As parents, we're told that letting our kids watch too much television will rot their brains. We're admonished to read to our babies from birth and fed the idea that they won't learn to read if we don't limit their screen time and read with them every single day — with no exceptions. So, after I gave birth to my sons I did exactly that. I started reading to my twin boys from the day they were born, still in their incubators in the NICU. And while it was a fantastic way to bond with them as infants and a great way to spend some quiet time with them as they grew into toddlers and now preschoolers, it didn't turn them into 3-year-old savants who were penning sonnets the way I'd imagined. Oddly enough, it wasn't until I started letting my kids binge-watch Super Why! that they started to learn the basics of reading.
Generally I have mommy guilt over allowing my kids to have too much screen time. But I figure PBS Kids is like the cartoon equivalent of a cookie with carrots hidden inside. Since the shows are educational, I try to get my kids to stick with them as much as possible. Sometimes an episode of Bubble Guppies slips in, but I do what I can. So when we were looking for something new to watch during the half-hour of screen time my boys get each day, we decided to try Super Why!
In case your kid is a firm devotee to all that is Daniel Tiger and his conflict-resolution strategies and you haven't see Super Why! yet, here's the gist: The show is about a group of friends: Whyatt, Pig, Red Riding Hood, Princess Pea, and Whyatt's Puppy. Every episode they meet at a secret clubhouse called the Book Club in StoryBook village where they all live. It's cute; kind of has a tiny house vibe going for it.
Each week, they discuss a problem one of them is having. To solve the answer to their problem, they look to a classic fairytale by transforming into the Super Readers (kind of like the Power Rangers, but instead of zords they each have a special power related to reading comprehension and spelling). By reading the story and changing words and thereby the plot, they hunt for super letters to find the answer to whatever that week's problem is.
Trying It With My Boys
Like most preschoolers, my boys have a tendency to get obsessed with new things and admittedly, I was digging the way Alpha Pig jazzed up the tune of the "ABCs," so for a few weeks straight it in my house, it was all Super Why! all the time.
"We're looking for 'airs' words, mom," Lolo said, the "DUH," clearly implied. "Stairs, hairs, jumping in airs," added his brother. His words triggered a vague memory of a song coming from the iPad, and suddenly I knew their behavior was all thanks to a certain cartoon.
Noticing The Difference — Immediately
But soon, I realized that the cartoon was doing more than giving me time to vacuum without my sons playing double dutch with the cord. They were learning the beginnings of how to read. "Drink you milk," I said to them on afternoon, handing over their cups. "Milk is a 'M' word," Remy told me. "And Mommy starts with M," added Lolo. Well. Alrighty then. Was this something they'd learned from me? I prematurely patted myself on the back and thought those flashcards I'd bought three months ago and only showed them twice must have sunk in.
But I was wrong. The boys learned everything from the show.
After only a few days of preschool, their teacher pulled me aside. I was worried I was about to be told off for doing something wrong, like not labeling lunch the right way or that the kids were acting up in class, but instead she told me that she was impressed with how they both knew the entire alphabet in order. "You're doing a great job, " she said.
A couple days later, the boys were testing the limits of my nerves by hopping up and down on the bottom two stairs. While they jumped they grabbed their heads and shouted, "Hairs!" I called for a freeze-frame, told them how dangerous their game was, and asked what they were doing. "We're looking for 'airs' words, mom," Lolo said, the "DUH," clearly implied. "Stairs, hairs, jumping in airs," added his brother. His words triggered a vague memory of a song coming from the iPad, and suddenly I knew their behavior was all thanks to a certain cartoon. "Did Wonder Red teach you this?" I asked. They said she did. "Fine, but stairs are not for playing, they're for climbing," I told them. "Mommy, that's a '-ing' word, Lolo announced.
I started loosening my screen time rules when it came to watching Super Why! because the boys seemed to be learning so much from it. I made an effort to watch the shows with them and even tried to talk to them about the lessons in each episode to lessen my fears over them so much screen time. But honestly, they didn't need me to sit with them. They were pointing to the screen and yelling out the right answers without any help from me. When we read books together, they began to recognize certain word structures they'd seen featured on the show, such as when words rhymed or started with the same consonants. It was pretty awesome.
The other day in the car my partner asked me if I wanted to take the boys to go get "i-c-e c-r-e-a-m." It's a good thing I was, in fact, in the mood for a salted caramel cone, because Lolo easily figured out what "i-c-e" stood for, saw what road we were on, and started shouting, "ICE CREAM! PLEASE! PINK, I WANT PINK!"
Even other people started to notice that the boys had a way with words. After only a few days of preschool, their teacher pulled me aside. I was worried I was about to be told off for doing something wrong, like not labeling lunch the right way or that the kids were acting up in class, but instead she told me that she was impressed with how they both knew the entire alphabet in order. "You're doing a great job, " she said. I thanked her, but deep down I knew I couldn't take credit. It wasn't me, it was Super Why! and his buddies.
We're Team Super Why!
They boys aren't begging me to hand over my Harry Potter books so they can read them quite yet, but they're getting there. At this point, sounding out words is like a game to them, and they get excited when they "win" by figuring out what a group of letters means. But as much as I hope they grow up to love books as much as their mom, there's a part of me that wishes maybe they wouldn't learn to read quite so quickly.
Spelling out things we don't want the kids to understand is an easy way for my partner and I to have adult conversations in front of them, but their newfound reading comprehensions skills are quickly making it so we can't do that anymore. For instance, the other day in the car my partner asked me if I wanted to take the boys to go get "i-c-e c-r-e-a-m." It's a good thing I was, in fact, in the mood for a salted caramel cone, because Lolo easily figured out what "i-c-e" stood for, saw what road we were on, and started shouting, "ICE CREAM! PLEASE! PINK, I WANT PINK!" I'm so glad he didn't ask if I wanted to have s-e-x later.
It's so cool to see my kids pick up on the basics of reading at such a young age and I'm excited to introduce them to all of the books I loved as a child. But whenever friends or family comment about how smart they are or how much I must work with them on flashcards and reading, I have to tell them the truth. Sure, they're intelligent and yes, we read a lot of books together, but honestly, they just watch a ton of Super Why!