Educators question 'educational' kids' DVDs

Fancy educational toys don't give rich kids an advantage over poor kids when it comes to brain development.

It’s that time of year when parents feel pressured to buy kids the perfect toy. For many, the ideal toy is educational. The market has responded with a wide array of products that claim to stimulate brain development. But they could be a waste of money. Or worse.

Brain-boosting DVDs for infants are top sellers. The "Baby Einstein" series is especially popular.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis -- director at the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute -- won’t single out any particular product, but says, “There is no evidence whatsoever that the so-called educational baby DVDs offer any advantage. And the best available evidence actually suggests that there’s harm associated with them.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages TV and videos for kids under the age of 2.

In his own research, Christakis studied two groups of infants. One group watched baby DVDs. The other group played with building blocks instead. In both groups, parents stayed in the room and were free to interact with the children as they normally would during play or TV-viewing. He found that watching a video results in less intellectual engagement compared to the building-block games.

“Blocks have never made any educational claims,” says Christakis. “I don’t think that parents have bought blocks specifically to make their child smarter, or certainly not to improve their language development. And yet, in that study, we demonstrated that they, in fact, do that.”

There is nothing inherently magical about blocks, he says. The key is parent-child interaction. That’s what builds brains.

I asked if kids from low-income families are at a disadvantage if they don’t have the latest educational toy or DVD. The short answer: no.

“Parents are nervous that if they aren’t buying these high-quality educational expensive toys, their children are going to be somehow disadvantaged. And the reality is, that which is simplest is frequently best. That the best educational toys are things like blocks. Like books,” says Christakis.

Researchers do see differences in brain development between rich and poor kids.

“The real difference is not the 'Baby Einstein' or the special toys they get at the special toy shop," says Douglas Vanderbilt, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. "It’s that higher-income families speak more to their child. They have more child-directed language. And what really can be helpful for families is to increase the amount of language that is shared back and forth with a child.”

Vanderbilt tried using educational videos with his own child.

“My daughter, I want her to learn Chinese. Let me get the Chinese videos. She didn’t learn any of the words in the Chinese videos. Actually, the word she learned was the one she learned with my mother-in-law, who speaks Chinese,” says Vanderbilt.

Again, it’s that interaction that makes the difference.

So, what about interactive computer games and smartphone apps for kids?

Though research is limited, some apps for kids show promise for things like critical thinking and communication, and even core subjects like math and science.

One study involving a math app was shown to help kids learn. The app taught 5th graders about fractions. After playing with the app for 20 minutes a day over five days, the kids’ test scores improved 15 percent. And the kids showed more interest in the subject. Fractions became fun.

On this new technological front, there is a real digital divide between rich and poor families.

“We coined the term, the app gap,” says Shira Lee Katz, director of digital media at Common Sense Media, an organization that helps kids and parents navigate the media landscape.

“We did a study last year, and we found that among lower-income children, 27 percent have a parent with a smartphone, compared to 57 percent for higher-income kids,” says Katz.

That study also found that only 14 percent of lower-income parents had ever downloaded an app for children to use, compared to 47 percent of higher-income parents.

Katz says the barrier to entry is high for low-income families -- tablets and smartphones are pricey. But the actual apps are generally inexpensive or free.

She suggests low-income families make use of libraries and after-school programs, where tablets with educational apps are increasingly available to kids.


Common Sense Media's Shira Lee Katz put together a list of 10 best educational apps for children ages 2-12. Read the recommendations here.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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