Counting Screen Time Minutes Is Not an Education Strategy

(This is an updated, slightly expanded version of a 2013 post that originally appeared on the Fred Rogers Center Blog.)


Is screen media technology more like a germ or a medicine?

If technology devices are like germs, then we grudgingly accept them as part of children’s worlds, but we work to limit contact as much as possible. If they are akin to a medication, then we should be able to determine an optimal dose while also understanding that using too much or none are both dangerous.

In essence, these are the choices offered by the public health approach that has guided the use of technology in early childhood education for decades. But in the real world – a world where digital media are integral to culture and daily life — those two options are too limiting.

In states across the U.S., medical sources underpin nearly all child care licensing rules governing the use of technology with young children.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Caring for Our Children (CFOC), and the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS) are all written from a medical perspective.

Medical language permeates the discourse. Advocates pathologize descriptions of their concerns with phrases like “play deficit disorder.” Researchers refer to education activities as “interventions.” Even the first principle in the Fred Rogers Center’s “Framework for Quality in Digital Media for Young Children” (2012) takes a “do no harm” approach, underscoring the need for digital media to “safeguard the health, well-being, and overall development of young children.”

In this medical model, the goal is to keep children safe from media harms and the resulting teaching strategies are borrowed from public health educators. At first glance, that seems to make a lot of sense, especially given that public health strategies can be phenomenally successful. Consider, for example, the CDC’s campaign against smoking. Once portrayed as glamourous and common, cigarette smoking in the U.S. today is restricted in public spaces and only about 15% of American adults smoke.


Public health education methods only work well when the information that needs to be conveyed and the desired action is simple and concrete. Hence the success of the anti-smoking campaign:  cigarette smoking is likely to kill you, so don’t smoke. There’s no need for nuance or a wide array of personalized alternatives.

But when we’re talking about a digital world where screens are now necessary for many daily routines and social media serve as an online digital commons for political discourse and cultural expression, the simplicity that’s necessary for public health messaging doesn’t exist. This forces public health models into a reductionist approach that doesn’t serve children very well.

The process looks something like this: When applied to digital media, the public health goal is expressed as the question, “How do we keep children safe?”  When you “backwards map” to design curriculum based on that goal, you invariably end up with limits on screen time (and often not much else).  In fact, screen time limits dominate the recommendations proffered by AAP and CFOC. (To their credit, the AAP also recommends media literacy education for children older than five, a recommendation that is too often ignored.)

The thing is, children don’t acquire skills or knowledge from an approach that is basically a game of keep-away. Of course, safety is a prerequisite for learning, so educators won’t be abandoning the medical paradigm anytime soon, nor should they. But it’s an odd starting point for educational design.  Have you ever heard someone say that they nurture emergent literacy or number sense in order to keep children safe?What if we frame the challenge as illiteracy instead of media? What if our approach is child centered instead of media-centered.So what happens if we change the paradigm?  What if the launch pad for technology integration is instead the question, “How do we help children become literate in a digital world?” Now, rather than focusing on counting minutes of screen time, we get a rich array of activities and interactions that help children develop the “habits of inquiry and skills of expression necessary for people to be critical thinkers, thoughtful and effective communicators, and informed and responsible members of society,” as the National Association for Media Literacy Education puts it in its Core Principles.

What happens is something like Vivian Vasquez and Carol Felderman’s tomato plant project. In that project, children grew tomato plants and also:

  • analyzed a TV ad targeted at gardeners,
  • conducted a scientific experiment to test the claims of the ad,
  • discussed gender stereotyping in the ad,
  • did Internet research, and
  • used Word Clouds to compare websites about growing tomatoes.

These activities seamlessly integrated screen-based technologies, using them to do things that would be nearly impossible without digital tools. At the height of the project, children certainly surpassed the ECERS 30-minute per week limit on screen time, though I suspect that even the most strident opponent of technology would be hard-pressed to label what happened in this class as anything but excellent practice.

In fact, many researchers now reject the term “screen time” altogether because in a world where so many diverse activities involve screens, the phrase isn’t useful as a meaningful variable.  It’s increasingly clear that what children are doing with screens is much more important than how much time they spend using a screen device. Even the AAP now acknowledges that counting minutes is an outdated approach,

“Because children and adolescents can have many different kinds of interactions with technology, rather than setting a guideline for specific time limits on digital media use, we recommend considering the quality of interactions with digital media and not just the quantity, or amount of time.”

Vasquez and Felderman are not alone in ensuring that time spent with media technologies is rich and rewarding. Brian Puerling (Teaching in the Digital Age, 2012), Renee Hobbs and David Cooper Moore (Discovering Media Literacy, 2013), or even my own 2020 ISTE Early Learning PLN webinar or recent book, Media Literacy for Young Children: Teaching Beyond the Screen Time Debates (NAEYC, 2022), all offer similar examples of technology integration. What distinguishes these examples is that they don’t merely use screen time to introduce or rehearse disconnected skills. None of them involves a child sitting alone using an “education” app on a tablet or watching videos on a phone. Rather, they integrate technology in much the same way that teachers integrate books, crayons, and storytelling – as tools that help us explore the world and share ideas.

When technology is integrated in the ways envisioned by the NAEYC-Fred Rogers Center Joint position statement—with intention, developmentally appropriate goals, and a well-informed understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of technology options—it sparks conversations, curiosity, and creativity. As demonstrated by the tomato project, it also provides ample opportunities to practice reasoning, observation, and communication skills.

When we shift the paradigm from safety to education, we open curriculum design to activities and interactions that provide children with the full benefits of being literate. In a digital world, those benefits cannot be achieved without allowing children to engage with technology. And we can’t help children develop digital and media literacy competencies unless we incorporate technologies in ways that are based in sound pedagogy rather than clock management.  To put it another way, we can’t accomplish complex educational goals using only a medical model.

I’m reminded of a conversation with friends who were handing over their son to me for a play date. I was the indulgent auntie who occasionally shared otherwise forbidden snacks, computer games, or videos. They jokingly said that we could do whatever we wanted as long as I handed him back alive. It was the quintessential safety argument.

Ironically, it’s often the expectation we have of babysitters. But early childhood educators are so much more than babysitters. Why, then, when it comes to technology would we still hold early childhood professionals to babysitter standards?

Educators who learn to integrate media technologies effectively enrich children’s lives so much more profoundly than people who are relegated to the role of screen time monitor. You can learn more about media literacy education strategies and find a more detailed discussion of the issues raised here in Media Literacy for Young Children: Teaching Beyond the Screen Time Debates (NAEYC, 2022). If you found this post valuable, please consider purchasing a copy.Book cover of Media Literacy for Young Children: Teaching Beyond the Screen Time Debates
May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D.,, 2023


Digital Families 2022

Digital Families Conference Keynote
London, England 18 Oct 2022
Faith Rogow, Ph.D.

(for video of this keynote:

Good morning. Many thanks to Parent Zone and the Digital Families conference team for making it possible for me to be here. I’m delighted to be with you and to have an opportunity to explore the ways we think about children and media and education, and how that relates to regulation. Recently I’ve been working in media literacy education for our youngest children, and it’s led me to insights that challenge some old assumptions. So I’m going to invite you this morning to re-think how we’re framing this whole issue.

First, let me do a quick check to see where the early childhood people are in the audience. Raise your hand if you know what this is: [does hand motion for Grandma Shark] It’s ok to admit it if you know.
For the few of you on the planet who aren’t familiar, this is the dance move that represents Grandma Shark in the Baby Shark video, which has more than 11 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) views on YouTube. [I’m not going to play it – I see the dread in some of your eyes – I won’t plant that earworm]

What does this particular motion communicate about Grandma Shark?
How does it compare to the movement representing Grandpa Shark?
How is it different from Mommy Shark?
What do these differences symbolize? [that old sharks have no teeth; that female sharks are smaller than males – this is reinforced for all the generations]

One of the many things that is interesting about the Baby Shark video phenomenon is that if you know about sharks, you know that

• they never lose all their teeth;
• female sharks are generally larger than males;
• sharks don’t hang out in families – they’re pretty much solo, almost from the moment of birth so baby sharks never “know” their grandparents or father and barely know their mother;
• and unlike the animated Baby Sharks they aren’t neon green, bright orange, or hot pink.

So… misinformation starts early.

Baby Shark certainly isn’t the most consequential of examples, and it was not created as intentional disinformation. But children routinely take in ideas from all sorts of media, including media like Baby Shark, so thinking about the video provides a good opportunity to explore how we might think about our response to misinformation.

We could start a campaign to demand that YouTube pulls Baby Shark because it includes misinformation, but that would be silly. In part that’s because it doesn’t do any good to tell a child not to like what they like. It’s nonsensical to tell someone not to feel what they’re already feeling. And the job of an educator can’t be to condemn media that children treasure. So we don’t waste our energy trying to convince children that Baby Shark is bad or that YouTube is a wasteland.

Also, when all our attention is devoted to preventing children from encountering problems, we lose opportunities to teach them skills. So, rather than condemning the video or asking for it to be banned, we use a media literacy inquiry approach to add new information and perspectives that can help children think in more complex ways about the media they enjoy:

We start conversations – asking children instead of assuming we know what they think. So, with a child who has already viewed the video a few dozen times, we might

• Invite them to tell us what they learned about sharks and then guide them in an online search to see if they could confirm which of those things was accurate, perhaps by going to YouTube together and searching for informational shark videos. Along the way we engage in conversation about the differences between media made just for fun and media made to share facts, and we narrate the criteria we use to choose which video we decide to click on so the child begins to learn how to find reliable sources for themselves.
• We could start with information about sharks – perhaps based on a child’s recent experience, like a visit to the ocean or a library book choice sparked by video channel ads for “Shark Week.” Then invite them to use what they now know to evaluate for themselves if they think Baby Shark is a good teaching tool. If they decide there are some errors, they could make up their own hand motions and record a version that’s more accurate.

