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Noggin’s entertainment offerings are supplemented with interactive games, books, music, podcasts, videos and recommendations for activities parents can do at home, based on their child’s developmental stage. Credit: Noggin

Chances are you know a child who is obsessed with Paw Patrol, the band of puppies who protect their community. Or Dora the Explorer, who travels around with her talking backpack and monkey friend. These are a couple of the famous stars on Nickelodeon’s network for preschoolers, Noggin. But until recently, developing children’s “noggins” wasn’t the sole focus of the brand.

Now, the network is expanding its reputation and trying to double down on learning.

Almost two years ago, Noggin acquired Sparkler, an early childhood learning platform, and launched a “massive transformation” aimed at infusing its entertainment offerings with education, according to Kristen Kane, executive vice president of Noggin, who previously held roles at Amplify Education, the NYC Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission. “What we’re doing is trying to take the relationships that kids have with these characters … and then really put the relationships to work for kids’ learning,” Kane said. “What do we know about the science that helps kids learn and how can we put it to work in this context?”

Now, Noggin’s entertainment offerings are supplemented with interactive games, books, music, podcasts, videos and recommendations for activities parents can do at home, based on their child’s developmental stage. While the development of Noggin’s content used to be “entirely driven by the creative team,” according to Kane, it is now created with the help of research and education experts with specific learning goals in mind. Media is aligned with various learning standards including those from the Next Generation Science Standards, CASEL social and emotional learning competencies and early learning standards used by the federally funded Head Start program.

Before, children might have been passive observers of some of Noggin’s media; now they are encouraged to participate. That might mean recreating an obstacle course in their living room, playing interactive games tailored to their skill level or engaging in fantasy play along with the characters on their screens. And this month, Noggin launched an interactive series featuring a virtual preschool classroom meant to recreate a preschool classroom’s key routines and activities, including circle time, which many children are missing this year.

Noggin’s shift to make its preschool entertainment educational comes at a time when many parents have loosened screen time rules during the coronavirus pandemic. Some families have turned toward educational media to try to make up lost learning time as children have missed out on critical time in preschool and pre-K classrooms while learning is remote in many places. Even child development experts who have long been especially wary of media geared at young children, like online preschool programs, have acknowledged that more screen time is unavoidable for many children who have been stuck at home most of the year.

But those experts also caution that technology is no substitute for in-person learning and isn’t always successful in teaching children. And they have urged parents to choose wisely when introducing media to their children and to opt for quality. Media produced by PBS and shows like Sesame Street, for example, have long been held as the gold standard for children’s media, and when educational media is done right, it can have a clear impact on school readiness.

Research shows it can be hard to create educational media that does in fact teach children the way they need to learn, however. One 2018 study found that few apps marketed to preschoolers were actually educational. And despite their popularity, shows like Paw Patrol have faced criticism in the past, with some critics saying they teach the wrong lessons to kids.

Officials at Noggin say they are trying to ensure their new media is high-quality and educationally effective, while still giving kids the characters they love and introducing them to topics like dinosaurs and space that can “unleash the interests and the passions of young children,” according to Michael Levine, senior vice president at Nickelodeon and chief of learning and impact at Noggin, who founded and led Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center for a decade. “While young children are often highly engaged by rich media regardless of educational design, there is a profound difference between developing an interactive game, video or book that simply commands a child’s attention versus one that will drive an important learning trajectory,” Levine said.

Trying to do the latter is “worth it,” he said, but takes considerably more time.  As the network transitions and expands, leaders there are relying on an advisory board of early childhood experts to improve their offerings for kids.

“Nothing that we would do online replaces the importance of an in-person, teacher-led classroom experience or home experience, for preschoolers,” Levine said. But “rich immersive media of high quality,” full of characters they love, “is also fundamentally important in terms of the children’s growth, learning, imagination, and the ability to form healthy habits.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about Noggin was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

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