Sid the Science Kid inspires children about science—and grownups about children's learning
By Steven T. Corneliussen
Sid the Science Kid, reports a PBS webpage, “is an award-winning educational animated television series that uses comedy and music to promote exploration, discovery and science readiness among preschoolers.”
Sid the Science Kid, reports Lisa Guernsey in a Smithsonian magazine commentary, “is one of the first preschool shows to be explicit about teaching science and spurring children to think of themselves as scientists.”
Purple-haired Sid is animated in two senses: not only is he a cartoon character, but he’s gregariously, kinetically enthusiastic. The shows comes from a company named for Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. PBS says it seeks to build on preschoolers’ natural curiosity, to get them to see that science surrounds us, and to involve parents and teachers in a childhood “climate of curiosity.” Like scientists, Sid and his friends ask questions. They observe and investigate, they measure, they record, they try to predict—and they ask more questions.
In one five-minute clip, Sid’s friend Gerald observes—acts out, actually—that the classroom can be measured in units of gerald. To demonstrate, he lies down, feet against the wall, then gets up, moves over, and lies down again. (PBS never says this, but the episode calls to mind a story famous in science about units of smoot, named for Oliver Smoot, the playful MIT student who lay on the bridge between Boston and Cambridge and was used by other students to measure the structure’s length.)
The journalist Guernsey, a mother of two daughters, explores how electronic media affect children’s development. Smithsonian headlined her commentary “How kids’ television inspires a lifelong love of science: Television shows for preschoolers are teaching a whole new audience about science—their parents.”
Guernsey argues that Sid overturns two widespread assumptions: that TV brings toxicity to kids’ mental development and that the preschool curriculum needs no science. She observes that STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—subjects are showing up in other kids’ programs too, including, as she puts it, “‘Curious George’ (science and engineering), ‘Peep and the Big Wide World’ (science), ‘The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That’ (science), ‘Dinosaur Train’ (life science and literacy) and ‘Sesame Street’ (math and a new science curriculum).”
She mentions benefits from multisensory learning, notes that a kid watching TV is not using all her senses, and asks whether that child wouldn’t be better off “outside observing ants in the crevices of the sidewalk.” She answers that the creators of those shows want to test “the ‘both/and’ hypothesis—the idea that children may be able to learn and get excited about doing these hands-on activities by watching characters talk about and engage in science first.”
Guernsey reports that studies show how well-designed preschool TV programs can increase STEM knowledge. Then she moves from the cognitive domain to the affective domain, where students’ attitudes, outlooks, and feelings about science evolve. She cites a study showing that watching Sid made kids “more likely to ask questions about how things worked.”
She also brings in parents: “Now the question is whether TV shows, and increasingly, digital media and games, can also help children learn science by sparking hands-on exploration. To test this idea, researchers are asking whether shows like ‘Sid the Science Kid’ could lead parents and teachers to offer more chances for real-world experiments and more ‘science talk’ with kids.”
That leads Guernsey to another assumption that Sid and other shows help to overturn: parents’ idea that as authority figures, they must always know the answers to kids’ science questions. Such shows, she says, encourage a shift from fearing science questions to realizing that a good response is simply to praise such questions and then help children look for answers. Guernsey emphasizes that on Sid, Teacher Susie uses precisely that approach, guiding the kids to question, observe, experiment, and analyze.
The emerging evidence on the teaching implications of such shows, Guernsey concludes, raises “a host of new questions on how to use TV content wisely during the preschool or kindergarten day.”
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.
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