This model of inquiry can be applied to any age. And it never requires us to tell children that Baby Shark is bad and they shouldn’t watch. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds, but before I explain more, let me provide a bit of context.

We are living through an amazing time. For only the second time in human history, the concept of literacy is shifting.

The first shift was sparked by Gutenberg. Before the introduction of the technologies that made mass printing possible, reading and writing was a skill set reserved for specialists – “scribe,” for example, was an esteemed profession. The printing press shifted our expectations for who should be literate. Over a couple of centuries, we went from an elite few literate people to the expectation we live with today: universal literacy – every person should be literate.

The ubiquity of digital media technologies is creating a second shift. This time the shift is in what it actually means to be literate – even if we limit the term “literacy” to the ways we communicate with symbol systems and not as a way to describe everything we need to learn (e.g. financial literacy, ecoliteracy, etc.). In the real world, literacy now requires much more than decoding text and writing sentences with printed words.

1921                 1971                         2022

In the digital world, if all you can do is read and write printed text, you’re missing a lot. Consider that nearly all common information sources now merge images, and often audio, with printed text – even in sources we may think of as traditional print sources, like newspapers. On social media, posts that include images attract more attention. In the political world, discourse occurs via memes, not just in formal debate. Our online personal accounts commonly offer “dashboards” with charts and graphs rather than written summaries of our information.

So one part of literacy for the digital world is that analyzing images must be as routine as learning to decode and analyzing print. When we read aloud to children, they aren’t just learning about the world from the words – they are learning from the images. How many city kids develop a fear of the forest because in so many fairy tales, the images of the forest are scary. And then we wonder why they aren’t excited to go hang out in the forest!  In film and video, children don’t just learn from the story: How many children who aren’t from Africa think they know what Africa is like because they’ve watched Lion King or Madagascar or Tarzan? What are the consequences of letting them carry those limited visions because we don’t discuss the images, only the stories?

Even more important, the technology means we have almost unfathomable access to information and audiences, literally in the palms of our hands. In an online world, to make sense of what we decode and create without becoming completely overwhelmed or numb, people need logic and reasoning, as well as discernment and evaluation skills (especially being able to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore), and also an understanding of how platform design, commercial structures, and repetition influence messages and interpretation.

This changing literacy is what I want to explore with you this morning.

Imagine for a moment that our collective response to the Gutenberg shift had been different.

Gerhard Trumler

What if, as communities began to find ways to share printed text and all the stories, information, and ideas they held, people had chosen to devote most of their resources to keeping children safe because some of the ideas in the books and pamphlets were dangerous. They never taught most children to read or write or think about ideas. They didn’t even pay much attention to who controlled which ideas were included or excluded from the library. Instead, they taught children strategies to keep themselves safe while in the library.

Sound a bit far fetched? I don’t want to stretch the metaphor too far, but that’s essentially what we do when we feel compelled to prepare the next generation for life in the digital world but offer, almost exclusively, strategies focused on how to use the technologies in ways that keep children safe.

And until very recently, that has been a dominant approach to preparing the next generation for life in a digital world – especially for young children. Many have approached what is best understood as an education challenge instead as a public health initiative aimed at shielding children from harm.

But, in real life, children aren’t knights. They need more than armor and shields. And they only need fighting skills if our primary goal is to train children to approach media as their enemy.

Let me be very clear: I am not arguing that we should abandon our concerns about facets of digital technologies that run counter to our well-being. I wouldn’t be a media literacy educator if I didn’t believe that there are real harms and valid concerns about media effects.

Nor will I ever suggest that media literacy is a replacement for regulation, especially when regulation is aimed at transparency and design rather than censorship. An educated public does not ever absolve media makers, owners, or platforms of their responsibility to act in the public good.

What I am suggesting is that to address our concerns about media, we need to re-think the challenge.

Media makers have always known that framing matters. Some of you may be familiar with this example from one of Google’s ‘Be Internet Awesome’ media literacy lessons. Changing the frame changes our understanding of what we’re looking at.

What is this?


Source: Google’s Be Internet Awesome

Was your guess correct?
Similarly, in education or policy, the way we frame the task shapes our responses. Public health framing treats media as if it is singular rather than plural and diverse, and that it is a disease. The resulting goal is to prevent children from getting sick. This particular frame limits our ability to prepare children to thrive in the real world. Let me briefly suggest four of those limits:

1. A public health frame inherently draws our attention to the dangers of media. If media are identified as the problem, the logical response is to keep children away, or at least minimize contact – so we end up with recommendations about screen time limits, even as study after study finds that what children are doing with screens is a vastly more important variable than how much time they spend.

In education, this has practical consequences. If policies are put in place to reduce screen time, that makes it difficult to help students practice the skills they need to use screens ethically, effectively, creatively, and critically. To put it another way, we can’t simultaneously keep children away from screens and help them become media literate, any more than we can keep them away from books and expect them to become great readers.

Of course, media and digital technologies are woven into the fabric of modern life – so many aspects of our daily routines now take place in the digital commons. And compared to the analog world, digital media are extraordinarily accessible. Even if you keep children away from screens, you can’t keep them away from the culture in which they are growing up.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the Sesame Street song “Who are the People in Your Neighborhood?.” The people that children met in the song were people they were likely to see in real life in their neighborhood. The digital world makes children part of a whole new neighborhood with new people to learn about – people you want them to meet and people you’d prefer they not hang out with. If we’re preparing children for life, we can limit where in the neighborhood they are allowed to go, but our goal can’t be to keep them from ever being out and about.

2. A second public health strategy has been to teach warning lessons. These help children learn to deal with or avoid obvious dangers, but they rarely help children learn to grapple with the ideas they encounter. In other words, they don’t offer thinking skills.
And if all we do is warn and scold, we aren’t much fun and kids aren’t likely to listen. They’ll spend more energy testing our rules than learning the skills that might actually help them stay safe online.

Safety lessons are sometimes compared to teaching children to cross the street. In this scenario, the skills we teach (like pausing to look both ways) enable children to venture out, and we also ensure they are going into a reasonably regulated environment (e.g., we make sure there are stop signs, traffic lights, and crosswalks and vehicle drivers must be licensed).

The difference between how we prepare them to venture safely out their door and how we prepare them to be safe online is that we generally approach learning to cross the street by conveying the idea that we want them to be able to be outside and navigate their neighborhood and come back alive. For many adults, this is different than their attitude towards the online world: they don’t really want their children there, but grudgingly, if they must, then here are some rules.

Children sense our emotions and motives as much, if not more than they are listening to our words. They are much more likely to absorb lessons that come from a place of imagination and discovery, than lessons stemming from our anxiety.

3. A third result of a public health frame is what we choose to research and how we do it. In a public health frame, the majority of research funding goes to studies examining media effects, even though most of the time we know the answer is going to be a version of: “it depends.” It depends on who the user is and what they are actually doing or viewing.

We would do better to shift a large portion of those funds to education research – figuring out what actually helps children develop lifelong media and digital literacy skills.

And if we can’t quite get there, let’s at least require effects researchers to use media literacy as a variable. What we do now is akin to researching the effects of books without ever bothering to ask if our research subjects can read. Asking whether research subjects have been taught to use media literacy skills would help advance the field because it would require developing definitions and assessments to determine whether a child possessed media literacy skills, knowledge, or dispositions.

4. Lastly, safety strategies are focused on the “now.” In contrast, education demands that we consider what children need today and also what they’ll need to be prepared to lead successful adult lives. Many of the safety strategies that are important now are likely to be outdated by the time children reach adulthood.

But until evolution changes humans into something else, concepts like reason, curiosity, and deep attachment to narrative storytelling will not become irrelevant. Maybe it’s worth focusing our attention there. Media literacy education provides a way to do that.

One of the reasons that we’ve been so distracted by the public health approach is that mainstream media primes the general public with sensationalized reporting on media effects research. Very few people beyond the research or policy community read the actual studies. What families know – or think they know – comes from people describing the research: bloggers, journalists, pundits, even entertainers, often amplified by retweets and social media posts. Because profit structures reward clicks, sensationalism often obscures accuracy. You earn more with a headline screaming that “screens are turning babies into zombies” than “the research is nuanced.” So let’s help people learn to routinely ask media literacy questions about the reporting of effects of digital media, because, in fact, most of the actual research does, indeed, tend to be quite nuanced.

So rather than framing the challenge as one of danger/safety, what if we frame the challenge as illiteracy?

This re-frame doesn’t mean we abandon media management strategies. Media management refers to the rules set, mostly by adults, to govern access and content – when and for how long and what children are permitted to do with media devices.  Media management is unequivocally important. But if we don’t distinguish between media management and media literacy, we end up with families who set media rules thinking that they are raising media literate kids even though the adults – not their children – are doing all the work and children never develop the skill sets they need to begin to manage media for themselves.

So let’s be clear that the goal is more than media management.

If we were programming a media literacy GPS, this purpose statement would be our destination and user studies would tell us our current location. The task then becomes figuring out how to get from here to there.

If the goals are habits of inquiry and skills of expression, then it’s easy to see why safety isn’t enough. It’s because safety doesn’t give kids the skills they need to navigate the digital commons and process what they find there or participate ethically or effectively in the communities offered by digital media technologies.

This is easier to understand if we think of media literacy as a comprehensive skill set. The gears represent each skill area – note that Inquire and Reflect are larger and at the center – they are included in everything we do. I depict them as gears because they’re all interconnected – each loses power if they aren’t linked to the others – they do very little in isolation.

