Education & Entertainment For Your Child (Part 1): How to Choose Educational Products


Photo Credit: Stuart Miles

Most of the educational products today appeal to the child’s senses, especially visually, be it books, videos, toys or flashcards. The main objective is to attract the child to interact with it so that they obtain knowledge from it. However since there are so many products in the market, the parents are not only spoilt for choice, but they are often at a loss what to buy! Unfortunately because a main factor to attracting a child is through entertainment, they tend to go hand in hand, and we ended up going down a spiral that can hardly be reversed.

I do think that educational products do not have to be extremely expensive, although for toys I must admit that sometimes you get what you pay for, especially in terms of safety and quality. In this post I shall focus more on books, videos and flashcards rather than toys because individual child tend to have their preferences, so do parents. Moreover there are many good articles online on this topic as well, I think there is no need for me to elaborate.

First of all, we should not expose very young babies (0-2mths) to any form of high stimulation except for flash cards or prints that are black and white in color. I prefer to also let them listen to peaceful lullabies to cultivate a calm and peaceful demeanor. They hardly play with any toys this age.

After 3 months, red and other primary colors may be introduced. You can play classical music softly in the background to stimulate their hearing (and brain activity) while they play. Rattles, or anything that they can learn to hold in their hands, are the best toys for now. They will eventually progress to other toys that teaches cause and effect (lights, sounds or music etc.) Nevertheless, the caregiver, especially mommy, is the best education product. If possible, establish a routine. Routine is helpful for both baby & mommy to enjoy the caregiving relationship which can be really challenging at times. (Many mommies does not like to, or not even not able to cope, with taking care of baby) However I would encourage mommy to persist and not pass on this job to grandparents or maids because the child with bond with whomever takes care of him, wash him, feed him and change his diaper. Being secure gives baby a head start in his intellect and emotions. You can also probably start to flash cards now. Do not show videos until about 9 months of age when they are able to take more visual stimulation or follow a rapidly moving object. Overstimulation and strain of eye muscles is not fun.

When choosing flashcards or videos, I have a few recommendations.

1. Before they are able to understand abstract concepts, show only REAL LIFE pictures or images. i.e. Try not to show cartoon pictures, or show words in the absence of what they represent. This is because they need to know the real thing. Also, words are abstract too, they represent and mean something. Therefore they should learn how a real animal looks like, for example. At about 1.5 to 2 yrs or so, they will have an understanding of abstract concepts, and that words and pictures have meaning. They will start to identify that an outline of a rabbit is a rabbit, and a cartoony picture of a rabbit, represents a real rabbit. Once they have the idea of the real thing, you find that they can identify all the different drawings that resemble the object, even if they have never seen it before.

2. For flash cards, avoid too many details in the image that you show to your child. For example, the flash card should not have the word and picture on the same side. This is because we want to make sure they know which is the “real” thing that you want to teach. Moreover, because the image is usually more attractive to the child, they tend to focus only on the image and less likely to absorb and retain the word.

3. Because we want to ensure they develop understanding and comprehension before they learn abstract representation (again back to point 1), I am not big on children who learn to read early. There are babies who can read and decode the English language. But since English is a phonical language, early English reading doesn’t mean they understand or has the ability to comprehend what they are reading. If you’d like your child to read early, make sure you also show the image of the word that it represents. For the same reason, I don’t think it does much good for a child to learn all the countries on the map before 2 years old.

4. For Chinese it is a different story. Chinese is a 象形字. It is pictorial. Besides the usual 有边读边 kind of method, much of it is rote learning, especially the part where you try to get them to recognize letters and read. Therefore, you SHOULD expose the child early to the word, but again, back to point (3), make sure you also teach the meaning of the word with a real image, or when they are older, use a figurine etc.

5. For a number flash card, we want to teach the child that “8” means the quantity 8, not the number 8, because the number is just a symbol of the quantity. Again, back to point (2), make sure you don’t have 8 balls and number 8 on the same picture. Which one is 8? The baby may perceive it as one entire picture, 8 ball and number 8 inclusive.

6. Again, I would like to remind parents that you’d do well not to expose the child to highly entertaining videos*, TV inclusive. I’m not a kill-joy, but I have many reasons as follows:

    • likely highly entertaining programs comes with many subtle elements we may not want the kid to be exposed in the first place. Usually, a main character or concert-like type of program. Moreover, if there is anyone whom we like the child to “idolize” or emulate, it would be Jesus. ** If the program is too entertaining and stimulating, the poor child might not be able to process all the information. What happens is their minds might just go blank while watching and that defeats the purpose of learning.
    • Also, I think we’re doing the kids a disfavor when they find that learning becomes progressively boring. Not only will a baby become disinterested with flash card videos after watching shows with lots of pomp and fanfare, there is a sharp decrease in entertaining educational products after preschool. Even if you had a lot of money there isn’t such product. Anyone heard of interesting A levels Math video?? Their “learning ability” will be greatly decreased after preschool and will have “problem” absorbing. The entire education system now seems to be a popular contest (see who can get the child’s attention more) and I pity the teachers. It gets harder and harder to entertain them and keep them continuously attracted. Unless the teacher try to relate the lesson to Lady Gaga, the teacher may probably not get any attention at all? Otherwise they have to think and try so hard to keep that entertainment element up. (For this reason I am also not very keen on iPads, except it is good for hand-eye coordination. I much prefer learning by interaction, it internalizes much better too.)
    • Videos are essentially passive. It is NOT an effective medium of teaching as it does not teach the child to think or reason. Therefore it only works in the early ages when facts or knowledge are meant to be absorbed as it is. Our main objective in the long run of the child’s future, is that they learn to think and have the ability to reason for themselves.

*By saying “highly entertaining videos” I mean videos that are very cartoony, with main characters, or fast contemporary music (different from catchy) and especially ones that encourage the purchase of merchandize or concert-like programs where people do big actions and deliberate facial expressions. Except for speech and drama courses, I think we will be glad to stay away from such. I definitely am not able to keep up with the people in the video to be constantly energized and speak with so much enthusiasm and big expressions. =) Some programs that I would put them into this category is Hi-5, Barney, Spongebob, Dora, 喜羊羊, Vegetales, Leapfrog and the like. (Sorry if I am too strict, I don’t think they will miss out in anything if it is introduced much later, just not at baby or toddler age! Hold them out as long as you can, or don’t even use them at all, because there are plenty of other alternative products or even other methods to learn that are way better.)

**For that matter, I limit my children to mainly Thomas. It teaches good character, its stories uses good english, and its cartoon does not have rapidly changing images. I don’t mind buying the toys and bags for him with Thomas train on it as it also helps me to teach colors and numbers. Anyone has suggestion for a healthy character for girls?

I own quite a lot of education videos as well and I’m not saying the kid should not watch videos at all. They are so very helpful when I need a break or when I need to do things in peace. We just need to be very selective. Try to vet it before you show your child. Repeat the programs to enhance learning by repetition. Therefore it is good to keep selection small and slowly grow it as your child grows. Whenever possible, try to watch with your child to interact with them (say the word, do the actions, ask questions, further elaborate) so they develop this habit of interacting with the video instead of passively watching only.

The above is my gleanings from reading countless books, countless articles online, information brochures, attending several seminars, speaking to “experts” as well as experience with my 2 children, peppered with lots of thoughts and considerations on my own part (I try to think big picture, since anything we do have a long term impact upon our children, I take that very seriously).

I hope that this post is helpful to you especially if you are lost and time-starved.


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