the idea that people write the stories and draw the pictures or shoot the video for television shows.

By giving some thought about how to use the home screen in the service of young children's brain development, we can help them build healthy TV and video habits early on. Research has demonstrated that the passive viewing habits begun in early childhood determine how these youngsters will watch TV as they get older. Now that's something to think about!

Gloria DeGaetano, the founder and CEO of the Parent Coaching Institute, provides keynotes and workshops for early childhood educators on topics related to media and the young brain. Contact her by phone: (425) 753-0955.


  • DeGaetano, Gloria. Screen Smarts: A Family Guide to Media Literacy, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.
  • DeGaetano, Gloria. Maximizing Your Child's Potential: Healthy Brain Development in a Media Age, Train of Thought Publishing, 1999.
  • Gathercoal, Paul, "Brain Research and Mediated Experience: An Interpretation of the Implications for Education," Clearing House, vol. 63, February,1990, pp. 270-273.
  • Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, 1995.
  • Healy, Jane, Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think and What to Do About It, Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Copyright © 2008, Gloria DeGaetano, all rights reserved. For reprint permission, please call (425) 753-0955.