Source: Rogow, F. Media Literacy for Young Children: Teaching Beyond the Screen Time Debates (NAEYC 2022)

Most safety approaches are quite good at addressing the Access competency – how to keep your information private, deal with cyberbullying, avoid scams, and the like – so it’s a part of media literacy, but doesn’t do very much unless it’s combined with the other nine competencies.

The same thing is true of just learning how to use the technology. We don’t just want children to be better or safer media users; we want them to be better thinkers.

That’s why Inquire and Reflect are central media literacy competencies.

So how do we do that?
There are hundreds of possible strategies – media analysis is a common starting place. Contrary to some practice, this is not lecturing children to explain to them what the media messages are.

“Media literacy analysis isn’t about showing children what they missed by pointing out what we notice. It’s about asking them what they notice and helping them build the skills they need to see more.”
We teach people to ask questions about the media they use and create. Not a set list of questions (that’s an old-school media literacy education approach). Instead we teach question categories.

The categories include traditional media education areas like authorship, purpose, and interpretation; we also add economics, effects, responses, context (including looking for patterns), and content (which is the way we connect to curriculum so we can integrate this into schools without having to teach a separate course – “what are the messages about…”).

• We start with “I wonder…” because we pose questions as conversation starters, not as a quiz with single correct answers.
• We use categories because it let’s us adapt wording to something appropriate for the situation:

A common question like “What’s the purpose?” (already a problem because it implies a singular answer when there may be many purposes – and part of what we want to do is encourage complex thinking), might be made concrete for younger children: “What does this want me to do?”

And notice I phrase it in the first person because the goal is that children learn to ask questions for themselves, not for us always to be the questioner.

A target audience or effects question about a social media post might be in form like: “Would your sister think this is funny?” or “What do you suppose your coach’s reaction would be if they saw this post?”

• And we ask questions in strings, adding follow-up prompts like “How do you know” or “What makes you say that?” (in a curious, not a confrontational tone of voice)

As much as possible, we integrate these questions into existing routines. For example, when reading aloud, we ask a predictive question and then probe children’s answers for evidence: “What did you notice in the picture that made you think that’s what is going to happen next?…Let’s see if you’re correct!”

In media literacy education, most of what we do is asking, not telling. And there are some specific ways we do this:

• We start with the very youngest children because that’s where habits start, including habits of inquiry: asking relevant questions, knowing how to find reliable answers, and using logic, reasoning, and evidence to draw conclusions.
• In the early years, habits are far more important than “right answers;” we model asking questions about media because we want children to learn that this is just what people do – that it would be weird to encounter or create media and not ask questions.

We talk about media, not as contestants in a zero sum game with the winner being the one who comes up with some mythical “correct” interpretation. This is glaringly obvious when dealing with young children. Because of the age difference, a three-year-old will almost never see things exactly the way that we do. Yet, we don’t think our primary job is to engage them in a zero sum competition where we tell them they’re wrong and we’re right so we win.

Instead we try to understand the meaning they are making. And we do that by doing what media literacy models throughout the lifespan; we ask questions. Because questions are the way we learn about and from one another. We know that humans always interpret through the filter of who they are, what they know, and what their experiences have been. So we expect and welcome variations in interpretation. Media literacy can provide us the foundations for dialogue across incredible differences as long as we use reasonable evidence as a common ground. If we teach children to attach answers to evidence from day one, until it’s routine, we can easily enter that place of dialogue and common ground.

One word of caution here. Traditional pedagogies, in which adults are the experts with all the answers and children are only rarely required to do any intellectual seeking of their own are more likely to instill obedience than critical thinking. In such systems children learn to trust authorities instead of developing, and ultimately trusting their own skills and judgments. It’s a trap that can appear to be successful as long as everyone follows authorities that merit our approval…

When we see adults who seemingly blindly follow sources that they’ve decided are trustworthy rather than continue to ask questions (because even trustworthy sources are wrong sometimes), we are looking at the results of what our current approach to media has taught them to do. Just find trusted sources and distinguish them from those who mislead and we’re done. This, in fact, is the exact model that news ratings charts or browser extensions provide. We shouldn’t be using them as part of media literacy education.

The last thing we want to do is to accustom children to rely on others to interpret media for them. If all we offer is a version of ‘believe my narrative, not theirs,’ we leave people – young and grown –to malign actors. Nor do we want to do the opposite, teaching children to disbelieve everything and trust no one. That yields cynical, non-thinking adults instead of people who are skeptical and engaged. We don’t teach people to doubt, we teach them to investigate.

Ultimately, we want inquiry to become automatic – like reading. Once you learn how to read, you can’t ever look at printed text and not see words. Your brain won’t let you. When we use the word “habits,” it’s the opposite of mindless. We want thinking to become the “mindless” habit. We want active thinking to be everyone’s default setting.

Then, we can help children learn to notice the media in their environment and invite them to think about what those media are saying to them and why. We can help them learn to ask better questions. It’s what digital parenting specialist, Devorah Heitner, might call “mentoring, not monitoring.”

Theologian Mary Daly used to write the word disease as dis-ease, noting that sometimes being sick was evidence of a state of discomfort with social realities as much as it indicated any specific biological problem.

And, perhaps in this view, those who take a public health approach to digital tech are not altogether wrong. Living through major societal change is unsettling.

We’re less than twenty years into an era of widespread availability of digital media devices, so we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves if we haven’t figured it all out yet. After all, we’ve been reading print for several hundred years and we still argue about the best ways to teach reading and to ensure that everyone learns how.

We are in uncharted territory, and scary as that can be, it also suggests that there are exciting new things to discover. We can approach digital media technologies with fear or with imagination. I vote for the latter.

So I invite you to imagine what it would look like to base policies and practice on creating a culture in which inquiry is celebrated, universal, and routine.

And we create a culture in part with separate lessons and activities, but mostly with the things we do every day. Our habits of inquiry. In homes and in schools and in our online neighborhoods.

In British schools, this effort has commonly been labelled “media education” or “media studies.” I’ve purposefully used the phrase “media literacy” because I want to underscore that our efforts need to be infused into every part of the curriculum, the way that print is. There isn’t a subject area that isn’t significantly influenced by media, so the task at hand can’t be relegated to occasionally analyzing a film or devoting a week to cybersafety.

What I’m suggesting is that our goal is to help children become literate in the digital, media-rich world they actually live in. We should feel compelled to embrace media literacy education because our collective job is to prepare children for their digital future, not our analog past (even if our education systems were designed for that past and still reflect its priorities).

They say you can stop an earworm by replacing it with a mantra or phrase repeated several times. So for any of you that still have a slightly annoying preschool song featuring sharks in your head, let me end with the way blogger Mitra Martin summarized my thinking about children and media: “End the guilt. Start the education.” End the guilt. Start the education.

Thank you.


May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog 
“TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., 2022

Media Literacy Checklist

Media literacy shows up in schools in lots of different ways. Sometimes teachers are doing media literacy education, but they don’t use the label. In other cases, teachers use the label for lessons that use media, but don’t include activities that actually help students become more media literate. To minimize the confusion and help teachers plan with clarity, I created this checklist. 

A lesson, activity, project, curriculum, or initiative is likely to meet the goals of media literacy education if it:

⬜ Goes beyond merely using media to teach; media are used to help students acquire new or improved critical thinking skills. 

⬜ Teaches students to ask their own questions about media messages rather than just responding to questions that the teacher asks.

⬜ Teaches students to ask questions of all media (not just the things that they find suspicious or objectionable, and not just screen or digital media but also printed media like books or posters). 

 Includes media representing diverse points of view (e.g., does not reduce complex debates to only two sides and/or actively seeks alternative media sources).

⬜ Encourages students to seek multiple sources of information and helps them learn to determine which sources are most appropriate or reliable for any given task.

⬜ Requires students to justify opinions or interpretations with specific, document-based evidence.

⬜ Seeks rich readings of texts, rather than asking people to arrive at a pre-determined “true” or “correct” meaning.

⬜ Does not replace the investigative process with declarations about what a teacher or a cultural critic believes to be true.  

⬜ Incorporates into analysis (including semiotic or aesthetic analysis) an examination of how media structures (e.g., ownership, sponsorship, or distribution) influence how people make meaning of media messages. 

⬜ Teaches students to ask questions when they are making (not just analyzing) media, helping them to notice and evaluate their choices, and also to understand that their social media posts are media.

⬜ Encourages students to see themselves as media makers by putting communication tools in their hands and inviting them to consider applicable ethics before sharing their works publicly.

Encourages students to use multiple means of expression (image, sound, and word) and helps them determine which ones will best achieve their goal(s).

⬜ Respects that people interpret media through the lens of their own experiences, so different people might interpret a media document or message in different ways (e.g., a student might disagree with a teacher without being wrong).

Focuses on a media document’s significance (including who benefits and who is disadvantaged) or what people might learn from it rather than trying to determine whether a particular piece of media is “good” or “bad” or whether a student likes it.

⬜ Helps students move through anger and cynicism to skepticism, reflection, and action.

Encourages students to act on what they’ve learned without determining for them what actions they should take.

⬜ Provides for assessment of media literacy skills.

© 2012 Faith Rogow, Ph.D., Creative Commons Attribution - No Derivative Works 3.0. Publication for non-profit education use permitted - author notification required

You may want to pair this resource with the recently revised handout: CATEGORIES AND SAMPLE QUESTIONS FOR MEDIA DECODING 

Choosing Media for Young Children


A Checklist

There are no simple shortcuts to finding great media for kids. Over the years, research by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and others demonstrates, an “education” label is no guarantee of quality or of educational value. And even recommendations from your best friend, reliance on a trustworthy source like PBSKids, or reviews by well-respected organizations like Parents Choice or Common Sense Media can’t guarantee that every highly rated app or video is right for your child.

