Elmo made headlines in April for taking on financial literacy in a series of Sesame Street videos.
Elmo loves you, as the phrase goes. He is the star of one of the most successful children's television franchises to date. He is a legislative advocate. He is a banana. To watch him unpack the concept of "sad" with Kermit is to witness Derridean deconstruction at its best. For some, Elmo is nirvana wrapped in polyester fur.
A new study from the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University suggests that the little red muppet is also an instrument of learning. University researchers found that toddlers performed a seriation sequencing task better when an Elmo toy puppet demonstrated it than when an unfamiliar puppet performed the same task.
"Toddlers Learning from Socially Meaningful Video Characters" was authored by Alexis Lauricella (G’07, G’10), former postdoctoral fellow Alice Ann Howard Gola and center director Sandra Calvert, and was recently published in the Media Psychology journal.
The 21-month-old toddlers who participated in the study were divided into three groups: one group watched a video of an Elmo puppet stacking nesting cups inside each other, another group watched a video of an unfamiliar puppet performing the same task and a third group did not watch a video.
Both videos of the different puppets were four minutes long and featured identical actions and verbal instructions, as well as the same "Elmo-like" voice.
The toddlers who viewed the video presentation by the Elmo puppet performed the nesting cup task--which requires the use of an early aspect of mathematical thinking-- significantly better than the group that watched a video starring an unfamiliar puppet and the group that was not given a video to watch, according to the study's authors.
They were also more likely to smile and say the character's name, which are social behaviors that the research team say are indicative of the social significance of Elmo to the toddlers.
Previous studies have found that toddlers learn less from a televised demonstrations than from live demonstrations, but these new findings suggest that researchers and educators may have underestimated the value of video demonstrations to early learning. That is, toddlers under age two can learn cognitive, logical reasoning skills from a video presentation when the onscreen character is socially meaningful to them.
“Toddlers know Elmo, and they are used to seeing him on a screen,” Lauricella said in a press release. “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."