color photo of family watching wide screen TV with multiple inner screensI’m noticing that parents are talking a lot on Twitter about how much time their kids are spending watching television during this COVID-19 pandemic.  With so much time freed up from going to school, the television can provide an escape from the stresses and strains that we’re all going through. Some parents feel guilty about the time their kids spend watching TV.  My opinion is that they shouldn’t feel this way, especially if you can turn TV watching into a learning experience for your kids.  Here are 5 ways to make TV time a learning time for your children and/or teens:

  1. Sit with Your Kids While They Watch and Engage Them in Conversation About the Content.   The biggest problem with TV is that too often it’s used as a ”baby-sitter” or a convenient way of occupying your kids’ time while you’re doing other things (like working from home).  Thus, it becomes a strictly passive activity where kids are taking in all these images without any mediation going on. Doing something as simple as sitting with your kids while they watch TV and having conversations with them about what they’re viewing, can make a big difference in whether your kids are thoughtful when they’re watching or simply take in images indifferently. It doesn’t matter all that much what you say, as long as the conversation is directed toward what you’re viewing together.  You might share your opinion of the show, talk about the characters in a story, or ask your child honest questions about what you’re viewing, but do this in a non-preachy way, so that you’re kids don’t think you’re trying to impose yourself on their enjoyment.
  2. Develop Your Kids’ Critical Thinking Skills by Asking Them Simple Questions About What They’re Watching.  This suggestion asks you to be a little more strategic in the conversations you have while you’re watching TV with your kids.  Ask them questions like ”how do you think this show will end?” (prediction), ”who is your favorite character and why?” (evaluation), ”what do you think the screenwriters want the viewers to take away from the show?” (drawing conclusions), ”is this show like any others you’ve seen?” (comparison).  These questions may seem simple but they activate a child’s (or teen’s) executive centers in the brain which are important for being able to make informed and intelligent choices in life.
  3. Ask Questions During TV Time that Can Make Your Kids Media Critics.  Too often we watch TV only paying attention to the content, not to the actual process or mechanics of what it took to put the show together in the first place.  Ask your kids questions about the staging (”can you tell how many cameras they’re using?” ”what do you think about their use of light?” ”do you think this show was expensive to produce?”). Commercials are a specially good place to be a media critic.  You can ask your kids:  ”Why are they using a beautiful woman to sell cars?” ”What ‘hook’ are the producers of the commercial using to grab your attention and get you to buy their product?” ”How are they using sounds (or music) to help sell their product?” Understanding how TV content is put together can make it less likely that your kids will be brainwashed by the manipulations of screenwriters and TV producers.
  4. Help Your Kids Link What They’re Watching to Their Schoolwork in Some Way.   If your kids are learning to read, then make use of subtitle features on streaming services so that your child can read and watch at the same time (this is also a great way for learning another language such as Spanish with English subtitle, or English speaking movies with Spanish subtitles).  Use content on TV to ignite independent learning.  If your kids love to watch hospital soap operas, for example, then use the plot as a take off point for starting an investigation on the Internet (e.g. if the plot involves a heart transplant, then use the Internet to learn more about the heart, see videos of heart surgery, etc.).
  5. Encourage Your Kids to Move Their Bodies While They Watch TV.  Another downside of television viewing is that most people do it while lying on the couch (which is where we get the term ”couch potato”).  New evidence suggests that too much time spent sitting or lying down while watching TV is linked to a wide range of health problems including cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.  Suggest to your kids that they watch an episode of a show while standing up, or set a timer for fifteen minute intervals, when everyone needs to get up and move around.

You won’t always be able to watch television with your kids (they might start to look at you as the ”TV police” if you do!).  But keep in mind that TV time does not need to be empty calories for your child’s mind, but can become a dynamic way for you to help awaken your child’s mind to the often fascinating world that TV programming unveils to them.


For more information on stimulating your child to learn in active ways, see my best-selling book In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Multiple Intelligences.

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education - https://amzn.to/2KAxT8F.
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