The best way to find great media for children is to learn what to look for.



۝  Reflect or reinforce values that you want to teach.

⃝ Feature characters that are good role models. Characters, especially main characters or heroes, behave in ways that you want children to behave.

⃝ Reward characters’ positive behavior and show clear, negative consequences for bad behavior.

⃝ Limit dialogue to words that you wouldn’t mind children using.

⃝ Show problem solving strategies that children might actually be able to copy (as opposed to always needing magical powers to solve problems).

⃝ Leave children feeling and behaving in ways that are engaged, calm, or cooperative rather than antsy, withdrawn, upset, or aggressive.


۝ Value children as learners and community members rather than as potential consumers.

⃝ Provide positive characters that your child can identify with (e.g., shares your child’s interests or personality traits, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or body type).

⃝ Introduce your child to positive characters from groups that they may not otherwise encounter (e.g., from other places, cultures, or religions).

⃝ Show how to be a good friend.

⃝ Model judging people for what they do, not for what they own or wear, what they look like, or which groups they belong to.

⃝ Avoid repeating negative stereotypes.

⃝ Do not directly ask your child for private information or prompt children to ask grown-ups to buy things for them.

⃝ Are not created in order to sell a toy, brand, or junk food.


۝ Are Age-Appropriate

⃝ Use rules that are easy for children to under­stand and follow.

⃝ Use an interface that is “intuitive” (children can use it without much help); it is challenging but not frustrating.

⃝ Focus on topics that young children find interesting and skills that little ones are capable of mastering.

⃝ Present complex or sensitive subjects in ways that are simple without being simplistic. They use language and examples that children can understand without being patronizing.

⃝ Use words that young children understand, and also intentionally introduce a few new words that help children stretch their vocabulary.

⃝ Pace the action and editing slowly enough for little ones to follow and understand.

⃝ Avoid content that is gross, scary, or graphic in ways that might disturb children. Keep in mind that young children tend to be fright­ened by things that look scary. Older chil­dren tend to be frightened by things they think could actually happen.

⃝ For children three and younger, avoids showing actions that would be unsafe for a child to copy. For children ages four and up, unsafe actions are clearly described as off-limits for real children or clearly shown as un­desirable.

⃝ Free of sales pitches (including product placements or in-app sales) presented directly to children.

⃝ Keep age range recommendations reasonable. Though there are some family media that everyone can enjoy, in most cases it is unlikely that what’s appropriate for your twelve-year-old will also be appropriate for your preschooler and vice versa.


۝ Merge Education and Entertainment

⃝ Give children interesting things to talk about.

⃝ Take advantage of the unique functions of the technology (e.g., not just a workbook on screen).

⃝ Encourage social interactions with adults and other children.

⃝ Get children excited about developing new skills and/or exploring new things, people, or places.

⃝ Encourage children to be creative.

⃝ Include key messages and concepts in the images, not just the words, and use visuals to focus attention on important content (for example, put the important thing in motion when everything else is still).

⃝ Require players to learn, practice, and demonstrate mastery of key learning concepts in order to succeed.

⃝ Scaffold children’s logical progression from easier to more complex skills and concepts.

⃝ Present problem-solving opportunities and include pauses before providing answers to allow time for viewers or players to figure out answers for themselves.

⃝ Provide evidence of specific educational design and sound pedagogy (there is a coherent theory of how children learn from this particular activity).

⃝ Provide activities or stories that children enjoy. It also helps if grown-ups enjoy themselves, but sometimes what makes media age-appropriate for young children can bore adults, so this isn’t a requirement.


No media include all these things, but the suggestions give you an idea of what to look for, especially if you are selecting media options for children aged six and younger.

It’s also helpful to understand your child’s preferences. Just like you, your child likes some types of media more than others. See if you can correctly fill in these blanks:

THIS MONTH, my child’s favorite show, video, movie, book, app, or game is ______________________________________________________.

They like it because ______________________________________________________.

It says “this month” because just as young children’s physical bodies change at a rapid pace, so do their media preferences.

You’ll have to verify your accuracy with your child, of course. So, consider making conversations about media a regular feature of your family’s routines, even if you can’t be with your little ones every moment that they are viewing, listening, reading, or playing.

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use 
with the credit: From the edublog 
“TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., 2021


Let me dispense with the pet peeves first. As media literacy educators well know, words matter. So let’s pay attention to the way we’re framing our current stories. It’s not “social” distancing, it’s “physical” distancing. There are lots of ways to stay socially connected even if we can’t touch.

And also, our world is filled with lots of infringements on liberty. Slavery, forced abortion, forced pregnancy, killing or shooting at journalists, jailing peaceful protestors for crimes committed by disruptors attempting to discredit their cause, banning teaching and materials that attempt to address racism, or having your place of worship shot up by white nationalists to name a few. Note that wearing a mask is not on the list. Wearing a mask is not an infringement of liberty. In fact, it’s the opposite. It provides a way for us to exercise some freedom of movement and interaction, even with a pandemic raging.

Now that that’s out of the way…


Child care providers are essential – not just “essential workers,” but essential to the well-being of families, children, and communities. In the current pandemic they have been asked to provide near miraculous levels of service without anything close to the amount of support they need or deserve. Despite the obstacles, many have stepped up with creativity and open hearts. I am amazed and inspired by their work. So it feels odd to suggest that in order to successfully navigate current circumstance they need to add another task to their already overwhelming list: becoming media mentors.

The Problem

As a society, we are asking child care providers – among the lowest paid, undervalued professionals in the nation – to carry the weight of life and death decisions. As they tackle the challenge of figuring out how to open their sites in ways that are safe for staff, children, and families, their informed judgment should be enough, but for many people, it’s not. Once policies are put into place, families and staff have to come on board as full partners or it won’t work. With so much misinformation circulating, and so many people resistant or confused about COVID-19, it’s an understatement to say that implementing effective mitigation measures is a challenge.

At the same time, child care professionals are incredibly busy. It isn’t reasonable to expect them to fact-check every new COVID claim uttered by a cable news pundit or posted on FB. Unfortunately, formerly trustworthy sources are now suspect.  CDC, which was once the gold standard of reliable scientific information, has been undermined by political operatives. So we can’t even advise people to rely on the government resources that we pay for with our tax dollars. It’s hard to find easy shortcuts.

Media literacy can’t solve all these issues, but if child care professionals can share it’s strategies with the families they serve, it can help. Towards that end, here are some resources:


The Federation of American Scientists “Ask A Scientist”  – my “go to” first stop

University of Washington Libraries has aggregated many vetted resources

For a humorous take, check out this graphic from Jordan Shlain, MD: Covid Risk Factor Chart


Videos can help children understand. They also provide developmentally appropriate language that grown-ups can use. To practice media literacy, instead of just answering kids’ questions, look for the answers together. Here are some places to start:

Sesame Street Caring  – an especially helpful collection of videos for families that already trust Sesame Street to provide quality educational media for their children

Stanford Planet v. COVID race – a fun animation about wearing a mask

Colorín Colorado –  a site specializing in info for English Language Learners

To support hand washing with soap – an elementary teacher uses a demo illustrating the impact of soap on surface tension to provide young children with a strong visual image that helps them understand the importance of hand washing


National Geographic “Why misinformation about COVID-19’s origins keeps going viral” – How to sift through the muck by Monique Brouilette & Rebecca Renner


University of Washington Spot the Deep Fake – a quick tutorial

Clemson University Spot the Troll  – in a guessing game format, gives detailed explanations of the clues you can use to discern legit and troll

Jonathan Jarry, McGill University’s Office for Science and Society “Moss Cures Cancer” video  –  Pause before you get to the “reveal” in the second half to see if people can spot the techniques being used to sell this false cure. Because no genuine journalism organizations would hire them, lots of conspiracy theorists sell dubious health supplements to provide income, so learning to spot the deception is important.


For questions appropriate for young children, see my blog post: Media Literacy Inquiry with Young Children 

For questions appropriate for staff, download the free pdf at Project Look Sharp

GENERAL FACT CHECKING is typically my first “go to,” but for claims involving photographic or video “evidence,” check


For current examples accompanied by analysis, subscribe to the News Literacy Project’s free newsletter, The Sift.

For more resources, scroll to the bottom of my blog post: How to Adjust Your “Brights” to See Through the Fog of “Fake” News 


Infodemic Blog – Mike Caulfield at Washington State University has created this excellent resource on how to evaluate COVID-19 claims and how to talk with deniers.

Among other recommendations, he suggests doing what a news fact-checker would do. Look to see what other sources are saying on the same topic (lateral reading). In other words, rather than trying to disprove or affirm the claim itself, investigate the source to see if it’s trustworthy.

I’d add these strategies:

  1. Share information about media routinely. Make it a feature in your newsletter. Don’t tell people what to think, show them how to investigate. Point out specific flaws in news stories or social media posts (like overgeneralizations, e.g., one person made a mistaken claim about masks, so all claims must be false; or false equivalencies, e.g., 95% of scientists make a particular recommendation, but 5% don’t so we can’t really know because we weight both sides equally even though they aren’t equal). Be sure families understand concepts like “confirmation bias” (that we seek and believe things that affirm our existing beliefs and are more likely to dismiss things that challenge our current beliefs) and “band wagon” (making it seem like most people – or at least most “cool” people – think a particular way, so you should, too).
  1. Suggest media literacy analysis questions about sources and provide opportunities for discussion. For example: On a topic like COVID-19, why would we especially want to seek information from scientists? Are there any reasons not to trust information from scientists? How might we discern when/who to trust a scientist and when to avoid them? What would you want to know about a scientist to discern whether or not they are trustworthy on this topic? What sorts of lateral reading could you do to discover whether they have relevant experience to the questions you’re asking or what their peers think of their work/expertise?
  1. Remind families of their aspirations for their children and help them see the connection to logic and reasoning skills (e.g., you can’t be a doctor or lawyer or business executive without some serious science and math chops). Note that it will help their children succeed if their thinking skills are nurtured at home, as well as in your care.
  1. Share real-life examples about schools that re-opened and did or didn’t follow the protocols you’re using. What happened?

