I’ll start with a quote from Fred Rogers:
Those of us in children’s television are chosen to be servants. We are chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen, day and night.
What he said in 1999 still applies today, and to much more than just children’s television. According to the most recent surveys, children ages zero to eight are spending an average of three hours a day with digital media, and tweens and teens are exposed to between six and nine hours of digital media per day. In this we are given the most extraordinary and profound of responsibilities: to use this time for good. How can we fill these hours with support for children’s learning? How can we use it to help address inequalities, and to engage children’s families in their learning and growth? How should we think about the content of digital media, the context in which it is used, and the individual child using it in order to do the most good in the world?
I want to be the kind of servant of which Fred Rogers spoke. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center is a research and innovation lab focused on educating children through digital media, where servants like these come together to make a difference. Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street and the Center’s namesake, is herself a model servant whose revolutionary idea to combine television with research on learning and child development has changed the lives of countless children. Sesame Street has been viewed by generations of children across the world, fostering children to become smarter, stronger, and kinder for nearly 50 years. At the Cooney Center, we endeavor to take this vision into the 21st century, looking for opportunities to further her vision beyond the reach of television and into the digital world.
This mission is no pie-in-the-sky dream. As others, including Fred Rogers, have discovered, making a difference on a large scale through children’s media is a tricky business. It’s not just about creating great content or doing efficacy testing: it involves supporting federal and state policies that protect children, are informed by research, and promote equity; it includes bringing together leaders and change agents from the across the research, policy, and practice arenas to solve important problems together; and it includes conducting research at the forefront of technology development, always being on the lookout for new technologies that have the promise to serve children in novel ways.
I have been at the Cooney Center for six months, and I have had the great privilege to work on some amazing projects. I’ve helped identify early learning programs across the country that are incorporating technology into their services, and have rated their evidence of impact; I’ve analyzed data examining the barriers teachers encounter when they attempt to use technology in the classroom; I’ve worked to design a series of studies investigating the family ecology of educational app choice; and I’ve become a Co-PI on an NSF-funded project to help bridge the gaps between research, policy, and practice in bringing STEM learning to early childhood education. I’ve been in meetings that include researchers, designers, policy makers, and even White House employees. I know without a doubt that I am serving children now as I’ve always wanted to.
Every day I come to work and am inundated by a flood of images that inspire me. From the moment I step out of the elevator to the time my feet hit the pavement to go home, I am surrounded by furry, feathery muppets that remind me of the work at hand; passionate, goofy colleagues who encourage me to keep going when the work gets tough; and thought-provoking, challenging work that keeps me growing every day. Fred Rogers’ quote hangs above my desk, next to a toy car being driven by Super Grover. On the one hand I see the levity, and on the other the gravity, of this incredible privilege of service.
If you, too, are inspired to use digital media to make the world a better place for children, apply to be a Cooney Center Fellow!