Educational Television: Is SpongeBob Square Pants The Best We Can Do?



When I was little, I spent weekend mornings watching Bugs Bunny, Wylie Coyote and the Roadrunner, and the Pink Panther episodes. It was a ritual I relished; and at the time, wasn’t considered educational or hazardous. It just was something kids did on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They watched cartoons just like they played outdoors or played “Cowboys and Indians” with cap guns. No one talked about the impact of watching too much television, or the impact of television on cognitive development.

Captain Kangaroo circa 1960

And the only real educational programs at the time were Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo. Those of us raised in the 50s, 60s, and 70s watched Captain Kangaroo and fondly thought of the characters as television friends who helped us as we grew up.

With the advent of public television in the 60s and the subsequent technological revolution, and studies that focused on links between television viewing and violence acts committed by children, the subject of watching television, how much television, and the quality of television programming were highlighted. Educational television was good. Saturday morning cartoons were not so good. And parents who plopped their children in front of the television for a couple minute of parenting reprieve or as a convenient babysitter were chastised as relinquishing parental responsibility.

As an educational tool, television is considered a passive medium, one that limits the viewer’s engagement, has an addictive quality, and diminishes creativity. But there are exceptions.

With the flood of digital media, online videos, gaming, social media, and Cartoon Network, it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not. It’s hard to sift through the abundance of literature, reviews, and parenting guidelines. And it’s hard to know precisely how much or how little time is too much television time. Can educational television be beneficial to our children? To what extent? And if so, what are some of the best educational programs? Is SpongeBob Square Pants the best we can do?

Television Guidelines

The following are some guidelines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Children younger than 2 should not be exposed to television viewing. While television can be entertaining and mesmerizing for infants, long-term studies show that television has a negative effect on infants younger than 2.

Studies found that language skills in children exposed to television during the 0-2 year window had less interaction with parents. Less interaction means less language and conversation that impacts vocabulary and language development. Television viewing also interferes with play. Play in infants is shown to be crucial in cognitive development and emotional health. Also, television viewing at night is complicit with sleep disruptions. Poor sleep patterns in infants has been linked to mood, behavior, and learning.

For preschoolers, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of television viewing, even educational television. In this age group, television viewing can enhance social skills such as sharing, manners, diversity, and cultural awareness. But pediatricians recommend that parents monitor shows for educational value, information content, and violence. Parents should also watch television with children. Watching with your child encourages parent/child interaction. It can also be a launching point for conversations, a way for a parent to mitigate concepts that might be confusing or scary for young children. And for increased language benefit, parents should read to preschoolers, not only as a way to reinforce vocabulary used in the television shows. They should read books about themes discussed in the television shows to help young children understand the world around them.

For older children and adolescents, pediatricians caution parents to be vigilant. Television viewing should be educational, of a higher quality and screened to limit gratuitous violence, suggestive material, drug orientation, and programs that skew healthy body image. If you plan to discuss a provocative subject with your child, television programming can be a good launching point, a segue to a more serious conversation with your child.

Educational Television and Its Benefits

Educational television, unlike the mass programming available around the clock, can be a powerful educational resource. In one study, “The Recontact Study,” Daniel R. Anderson found that preschoolers who watched Sesame Street had larger vocabularies in high school compared to children who watched other programming or no television at all. The results were especially apparent in children from lower income neighborhoods. Anderson also found that these same children were better prepared for school than their peers, had higher grades in science and English, had higher total GPA, read more books, placed more value on achievement, and were rated as more creative, compared with their peers.

As preschoolers develop language skills, television can reinforce storytelling skills such as plot, sequence, character development, and theme.

Some educational television programs to consider00

Sesame Street: This program exposes kids to cultural and ethnic diversity and real-life concepts. Its focus on language skills, reading, context, conversation, and social skills has been shown, with decades of research, to improve educational outcomes for kids, especially kids from lower socioeconomic communities. And it’s adult spin on timeless favorites engages older kids and adults into the television-watching experience.

Mr. Rogers: Filmed in Pittsburgh, PA, Mr. Rogers has special meaning for many of us raised in his neighborhood. Mr. Rogers, a minister and social worker, felt it important to teach children about peaceful interactions, about acknowledging feelings and learning how to communicate them to others, about working with others, learning, and other common themes that young children might encounter. What’s special and lasting about this show is the narrative, the soothing nature of Mr. Rodgers himself, processes he feels important for young children to understand, and the importance of community and relationships. For those of us who interacted with him in Pittsburgh, he treated each of us the way he treated his television characters–with respect, kindness, and validation.

Super Why: Super Why reinforces reading, syntax, contextual clues in reading, analysis. This show also teachers basic literacy skills like alphabets and phonetics, and engages the viewers in the storyline.

WordWorld: This show takes letters and words and superimposes it on real life so that children begin to associate words with their meanings. Children learn site words through recognition and context.

Sid the Science Kid: This is science explored on a playground, early childhood level. Sid, the main character asks questions and explores subjects the way a child might.  It goes over scientific method, shows its application, and reinforces critical learning and analytical reasoning.

Reading Rainbow: Reading Rainbow brings books alive and spark an interest in reading. Narrated by Lavar Burton, it also draws in curiosity from those of us who knew Lavar Burton as Geordie in Star Trek: The Next Generation and want to see him again. The show engages young readers but explores story themes more in-depth. For example, some books discussed discuss slavery and its relationship to U.S. history, the intersection of people of different cultures living and interacting in an urban setting, moving away and the feelings young children go through, anger and methods to cope, and so on.

New Electric Company: (Kindergarten age): Based on the 1970s version of PBS’ The Electric Company, this show continues to teach phonics, grammar, and spelling. It creates skits with lively narratives and engages kids with humor and silliness.

Between the Lions: A play on words (Between the lines), this show covers early literacy skills, reading, but teaches analytical skills. How to figure out words in context? How to glean the meaning of a reading passage? What is the plot?

Magic School Bus: A narrative-based show, this show explains processes and the workings of the world kids are most tuned into. It also takes kids into the fray, allows them to imagine what it might be like to be intricately involved in a process and that engages the imagination and creativity of a child.

Cyberchase: Cyberchase blends adventure and learning, with the characters finding out things about real-life skills (like map reading) as they work to protect the land of “Cyberspace.” Because it deals with computers and digital media, it has particular relevance in today’s world.

Nova: For older school-aged children and adolescents, Nova covers topics that span science, culture, history, music, and many subjects kids might be interested in but on a more complex level. Most topics covered by Nova are set up with a narrative and chronology that helps viewers see a process in its entirety.

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About Merle Huerta

Merle Huerta is a staff writer with, a teacher, tutor, a retired army wife, and a mother of a blended family of 13.

Reader Interactions


  1. Ishan says

    Thanks for sharing this information regarding television, I really found this very helpful. And your blog about learning english with television is very helpful.