This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive. It suggests places to start for early childhood educators who only have time to look at a couple of resources. My apologies to the creators of many fine materials that have been left out.

As I write this, more than 200,000 Americans have died and nearly 7 million have tested positive for COVID-19, including half a million children. We don’t know what the long-term medical, economic, or social consequences will be for the people who recovered from their initial symptoms. Clearly this is serious and the grown-ups in the room can’t afford to cover their eyes like a toddler to make it all go away. Be a media mentor. Keep yourself and the people around you from getting infected – with the disease or with ignorance.

This post was created as a resource to supplement an Engagement Strategies Early Childhood Investigations webinar: “Engage Families and Staff about COVID-19 Protocols Using Using Media Literacy “ 

If you’re interested in media literacy education in early childhood, you might want to also take a look at the post MEDIA LITERACY AND OUTDOOR EDUCATION FOR YOUNG CHILDREN .

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., 2020

Media Literacy Inquiry with Young Children

At first glance, developing the habits of inquiry that are central to media literacy might seem too sophisticated or beyond the reach of young children. Some types of questions – like those that require an understanding of purely abstract concepts – may well be too difficult for toddlers and preschoolers. But young children are often capable of more insight than we give them credit for. Often it’s just a matter of finding developmentally appropriate language. Here’s some help:

If you’re just starting out, model asking relevant questions as you play with, view, read, or listen to media with children. Weave inquiry into normal activities. Make it routine. And model how to find credible answers. Eventually, encourage children to follow your lead and ask the questions for themselves. Before long, they’ll have a hard time using media without having questions come to mind – and that’s the goal.

If you want to see how the wording of these questions compare to the wording we use with older children and adults, you can download a free pdf from Project Look Sharp.

If you liked this post, you might want to also take a look at MEDIA LITERACY AND OUTDOOR EDUCATION FOR YOUNG CHILDREN .

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., 2020

DEVELOPING A GREAT DISCUSSION GUIDE: Notes for Documentary Filmmakers

For two decades it has been my privilege to write discussion/facilitation guides for more than 270 independent documentaries. I’ve seen some amazing filmmaking, learned a lot about our planet and the people who inhabit it, and occasionally ended the day in frustration when the collaborative process made my job more difficult. Of course, that process nearly always resulted in a better guide, and it certainly made me a better writer.

In this post, I share my approach. No doubt some will use these insights to craft their own materials and save the costs of hiring me. That’s okay. If my work improves your efforts, even in a small way, that honors me. And I’m guessing that a few folks will still want to hire an old pro.

Many thanks to the organizations, projects, and independent filmmakers with whom I have worked over the years. You have been wonderful teachers and I am grateful to be your student.


Discussion Prompts
The Rest of the Guide

What to Look for in a Guide Writer
Checklist: What to Provide
Do’s and Don’ts


Great guides begin with clarity of purpose. Everyone involved in the process should know the answers to these three questions:
1. Who will see this guide?
2. Who will participate in the discussion?
3. What are the expected outcomes?

Here’s how the answers influence content:

1. Who will see this guide?
Most people who attend a screening will never see the guide, so keep the content focused on meeting the needs of facilitators. Filling the guide with material for the general public (or students) makes it more difficult for facilitators (or teachers) to find what they need.

2. Who will participate in the discussion?
It’s common for single guides to encompass multiple audiences. That doesn’t change the fact that different audiences require different types of discussion questions, background information, and resources. For example, a festival audience is likely to pay much more attention to craft and aesthetics than, say, project partner affiliate chapters focused on using the film in professional development workshops for staff.

3. What are the expected outcomes?
Do you hope people will take action on a social or political cause? Achieve specific learning outcomes? Build lasting community ties? Publicize your work? Add their own stories to those in the film? Ignite imaginations and have fun? Each outcome requires different types of questions and, in some cases, different language choices. If, for example, you are hoping to provide a safe space where segments of communities in conflict can recognize common ground and build bridges, then choosing words that every side hears as neutral is exceptionally important. That same language could offend those intent on using the film to build support for a partisan political cause.


Guide writing isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t quite as simple as a great guide might make it seem. This section walks you through my approach to common features.


To state the obvious, discussion prompts are the heart of a guide. This section describes how to craft effective prompts that lead to dialogue, reflection, critical thinking and action.

How Many?
Typically it only takes a couple of questions to get a lively discussion going. You’d run out of time before getting through nine or ten questions. So why do guides generally have a couple dozen questions instead of just two or three?  Because…
• Including varying styles of questions gives a facilitator the flexibility and options they need to engage diverse audiences on the fly.
• Each major topic needs at least a couple of prompts, so the more complex the film, the more questions in the guide.
• Questions serve as a reminder to facilitators of the film’s content. Even questions that will never be asked help facilitators anticipate topics, frame issues, and recall pivotal moments in the narrative.

The Importance of Open-Ended Questions

You made the film because you have a story to tell and that means you have a stake in people leaving a screening saying “amen” to your gospel. But using questions to subtly tell people what to think is rarely effective. Open-ended wording leaves room for people to make their own meaning. Ultimately, the chance to come to one’s own conclusions results in much deeper engagement, and that increases the possibility that your film will have a powerful and lasting impact.

It also helps to be aware of the distinction between a discussion guide and a teacher’s guide. Teachers pre-determine what students will (at least in theory) take away from a lesson. In contrast, a facilitator’s job is to get and keep dialogue going without pre-determining what people might learn or think.
The only way to succeed as a facilitator is to use open-ended questions. They provide a springboard for dialogue (conversations designed to arrive at a deeper understanding of issues and one another) without slipping into debate (where people stake out a position and focus on convincing others to agree).
To nurture an atmosphere of learning, reflection, and respect, great facilitators avoid agree/disagree framing and instead use questions like “What were the strengths and weaknesses of their strategy?” or How is this similar to or different from your family? Instead of “Did you agree with…?” we ask, “What was your reaction to…?”
Even when a question is designed to elicit clarification, we don’t just ask whether someone agrees or disagrees, but why. And instead of inviting judgement of the people on screen (as if audiences are reality show judges or that their role is to give a simplistic thumbs up/down on a social media post), we ask what was convincing or lacking about an action. Probative, open-ended questions help viewers identify the factors that influenced a character’s – and their own – decisions.

There is one exception to open-ended prompts: comprehension questions. For some films, viewers need to have specific, factual knowledge in order to understand and explore events depicted on screen. Unlike open-ended probes, comprehension questions have verifiable, correct answers. In guides that include them, it is important that comprehension questions be clearly identified.

Opening Prompts
To get a discussion started we use general wording, i.e., questions that could be asked about any film. Opening questions typically use three types of prompts.
1. Ask for a content summary.
This isn’t just asking for a log line; asking people to recount what they just saw reveals a lot about their values, concerns and interests. But they may have trouble answering questions that are too general (e.g., “What was the film about?”), so it helps to ask in a form that makes the task concrete. For example, “If you were going to tweet a summary of the film’s main point, what would you write?” or “If you were going to tell a friend about the film, what would you say?”
2. Ask for reactions.
These are questions that increase awareness of emotions and impact. For example: “Was there a moment in the film that you found particularly inspiring or disturbing? What was it about that moment that moved you?” or “A month from now, what do you think you’ll remember about this film?” or even the simple, “In a word, how did the film make you feel?”
3. Invite connections.
These questions help viewers identify how the film relates to their own lives. They can lay the foundation for finding common ground. For example: “Did anything in the film surprise you? Was anything familiar?”

Closing Questions
It can be as hard to wrap up a discussion as it is to get things started. Questions designed specifically for the purpose of helping people synthesize what they’ve experienced and move them to action can help. There are dozens of possibilities. My favorite is: “What did you learn from the film that you wish everyone knew? What would change if everyone knew it?”

Content Questions
The best content questions develop organically from the film, reflecting its language and “feel.”
• As much as is possible, I frame questions using direct quotes from the film. Facilitators can use these quotes to help people recall how the film dealt with particular issues, clarify or invite reactions, or settle any disputes about what someone in the film actually said.
• For discussions, the film is the text. Unless something is common knowledge, if it’s not in the film, it probably shouldn’t be in the discussion prompts.



In addition to discussion prompts, here are the things I normally include in a discussion guide:

Title / Filmmaker / Length
In addition to the film’s full title and the name of the filmmaker(s), it is important for event organizers or teachers to know the length of the film. Depending on the content and perspective of the film, it might also be important to add the film’s location and language (including whether it is subtitled and/or has closed captioning available).

In contrast to grant applications or press kits, the synopsis in a guide doesn’t need to serve as an advertisement. Typically, a person looking at a discussion guide has already seen the film or committed to screening it. You’ve already succeeded in winning them over. So, a guide’s description can take excerpts from blurbs, but it will leave out glowing quotes from reviews or lists of awards. Instead it concentrates on explaining how the film can be a springboard for exploring particular issues.

This is also a good place to provide discussion leaders with a heads up of any red flags. Is there cursing or nudity? Graphic violence or other disturbing content that could trigger trauma reactions? Potentially offensive language?

