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Toddlers Learn Early Math Skills from Elmo

Elmo Study Art

Researchers at the Children's Digital Media Center say toddlers view Sesame Street’s Elmo as a “familiar friend,” which makes mastering tasks demonstrated by him easier for them.

July 21, 2011 –Researchers from Georgetown’s Children’s Digital Media Center found that toddlers performed a sequencing task better when an Elmo toy puppet demonstrated it than when an unfamiliar puppet performed the same task. 

The findings demonstrate the importance of meaningful characters for toddlers’ early learning, the study’s authors say.

Alexis Lauricella (G’07, G’10), former postdoctoral fellow Alice Ann Howard Gola and center director Sandra Calvert, recently published “Toddlers Learning from Socially Meaningful Video Characters,” in the Media Psychology journal.

Trusted Friend

The National Science Foundation and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation’s Fred Rogers Memorial Scholarship funded the research.

“Very young children often have difficulty learning from videos,” Calvert says.  “But when a trusted ‘friend’ delivers the message, learning is much better. Thus the social relationships that children develop with a character matters, even for toddlers.”

The findings also suggest that studies of infant and toddler learning from videos, which often rely on using unfamiliar adults, may underestimate what children can learn from onscreen characters that matter to them. 

Focusing Attention

When a character such as Elmo is socially meaningful to the child, less working memory may be needed to process who that character is, allowing for more memory to be devoted to mastering the task at hand. 

“Toddlers know Elmo, and they are used to seeing him on a screen,” Lauricella says. “This previous knowledge about the on-screen character may be helping children focus their attention on the novel cognitive features of the video rather than spending their limited cognitive resources on the character."

The 21-month-old toddlers in the study were divided into three groups. One of the groups watched a video of an Elmo toy puppet placing nesting cups inside each other, another group viewed a video of an unfamiliar puppet doing the same task, and a third group did not watch a video. 

Socially Meaningful

The videos with the two different puppets were exactly the same in every other way – each was four minutes long with identical actions, verbal instructions and the same Elmo-like voice.

The toddlers who watched the Elmo puppet were able to sequence the nesting cups significantly better than those who observed the other puppet or who didn’t see a demonstration. Nesting the cups is a way of organizing information by size, an early aspect of mathematical thinking.

Joyful and Predictable

Those who saw the Elmo toy puppet perform the demonstration were also more likely to smile and say the character’s name than those who saw the unfamiliar puppet. These social behaviors, the authors say, indicated that Elmo was socially meaningful to the toddlers.

“For over 40 years we have used our Muppet characters as joyful and predictable models of learning, exploration, and curiosity,” says Lewis Bernstein, executive vice president, education, research and outreach at Sesame Workshop. “We are pleased by the findings of Children’s Digital Media Center’s study, which indicate that learning, even for very young children, is enhanced by the strong relationships our characters create with their audience.”


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