Any child born within the last ten years has probably had to sit through his fair share of Baby Einstein videos. The series, featuring art, music, poetry, language, and nature, promised to stimulate a baby’s growing brain, thereby giving it an educational advantage for life. Baby Einstein claimed that its videos helped infants speak second languages, identify their body parts, and learn colors and numbers, all before they could even walk.
Infants might have been entertained, but parents who shelled out the bucks for the DVDs and accessories, only to find that their baby had not become an Einstein, were not amused. In 2009, the company refunded money to anyone who’d fallen for its deceptive advertising and purchased the videos.
A Boom for Babies
The simpler days of Pinwheel and The Letter People are over. Besides Baby Einstein, several video series have capitalized on parents’ desire for bright and gifted children by claiming to target infants’ right or left brain, teach them while still in utero, and make them better athletes. Many critics of these programs note that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two years old should not watch any television at all, but this recommendation is much more ambiguous than it seems. The guidelines take into account only the hours of television watched, not the nature of the programming itself, thereby treating Sesame Street just like Saw.
The AAP’s position, formulated ten years ago, is based on a few studies that found that children with extended television-viewing habits had more attention problems, delayed language development, and other difficulties. While nobody suggests that hours upon hours of television viewing are good for a baby (or any person, for that matter), limited exposure to educational programming may have merit for toddlers and very young children. True children’s programming—often dubbed “edutainment”—offers more interactive learning than the traditionally passive experience of watching television. Studies have found that kids who watch educational programs score better on vocabulary tests, and that children who watch interactive ones score higher on tests of language expression. It’s a far cry from the obesity and hyperactivity found in children who watch excessive amounts of adult television. For kids, the quality of the program is just as important as the hours spent watching it, but if the Baby Einstein refund has made you wary, other high-quality video series out there will challenge and stimulate your child just as well.
Adventures with eebee
Created by a developmental psychologist and veteran of children’s educational media, the babylike puppet eebee (for “every baby”) focuses on the things that stimulate and engage babies, as well as the actions they can and like to perform. According to the Web site, eebee’s adventures “will allow you and your baby to see and learn first-hand what happens when you explore a crinkly, crunchy, smooth and bumpy paper mountain or roll, bounce, bop, bang, slide and toss your way around a world of balls and ramps.” Ordinary recreational moments turn into learning opportunities; the series uses exploration and play to teach lessons about spatial relationships, language, object permanence, and fine motor skills. All of eebee’s adventures are interactive, as parents are encouraged to play along and give their children objects to engage that correspond with the characters onscreen, which include both the eebee character and real infants. Produced in conjunction with child-development researchers and experts, the videos are rich in music, color, and sound and focus on the world from a baby’s perspective. Instead of simply instructing a child to memorize words and sounds, eebee teaches through fun play experiences.
The goal of Juno Baby is to foster a lifelong love of music in children. Conceived and created by a professional classical musician and mother, this award-winning series features original pieces performed by real musicians, along with catchy kid-friendly melodies, sing-alongs, and other fun songs that encourage viewer participation. The video series is appropriate for kids up to age five, and each age group will find something to love about it: infants and toddlers will enjoy the colors and music, while older children will relish the funny characters and amusing stories. Juno Baby builds on research that shows that children have the capacity to hear a greater range of musical frequencies than adults do, as well as to appreciate more complex rhythmic patterns. Since children’s musical abilities are linked to earlier reading abilities and language development, Juno Baby’s focus on music is both fun and educational.
The Babysitting Box
While parents surely want to give their child every educational advantage, some experts question why parents are so eager to plop their infants in front of enrichment videos. Although modern parenting is fraught with competition and pressure for children to meet and exceed their developmental milestones, it could be that many parents find that utilizing these videos simply permits Mom or Dad to have some time to breathe and relax. The makers of today’s edutainment series stress that parents should enjoy their products with their children, not use the videos as a substitute for real-life interaction. For parents who still have some Baby Einstein DVDs in the house, there’s no evidence that they’re dangerous or stifling. At best, any edutainment products—from Barney to Blue’s Clues—are a fun distraction for a child; at worst, they’re most likely harmless.
Parents should also have reasonable expectations. A few minutes of a video won’t turn their child into a savant, and honest educational series don’t guarantee that—they promise only to engage and delight kids. For any child, music and colors and poetry might be exciting, but there is no substitute for constant and loving interaction with parents, siblings, and other family members. In fact, the best way to ensure that your children have a bright educational and intellectual future is time-tested, free, and available anywhere: read to them each and every day.