Note: If the film’s content has the potential for triggering flashbacks in trauma survivors (or any other reactions that might require responses from experienced professionals), create a section with facilitation tips that includes ways to connect viewers with people who can help.

Key Characters
Not every film includes a set of key “players,” but if yours does, it will help a facilitator to have a quick reference to keep track of who is who. This allows them to assist discussion participants in identifying people by name, which is more respectful and also more clear than people trying to explain who they mean.

Provide a list that includes accurate names, titles, and spellings, along with a sentence that helps the facilitator identify who the person is (e.g., BJ Smith, the attorney who defended the group’s position in their court case). It doesn’t require full biographies – just enough information to identify who they are in the film. If your film tells the story of a particular person, event, group, or family, it would also be helpful to have a short blurb on what has happened to people since the film was finished. If it seems important to include additional information, consider posting longer biographies on the film’s website and linking to them from the guide.

Letter from the Filmmaker
Similar to a Director’s Statement, this is a letter from the people who made the film to the people who are about to use the film. The length should not exceed a single page (about 250 words) and should include:
• Why you made the film and what you learned along the way
• What you hope the lasting impact might be on the people who attend a screening, and
• A thank you to the facilitator and those who are hosting a screening.

Target Audience
If the guide’s audience is narrow, say so: e.g., “This guide is intended for high school teachers and coaches.” If appropriate, you can also add other relevant possibilities, e.g., “It may also be useful for youth leaders and social service providers or medical professionals who work with teens.”

If the guide’s audience is general, list 6-12 key words or phrases that would resonate with people’s varied interests. You might think of these as hashtags or useful search terms. For example, the list for a film about striking teachers might include “activism,” “education,” “labor history,” “labor unions,” “public schools,” and the strike’s location. Depending on the film’s focus, there might also be terms like “parenting,” “public policy,” “living wage,” “working conditions,” “negotiating tactics,” “grassroots organizing,” “privatization,” “institutionalized racism,” or “high stakes testing.”

Using This Guide
Describe anything about the design of the guide that may not be self-evident to a facilitator. For example if there is an icon that identifies questions specifically designed for people who are new to the issues, this is where you’d explain how facilitators can find content for both beginning and advanced levels of inquiry.

Background Information
A page (or sometimes two) of information won’t make a facilitator an expert on a film’s content, but the context it provides will help them anticipate issues that might arise. Appropriate information includes things like:
• Dates or statistics given in the film (so a facilitator can quickly cite them during a discussion)
• Statistics on how many people are effected by the issue(s) you are examining, and/or comparisons to similar events/trends in other places
• A basic history of key events that influenced your subject matter
• Brief timelines of key events
• Biographies of people who aren’t the subject of the film but are essential to the story (especially if they are public figures)
• Definitions of unusual or disputed terms.

Action Steps
Sometimes simply having a public conversation can be transformative, especially if the topic has been taboo or if a person has been closeted. In contrast, people who have been thinking about an issue for a long time (and because of their interest have been drawn to a screening of your film), may be frustrated if all they do is talk.
Planning next steps can help people leave the room feeling energized and optimistic, even in instances when conversations have been difficult. Taking action is the best way to counter cynicism.

The best way to get people to “buy in” and actually follow up is to have them suggest and plan their own ideas. In some guides, that means using this section to lay out a process for brainstorming and coming to consensus. In other guides, a few suggested actions can be used as prompts to help the group think about what they want to do.

Facilitators are busy people. They don’t have time to read dozens of sources. So rather than supply a full bibliography, ask yourself, “If I were leading a discussion and only had time to look at three things, which three things would be most important for me to look at?” Narrow the resource list accordingly, and provide a brief annotation for each source that explains how it will be helpful.
If the film covers several different topics, you may want to list 2-3 resources for each topic. You also may want to differentiate between resources for the discussion leader and resources that they can suggest to viewers for follow-up.

Acknowledgements and Credits
Provide credits for guide writer(s), and anyone with a project title (e.g., Director of Outreach). Thank readers, advisers, project partners, and funders. List the production company for the film.

Let people know what they are (and aren’t) permitted to do with the guide. If you are going to make a free downloadable version available, you may want to consider registering for a Creative Commons license. Also list the date that the guide was created and suggestion(s) for citation format.

Contact Information
In an easy-to-find place in the guide – at the very end works well – provide all applicable contact information. Minimally this should include the film’s website, social media pages or handles, and any hashtags that are being used for ongoing conversations. You also might want to give a phone number and/or email for specific people (e.g., who to contact for press queries or to schedule an event).

Facilitation and/or Event Planning Tips
This is optional, especially because the discussion leader might not be the same person organizing the event and because experienced facilitators won’t need tips on how to guide a conversation (though reminders can’t hurt). However, facilitation tips are highly recommended if the film’s subject matter might be a trigger for trauma survivors or if the content is highly contentious and you hope to bring together groups that are typically on opposing sides.





If you’re thinking about saving money by writing a guide yourself, consider these caveats:
• First time viewers will see very different things in a film than someone who has been immersed in the material for a long time. The questions and issues that you are thinking about at this stage are different than those who are new to the material.
• Audience members see only the parts of the story that end up on screen. You know much more of the story. Because it is impossible not to know what you know, it can be challenging to craft questions that avoid assuming knowledge that viewers don’t have.
• You made the film because you are passionate about the issues it raises. The closer you are to a subject and the more that you are personally invested in particular outcomes, the harder it is to write open-ended questions.

If you’re hiring a guide writer, look for someone who:
• Can write clearly and without resorting to jargon.
• Writes with an awareness of how language can subtly (or overtly) center or privilege one group while marginalizing others.
• Understands facilitation. It’s more important to be able to imagine the discussion that might flow from each prompt than it is to be a content expert.
• Is intellectually curious and well-versed in current events from a range of perspectives. A person who approaches the world as endlessly intriguing will naturally ask interesting questions that connect a film’s content to people’s diverse experiences.
• Can articulate the theories that describe the realities of daily life.
• Has research skills that go beyond looking at a page of Google search results. Writers need to know how to find and sort through the major debates in a field, not just how to find a few websites for the Resources section of the guide.
Note: You can often determine how well versed someone is by asking what search terms they would include in the Target Audience section of the guide.



Before the guide writer starts in on the first draft, provide them with:

The film’s press kit
The guide’s film synopsis will be tailored to meet the needs of facilitators, but there is no need for the writer to completely reinvent the wheel if descriptions have already been written.

The letter from the filmmaker(s)

A list of key characters with brief bios
This might already be part of the press kit. If not, don’t force a guide writer to cobble together biographical information from the web when the production team already has that information in hand.

A transcript
Aside from a copy of the film itself, this is the single most helpful tool for a guide writer.

Language preferences
Let the writer know if there are important language or terminology preferences. For example, are you okay with using the term “LGBTQ” but not “queer,” or you think that everyone in the film should be identified by title and surname rather than by first name. Expect the guide writer to follow the usage in the film unless given a reason not to.

A list of key partners and/or resources
Do you already have a go-to resource for statistics? Does the film draw from the work of a particular scholar? Do you have project partners that should be featured in the Resources section of the guide? It’s fair to expect a guide writer to do their own research to find recommended Resources, but don’t make them read your mind. If there are people or organizations you know you want to include, say so.

Previous screening experiences
If you have already done events, please share what happened. Let the guide writer know about any issues that seem to come up consistently and also what the contexts were for the discussions. This second piece of information is important because context influences the make up of the audience and the kinds of issues they are interested in.

A contract
Put everything in writing. Detailed deliverables. Timeline. Payment. Rights ownership. Everything. If you don’t have a lawyer or business manager, or don’t want to pay them extra to draw up a contract, ask the guide writer if they have a standard contract or letter of agreement they can share.


DOs and DON’Ts

DON’T be afraid to tell me I didn’t get the job. I understand that bidding, including the time it takes to screen your film, is part of the process. All sorts of things lead to rejection of a bid: grants fall through; production cost overruns use up funds once designated for outreach; it’s just not a good match; life circumstances change.
It’s much easier for me to be told “no” than not to hear back at all. Because as soon as I submit a bid I am holding time for your project on my calendar. Eventually, if I don’t hear from you, I’ll release that time, but you could make it a lot easier for me to pursue other projects by simply dashing off a quick message saying that the bid wasn’t accepted. It’s business. It won’t hurt my feelings.

DO ask about turn around time and keep expectations realistic. Expect to pay more if I’m going to give up my weekend to help you make your deadline. For a basic discussion guide, plan for at least six weeks: 2-3 weeks to get you an initial draft, 2 weeks to get feedback from content specialists, partners, and other stakeholders, 2-3* days turn-around time for revisions based on that feedback, and time for your graphics person to layout the final guide, you to do final proofs, and get it posted online.
* First drafts from inexperienced writers may require significantly more revision (and, therefore, a longer turnaround time) than a draft from an experienced writer.

DON’T expect your guide writer to also do graphic layout. If you’re hiring an organization to design and implement outreach, they may provide graphics services. In other circumstances it will be cheaper and easier for you to do layout yourself. That way you can match layout design to your existing film graphics and website.

DO let the guide writer know if printing hard copies is part of the plan. If so, you’ll need to agree on maximum allowable page count (and what can realistically fit into the available space). The default is to assume that the guide should be designed to live online, incorporating digital features like live hyperlinks.

DON’T hesitate to make edits to meet your needs, but DO ask before making significant changes. You always have the final say, but the guide writer might have a reason you haven’t thought of for wording something in a particular way or including/excluding particular content. And keep in mind that guides created for a general audience will intentionally include questions at varying levels. Always let the guide writer know if a question is confusing, but DON’T eliminate a question just because it seems too hard or too easy. Groups that find a particular question too basic or too challenging will have plenty of other questions from which to choose.

