Creating an App that is both entertaining and educational!

Young Children Can Learn Social-Emotional Skills from an App!

Daniel Tiger Feelings

I consider myself a pretty good parent. I don’t let my kids eat dirt. They know how to call 911. And due to the nature of my job as a media researcher, I think I’m pretty well-attuned to what my kids should and shouldn’t do with media. But that doesn’t seem to keep my kids from finding and playing with app games that I’ve never heard of.

In discussions with researchers around the country and with those here at Texas Tech University, it became apparent that far too little research looks at the value of “educational” apps that our kids sometimes get their hands on. If we, as media researchers, can’t identify a worthwhile app for our kids, how are parents supposed to do so? So, we did what researchers do—we designed a study to test the educational value of a popular children’s app.

Together with researchers at Texas Tech University, University of South Dakota, and Vanderbilt University, and in cooperation with Fred Rogers Productions, we invited 121 children ages 3-6 to play with the “Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings” app (or with a ‘control’ app) for about two weeks.

In the study, published in the Journal of Media Psychology, we found that children who played with the “Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings” app were significantly better at managing negative emotions, such as feeling mad, sad, and disappointed (a skill that scholars call “emotion regulation”) than those who didn’t play with the app. For example, kids who played with the Daniel Tiger app were more likely to take a deep breath and count to four when they felt mad, just as Daniel Tiger instructs. This was also true for kids who played with the app and watched episodes of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

Alone, these results are pretty astounding—kids can learn to manage their emotions by playing with an app! But our research team was even more amazed by what we found next. We met with families about a month after the conclusion of the study and found that the skills kids had learned had persisted. Finding short-term effects of media use is pretty common in media research, but such long-term effects are much more rare. In other words, there is something about playing with the Daniel Tiger app that teaches emotional skills to children that sticks with them long-term.

As a parent myself, the implications for this study are clear—it’s okay to let my kids play with the “Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings” app. Among the thousands of apps that claim to be “educational,” we now have an option that research shows is truly educational.

I encourage content creators to take a close look at the ways in which the intended lesson was incorporated into the app and its features. While this study did not look at specific components of the app or its content, we know from past research that educational content for kids tends to have better results when it includes features such as:

  • The inclusion of relatable (and known) characters: Daniel Tiger is the age of the kids for whom the app is intended.

  • Memorable songs: Once you hear Daniel Tiger jingles, they’re hard to get out of your head—just ask any parent of a child who spends time with Daniel Tiger content.

  • Simple & repetitive: Kids both crave and learn well from repetition!

  • Tightly-designed games: Kids learn better when the task or plot is highly intertwined with the lesson being taught.

I work hard at being a good researcher. I work even harder at being a good parent. Being a parent is tough, and in today’s world, I’ll use anything that helps me teach my kids the skills they’ll need as they grow up. And if an app my kids want to play with will do just that, I’ll take it.

Eric Rasmussen, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University

Collaborator of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Citation: Rasmussen, E. E., Strouse, G. A., Colwell, M. J., Russo Johnson, C., Holiday, S., Brady, K., … & Norman, M. S. (2018). Promoting preschoolers’ emotional competence through prosocial TV and mobile app use. Media Psychology, 1-22.

Led by Dr. Eric Rasmussen, this research, was conducted at Texas Tech University, Vanderbilt University, and University of South Dakota, and the research team included CCS’ co-director Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson as well as CSS collaborators Dr. Gabrielle Strouse and Dr. Georgene Troseth.

(Photo courtesy of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood ©2012, The Fred Rogers Company)