Can Curious George Make Your Kids Smarter?

First, a confession: my kids watch Curious George almost every day.  So I was flooded with relief to hear the PBS announcement, “A new study proves that kids also learn from Curious George.  That’s one smart monkey!”  The curious scientist in me got excited.  So I put my two-year-old in front of our iPad, turned on everyone’s favorite monkey, and looked up the data myself.

Can Curious George Make your Kids Smarter

Curious George is the #1 TV program for preschoolers, and parents need to know that all that screen time is well-spent.   PBS says that Curious George teaches math, science, engineering, and curiosity to preschoolers, but does it really?

This Curious George data might be the most underwhelming research I’ve read in a long time.  Basically, their studies showed that kids who watched Curious George videos could answer questions about the math and science content of the video more accurately than kids who didn’t watch those videos.  Really, did we need a study to show this?

In case that study didn’t impress you, they also did a study that showed that kids who read Curious George books and then answered questions about the content knew more about that content than kids who didn’t read the books.  Hmm… I’m underwhelmed.

But here’s what DID surprise me: so many kids watch Curious George that they couldn’t find enough kids who were unexposed to the monkey to make up a control group for the study.  He really is everyone’s favorite monkey, and for good reason.

George reminds us all how to laugh at disaster and make the mundane and ordinary fun.  He celebrates the curiosity, creativity, and pure joy that comes with the innocence of childhood.  He makes the geeky Man With the Yellow Hat (TMWTYH) cool, especially when he forgives George again and again for each disaster he creates.

We all have much to learn from George and TMWTYH, more than the math and science PBS boasts of.   If only I had the persistent joy of George and the ability to magically fix disasters like TMWTYH.

But alas, I am not a work of fiction.  And, unlike TMWTYH, I do try to teach my kids self-control.  I do give my kids consequences for blatant disobedience.  Unlike TMWTYH, I am not raising a monkey.

The question isn’t “Do kids learn while watching Curious George?”  The real question is this—what isn’t your child doing when they are watching a screen?  And, what is your child learning that you DON’T want them to learn?  

Yes, kids do absorb and remember information about math and science that they learn from Curious George.  But it’s not a magic teaching tool—far from it.  And parking your toddler in front of Curious George isn’t going to turn him into Einstein.  On the contrary, too much TV time discourages the creative play that we know is essential for preschool brain development.  

In defense of PBS, they have attempted to teach creative play through Curious George programming.  Each show even includes a non-animated part about real kids tracing their shadows, sorting toys, or doing some other creative project.  The PBS research also includes data about how kids are excited about math and science activities after watching Curious George.

But there’s a reason why every show includes the disclaimer, “George is a monkey, so he can do things you can’t do.”  Curious George does all kinds of stuff none of us want our kids to do—like falling of a dock into a pond, supervised only by a bunch of critters.  He also floods houses, paints living rooms, climbs telephone poles, washes windows on sky scrapers, flies around by holding a bunch of balloons, and makes every sort of mess imaginable.

Somehow it always turns out OK for George, and the messes all disappear thanks to The Man With The Yellow Hat.  Not so in the real world.  

A few weeks ago my son watched George make a hat that had bubbles coming out of the top.  My son then spent most of a day trying to make his own bubble hat by attaching a bubble machine to the inside of a top hat crafted out of poster board.  Several hours later I had a crying, frustrated child, a broken bubble machine, and bubble-soaked poster board all over my kitchen.  And I had re-arranged my own plans for the day to help make this crazy project work.  Given the estimated hundreds of million kids who watch Curious George, I’m sure this is not the only George-inspired disaster out there.

Like all screen time, Curious George is great with moderation.  How much TV is OK for kids (maybe even stimulating/educational)?  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under age 2 shouldn’t have any screen time.  Children over 2 should be limited to 2 hours of recreational screen time per day.  I consider Curious George to be primarily recreational, not educational.

OK, time to take the iPad away from my toddler and go outside to play.

(You can read the PBS research re: Curious George here.)

Copyright 2013 Kathleen Berchelmann, MD

One Comment
  1. Carmen
    December 11, 2013 | Reply

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