DO invite content area or outreach specialists (who know your target audience) to review the first draft, but DON’T simply pass along every comment they provide. Filter the comments you share with the guide writer so they know which to ignore, which to take seriously enough to make changes, and which can be ignored as long as the writer provides a convincing explanation.

DON’T rely on a guide writer to obtain permissions to use copyrighted material. A writer should be providing original material that they can legally turn over to you free and clear. But sometimes there is a picture, chart, map, or written excerpt that you both agree should be included. Only the rights holder of the guide can request permission to use copyrighted material. In nearly all cases, that is the filmmaker or production company.

DO let the guide writer know if the guide will be used internationally. A guide written specifically for American audiences, for example, can make others feel invisible or slighted when used outside of the U.S. There is no quicker way to undermine your outreach efforts than to offend your target audience.



Despite the taboos against talking about money in front of potential competitors here’s what I typically charge. I’m confident in the value of my time and skills, and the fairness of my pricing, so I’m not likely to stray far from these figures, no matter how compelling your cause or circumstance:

Guide Editing – $500-$750
If the guide that your team has developed would benefit from a set of experienced eyes, I can do that. Keep in mind that the task will likely necessitate my taking the time to watch your film.

4-16 page Discussion Guide $1,250-$2,500
The fee includes one draft and one revision. It does not include graphic layout, though I’m happy to make recommendations or review a design. Variables that affect cost:
• length of the film
• length of the guide
• whether I have a transcript to work from
• number of different target audiences
• amount of independent research needed for background info
• inclusion of facilitation tips (how to lead a discussion)
• inclusion of event planning tips
• addition of special sections (e.g., recommendations about how to handle especially sensitive material that might trigger PTSD-type reactions in trauma survivors)
• deadlines (the shorter, the more expensive)
• whether this is a one-off, or part of a series (bulk pricing discounts are available)

Lesson Plan/Curriculum: $750-$20,000
Variables that affect cost:
• needing to identify clips from a larger work (because many high school classes are only 40-45 minutes long)
• working without a transcript of the film
• the need to research and write significant background information
• creating student handouts
• creating a bibliography
• providing education standards correlations
• a single lesson or a full curriculum package
• crafting a plan that works for multiple subject areas (e.g., something that simultaneously addresses civics, history, and science), and/or students at very different education levels

When you negotiate cost, be aware that you are paying for creativity. A lesson requires an original idea, but the filmmaker or production company, not the writer owns the rights. You’re also paying for knowledge of classroom practices, including how your film relates to existing curriculum, the limits of class time, and the typical capabilities and prior knowledge of students at various grade levels.

You may be able to find writers who charge less by hiring someone who writes lesson plans or guides as a side job. The fees charged by a writer who can count on an employer to cover all or part of their payroll taxes, pension plan, and health insurance, has the luxury of cutting you a break. At the same time, obligations to their full time job may mean that they can’t prioritize your project.
Independent writers (like me) must cover their own expenses (like payroll taxes, retirement savings, health insurance, and work space), so we are likely to charge more for our services. However, we’re often more experienced at developing guides and are more likely to prioritize your project. After all, we don’t get paid until we submit deliverables!

Be sure that your contract spells out the details of payment arrangements. I suggest payment on receipt of invoice, though in some circumstances, net 30 is unavoidable. Any longer than that is a burden (though it may be necessary for some government contracts). You can also help writers to avoid bank holds by making sure that no single payment is larger than $4,999. It’s okay to reserve payment of part of the fee until all deliverables are in your hands, but expect to pay something up front (and for a longer project, something along the way). And make clear whether payments will be via check, direct deposit, or some other mutually agreed upon arrangement.

As always, comments welcome!

Have a question that wasn’t answered here? Have a suggestion to share? Want a PDF version of the post? Need to hire a guide writer? Contact me via my website:

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., 2019. All other rights reserved.


A few weeks ago, on NAEYC’s online discussion forum, awesome science educator Peggy Ashbrook (Science is Simple), asked me how one might integrate media literacy into early childhood outdoor education. So, with thanks to Peggy for inspiring me to think more deeply about the topic, here’s my response. It’s not intended to be comprehensive. Think of the ideas as springboards to help you dive in and create your own media literacy lessons for children aged 4-7.



If you’re like many people, the term “media literacy” conjures an image of a child looking at a screen. And that’s not without cause. In our digital world, it is impossible to become media literate without using screen-based technologies. But media aren’t limited to screens and neither is media literacy education (MLE).

MLE is not about teaching the same old things with new technologies. Nor is MLE focused on protecting children from media or convincing them to spend less time using screens. Rather, MLE is an expansion of traditional literacy that prepares children to be thinkers and makers in the digital  world. That means devoting attention to image- and audio-based communication as well as to text.

MLE pedagogy is inquiry based; its goals are to help children develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression demanded by the multimedia world that is their reality. MLE helps young children recognize and understand

  • constructedness (i.e., that media are made by people who make choices about what to include and exclude),
  • ways that we shape and are shaped by media, and
  • how we can use various media forms to communicate feelings and ideas effectively.

There are substantial overlaps between science skills and media literacy skills. Both science and media literacy education ask people to:

• Make, describe, and record careful observations
• Analyze observations using “compare and contrast”
• Link opinions or conclusions to evidence
• Use reason and logic to evaluate evidence and information sources

Keeping these goals in mind, here a few activity ideas…



1. Guide children to notice and analyze media that are in outdoor spaces.

Many hiking trails and parks include a multitude of signs: no motorized vehicles on trails; dogs welcome (or forbidden); historical plaques; park logos; trail maps; explanation panels of natural features; and even hiker-created trail markers. You could guide children in analyzing any or all of these and ask questions like: What does that sign mean? How do you know? Why do you think they made a special marker to help us notice this rock formation? What colors do they use on the signs and why do you think they chose those colors? Why do you think the park logo includes a tree?

Analysis develops

  • Awareness – (I never really noticed that sign before).
  • A sense of constructedness – (Someone drew that map and made choices about what to include).
  • Curiosity (Why did the person who made that sign choose to include flowers but not bugs?).

With some adult guidance, all of these insights can later be applied to screen media.

In combination with analysis, making media helps children synthesize and reflect on what they have learned. Invite kids to design their own trail markers, park logos, or playground signs. What would they highlight and why? What do they think the signs should look like and where should they be posted (or not posted)? Is it okay to have media everywhere, or do we want to have some spaces where there isn’t any media?


2. Document outdoor experiences.

In children’s hands, digital devices that can record audio, video, or photos offer a multitude of opportunities to combine learning about the natural world and media literacy. To transform tech use into a media literacy experience:

1) Involve children in decision making, and
2) Have follow-up conversations about the choices they make.

Photography and Video

By putting a lens in between a person and a subject, cameras provide an opportunity to see things in a new way. Once children have experienced the outdoors directly and from their own point of view, offer them cameras and prompt them to record as if they were looking through someone (or something) else’s eyes. What does the park look like from the perspective of a tree, a bird, a snake, or a gecko? Let them experiment with the camera to figure out what they need to do with it to help people see that perspective. Follow up by pointing out how authors, illustrators, app creators, and/or video makers show “point of view.”

Or you might introduce children to apps or device functions that transform a tablet’s or phone’s camera into a macro lens. Guide them to notice the differences between pictures with and without a macro lens. Use media terminology (e.g., pointing to what is included or excluded from the “frame” when you select a “close-up” or when you “zoom out” for a “wide shot”). That helps children develop the vocabulary they’ll need in later years to engage in more sophisticated media analysis.
Then give a prompt (connected to curricular goals) that provides an opportunity to decide when it would be helpful to use a macro or close-up and when a wider shot might be a better choice. For example, you might build on lessons about butterfly habitat:

a) Invite children to choose a “target audience” (families, other children, community leaders, etc.).
b) Use questions to help children plan how best to tell that audience what needs to be saved or expanded to preserve butterfly-friendly areas: Would it be better to use a macro shot of the pattern in a butterfly’s wing, or a wider shot of butterflies on the plants they need?

Note that there isn’t one “right answer” to that question. One child might opt for the wide shot because it would show the plants that need to be in the habitat while another might reason that people will enjoy the beauty of the butterfly wing and as a result, will want to know more about what happens to butterflies if they can’t find the plants they need.
The point isn’t to guide children to a correct answer; it’s to help them develop the habit of reasoning. We ask them to explain their choice as a way of offering an opportunity to practice linking choices to evidence. We guide them with additional prompts to help them see the strengths and shortcomings of their ideas: If we use the macro shot, how will we tell people which plants are important?
Follow that up with an opportunity for children to make and publicly share a multimedia or video documentary about why butterflies (and other pollinators) are important and what these important insects need to thrive, and you’ve now got kids who know they have the power to make a difference in the world!

And if you’re skeptical about young children’s abilities to impact their communities, take a lesson from second graders at Caroline Elementary School. As part of a science curriculum that integrates media literacy, they made a documentary about caring for the watershed in back of their school and convinced a reluctant school board to allocate $5,000 to their bridge repair efforts! (More on that project in a later post).


Photography not your thing? How about recording sounds to make a podcast. What sounds would children intentionally record? Which parts of their audio track would they use for various purposes/topics and why? When children are asked to make those sorts of editing decisions, they begin to attune to sounds in a different way, paying attention to details that previously went unnoticed. That leads to a richer experience.

