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How “Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings” App Helps Kids Learn

As the years go by, the wisdom taught by Fred Rogers seems to grow ever truer. Nobody — including Fred Rogers — could foresee the digitized media environment in which we would raise our kids. Nonetheless, he provided some remarkable insight with the power to transform the way we use media to teach our children.

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning,” Rogers said. “But for children, play is serious learning.”

Children play in lots of ways. As a child, my play-time centered around chasing a ball, riding a bike or building a fort.

Today, the world of play for children looks a bit different.

Kids still spend time outdoors but they also play in virtual worlds, complete missions, and share photos and videos. Based on recent research, however, we do not need to express great concern for that children learning in virtual spaces. With careful planning, the virtual play worlds of today’s children do not necessarily translate as any less valuable than the learning we experienced as kids.

Researchers at Texas Tech University (including myself), Vanderbilt University, and University of South Dakota recently published a study in which they sent home a tablet with preschool-aged children. In accordance with instructions given, children played with a preloaded app (either the “Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings” app or a “control” app) for at least 10 minutes and to watched an episode of either Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or a “control” program every day for two weeks. After the two-week study period, scientists measured several learning outcomes, including kids’ emotion regulation (being able to control one’s emotions) and emotion knowledge (being able to identify and recognize common emotions). They measured the same outcomes again one month later.

Several interesting results emerged:

  • Kids who played with the Daniel Tiger app, and those who both played with the app and watched the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood episodes, exhibited significantly higher levels of emotion regulation, according to their parents. They used certain strategies to control their emotions more often, including counting to four and taking a deep breath when mad and looking for the good in disappointing situations. Can you hear the songs in your head as you read this? Turns out, kids don’t just learn the songs — they apply the lessons too.
  • Kids who played with the Daniel Tiger app also exhibited higher levels of emotion knowledge. They better identified and recognized emotions when presented with pictures and scenarios depicting those emotions.
  • In addition, some of these results “stuck” even after a month. In other words, kids’ learning (and application) of emotion regulation skills lasted much longer than immediately after the experiment. For some reason, the lessons taught in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood media seem to stick with kids.
  • Lastly, having Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood media in the home helped more than the kids. Parents whose kids used the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood media also tended to talk with their kids about the content of the media more than parents of kids exposed to the “control” media. It appears, then, that something about Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood gets parents and kids talking about media, a practice that has been shown in past research to help kids make sense of and learn from media.

Not too long ago, I went online and searched for “educational apps for kids.”

What I found surprised me. Thousands upon thousands of apps appeared — all of them labelled “educational.” The parenting conundrum is clear — how can parents sift through all these apps to find one or two truly educational apps to download for kids to use? How many of these apps undergo rigorous testing to determine that kids actually learn what is being taught? How do parents accomplish the impossible?

We do what Fred Rogers taught: “Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job,” he said. “Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds.”

As a researcher, I see the evidence.

The legacy of Mister Rogers has again risen to the top with “Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings” app. And as a parent, knowing that I now have one more tool to help teach my kids gives me comfort.

Thank you, again, Mister Rogers.

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