Imagine, for example, the response to a question like, “What did you hear?” Children are likely to respond with something general: “I heard birds.” In contrast, children listening to the playback of their recording several times with a focus on selecting a few seconds of the best examples will begin to notice that the bird calls included different patterns and different tones. As children notice more, they typically have more questions. Perhaps there were different types of birds? Perhaps the birds were saying different things? Can birds have a conversation? Their questions lead to deeper thinking. With a bit of prompting, their observations will also carry over to the next outdoor opportunity, much the way that knowing what to listen for enriches the experience of hearing a jazz improv session.

As children improve their listening skills, you can also guide them to apply what they notice to the audio in the mainstream media they use. Background sounds influence our interpretation of media, whether we consciously take note of them or not. Children who produce podcasts (or other types of audio recordings) know that media makers make choices (i.e., media are constructed). This knowledge primes them to pay attention to media makers’ audio choices. In the world of media literacy education, awareness always leads to new questions: Is that game’s sound effect really the sound that fish make? Why does the movie start with such soft music? Why can I see the rocket lift off but not hear any noise?

Or children could conduct and record interviews. Perhaps on the group’s last adventure, two children saw a chipmunk run into its hole, but the others missed it. They could record an interview with the kids who saw the chipmunks. Imagine the language development as interviewers craft questions and interviewees describe what the animals look liked and what they did!
Or perhaps each individual child could become an expert on a different animal in their neighborhood and they could be interviewed as if they were that animal. So the interview isn’t with the kids who saw the chipmunk, it’s with the classmate who is pretending to be the chipmunk.


3. Document change over time.

Everyone teaches the seasons. How about helping children analyze common depictions of seasons (e.g., posters at schools, holiday cards, store signs and decorations) and compare those media to their actual lives?

At its best, media literacy can help children see their world in a new way, with new insight. Start by analyzing existing media. You might ask: When you look at a picture, are there clues that tell you what season it is? What clues would you look for if you were looking for a picture of autumn? What could you put in a picture if you wanted to show it was really cold or really humid outside? What would people be wearing? What would they be doing?

Questions lead to more questions, offering children opportunities to ponder the world more deeply as they go. For example, many posters printed in the U.S. use similar imagery to differentiate the seasons: snow indicates winter, rain (and sometimes seedlings) for spring, sun for summer, and changing or falling leaves for autumn. But how do you know when it’s winter in Phoenix or Miami – places where it never snows? And is it always sunny in the summer in Chicago? Never sunny in winter in Vail? If it’s raining, does that mean it is spring, even in Seattle or San Francisco or Los Angeles? And when it’s fall in your town, is it fall everywhere in the world? Can you guess from the pictures on the poster where the artist lives?
To help children compare the poster’s messages about seasons to what really happens where they live, have them take a picture of the same thing(s) outdoors over the course of a school year and note the changes over time. Ask children to determine what they should photograph. What in their environment changes and what stays the same? You might want to invite them to photograph different types of plants to see which change a lot and which seem not to change at all. That might spark an investigation of the difference between, say, deciduous trees and evergreens. This could be especially effective if your poster of the seasons uses a changing tree to symbolize the four seasons.
The pictures could be used to prompt additional observations: What did the subject of the photo look like at the beginning of the year? Just before winter break? At the end of the year? Or they could be used as reminders before heading out: What did the park look like when we first visited at the beginning of the year? Let’s pay attention to what’s different now.
You could start the unit by teaching about animation and show a short video that uses high speed video to show long term change in a very short viewing experience. Explain that to achieve this effect, the camera has to be stationary – in exactly the same place – every time they take a picture. Assign children to take the picture(s) daily or at a set time each week. If you aren’t savvy at video production, work with a parent, aide, library media specialist, intern or older child who knows a little bit about producing video to help edit the pictures together and speed them up, so you can see the change over time quickly. Then, at the end of the unit, the kids have not only learned about the changing seasons; they’ve also learned about animation and special effects!
Another version of seasonal explorations is to involve children in linking common holiday traditions, foods, and media representations with what’s happening in the natural world. Why do Thanksgiving decorations often include a cornucopia and how does that relate to it being a fall holiday? Similarly, would Halloween imagery be filled with pumpkins if we celebrated it in May?


4. Analyze representations of nature.

Before you ever meet a child for the first time, their ideas about nature and being outside have been shaped by their personal experiences and by media. All media – even when we know it’s not real – influence ideas about the world. You can teach children to ask the types of questions that will help them recognize media influences and learn to discern which media messages are helpful or trustworthy. (A developmentally appropriate sampling of such questions is available in my chapter in Chip Donohue’s NAEYC anthology, Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years).

When weather precludes time outdoors, turn attention to analyzing media messages about nature, ecology, or sustainability. Help children use media literacy questions to examine their books, apps, movies, or games. Focusing on media they already know works best. Model asking questions like:

What are the messages about nature? Is it something to be conquered? A source of food? Should we fear going into the forest? How about the ocean? What’s accurate about SpongeBob Squarepants’ habitat and the actual habitats of lobsters and starfish? Also, What sorts of people spend time outdoors? Do any of them look like me? What do they do when they are outside? And, What are the messages about animals? Are they scary? Friendly? Do lions really look like the pictures in the book? What’s the difference between what the turtle could do in the story and what they do in real life? Follow every prompt with a probe for evidence: How do you know? What makes you say that?

You might also help children look at food packaging. Identify food packaging as a form of advertising, which is a form of communication. What’s the package saying to us?  Are there clues that children can spot that tell them which packages contain foods that are from plants, trees, vines, or bushes? Which just pretend that real fruit or vegetables are inside? Hint: Teach children to look for the word “flavored.” Even if the word is different in their home language, the packages they are likely to encounter in the U.S. will use the English word, so teach the word in both languages. Pre-readers can look for the first couple of letters, “F” and “L.” When the word “flavored” is accompanied by pictures of real fruit or vegetables it means that the package is almost certainly wearing a disguise. Real foods don’t need fancy or disguised packages to tempt us – they’re delicious all by themselves!
To use media literacy as a bridge between outdoor education, sustainability, and nutrition lessons, follow-up by taking a walk around the neighborhood and look at the sorts of things that end up as litter. How many of the items that children spot are food packages, especially food packages that disguise what’s inside? Help children see that they can help the environment by picking up the litter, and also by eating fresh produce instead of things that are wrapped in a lot of packaging. Compare what happens to the remains of, say, an orange you eat and orange flavored Jello, soda, or snack cakes.


5. Find credible answers.

Central to being media literate is the ability to ask relevant questions and  find credible answers. We rob children of the opportunity to learn how to find answers when our first impulse is to provide answers every time they ask a question. Instead, consider making it a habit for your first response to be, How could we find out? Then we can model how we would find the answers.

Being outdoors, especially in new environments, sparks lots of questions. There are skills to be mastered, unfamiliar creatures to investigate, intriguing rocks, and so much more.
Whether it’s in the moment using a phone or tablet, or later on when you have an Internet connection, if you go online to find an answer, describe each step of what you are doing and involve the child as much as possible: We can use a search engine to find an answer.* See this box here? I can upload the picture you took to help us figure out what it is. Or, I can type in a question. What question should I ask? When the list appears, talk through how you select what you’ll click on: The top sites are trying to sell me something and I’m not interested in buying anything right now, so I’m going to skip those. This one says it is a collection of pictures from a university where people specialize in studying about insects in our state, so I think that’s a good place to start. For young children, it doesn’t have to get any more complicated than that. It’s just a way to let them know that there are criteria people use to distinguish useful and not so useful sources. And you’re introducing media vocabulary in the process.

You can continue to expand children’s thinking about good sources by describing how you choose all sorts of things:

  • Introduce books by explaining how you picked them. It doesn’t have to be more than a sentence: I especially like this book because the illustrations are drawn by an artist who really studied animals and the pictures of wolves and beavers are very realistic.
  • Introduce guests by explaining their expertise: I invited Mr. Shemesh to help in our garden today because he grows organic strawberries that have won awards at the state fair! He can give us tips on how to keep our plants healthy without using pesticides that might hurt the bees.

BTW, If you want a great example of how kindergartners compared websites to learn how best to grow tomato plants, check out Vivian Vasquez’s & Carol Felderman’s brilliant book, Technology and Critical Literacy in Early Childhood.

*Note that there are search engines other than Google. I like DuckDuckGo because it doesn’t track users, but there are others. And all voice controlled devices (Alexa, Siri, etc.) are also search engines (except they only provide one answer to your query rather than a list).


6. Make art.

Artists have long taken drawing and painting tools into the wilderness to capture the beauty, mystery, grandeur, and peace of the natural world. This generation has an additional set of tools made possible by digital tech. For children who haven’t yet developed the fine motor skills to paint what they are seeing or experiencing, or situations where taking art supplies outside is impractical, cameras can be a profound tool.
Ask children how they could share the feeling of a special outdoor spot. Have a conversation about how people use selfies and emojis to indicate that they like something and then help them think beyond just liking or not liking a place. What is it about the place that makes it special? What could they show to someone else to let them know what the spot looks, feels, and sounds like (not just that they like it)?


When we think of media in terms of literacy — i.e. as the mastery of symbolic communication — all sorts of interesting possibilities emerge! And so many media literacy activities support selected Next Gen Science Standards for Kindergarten:

  • Proficiency in asking questions
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information


Your Turn

I am always on the lookout for other classroom-tested or childcare-tested ideas that reach beyond technology integration to help young children develop communication, reasoning, and analysis skills. If you’re willing to share your experiences, I’d love to hear from you. Or if you try out any of the ideas here, let me know how it goes. If you’d rather talk instead of taking the time to write a summary, that works, too. You can reach me via my website: Thanks!

May be reprinted or excerpted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., 2018