An Interview with Christine Zanchi,
WGBH Executive Web Producer for Martha Speaks and Arthur
Executive Web Producer Christine Zanchi knows a thing or two about creating online content that is both educational and fun. A graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former teacher, Christine creates innovative web sites and interactive experiences that reach millions of kids every month. She is also the mother of toddler twins! As a parent and a consumer as well as a media producer, Christine offers her thoughts on media’s significant role in helping kids learn, especially during these critical summer months.
Can interactive media such as games, websites and apps really help children learn?
Absolutely! Kids learn by playing games and using websites or apps that have rich, high-quality, educational content. A report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center presents the results of three new studies that explore the feasibility and effectiveness of using apps to promote learning among preschool- and early-elementary-aged children. Martha Speaks’ own research results that show that kids 3-to-7 years old who played with the Martha Speaks Dog Party app tested up to 31 percent higher in vocabulary.
The Martha Speaks website has one of the highest average time-on-site of all PBS KIDS sites. This means that kids find the site very appealing and they stay on and play longer. The more they’re on the site, the more they learn.
How do resources like the Martha Speaks and Arthur websites help children learn?
On the Martha Speaks website, the goal is to teach oral vocabulary (hearing and speaking words), rather than reading or writing words, so kids can play the games and use the site independently, whether or not they know how to read. Children hear new words and then have to understand and use the words to play the games.
Students' oral vocabulary knowledge in first grade is an indicator of what their reading comprehension skills will be in 11th grade, so the more vocabulary they know at an early age, the better their reading skills will be. By playing games, watching videos, and doing activities again and again, they are repeatedly exposed to new words, and we know that this is an effective strategy for teaching new vocabulary.
Arthur covers lots of important social topics, from learning about Asperger’s to making new friends. The day-to-day life of the characters models a love of reading, visits to the local library, and an enthusiasm for learning. Kids gain social skills and new interests from watching the show. The website offers lots of creative games on related topics. For example, we have a brand-new sustainability game called Groovy Garden that is designed to get kids to think about the environment and make environmentally-friendly choices. You can also combine the fun of Martha Speaks and Arthur with our “Marthur” Sticker Mashup game where kids create their own scenes using characters from both shows and watch the video of Arthur and Martha together!
As you know, “summer slide” is a significant concern for children of all ages. How can parents and families use websites and interactive media to help kids continue learning over the summer months?
Just as parents think about what to feed their kids, they need to think about their kid’s media diet and ask questions such as, What games are my children playing online or on mobile devices? How much time should my kids stay online or play computer games? What is the educational value behind a particular game? Parents do control their children’s media use. Parents can have educational games already downloaded, linked, or bookmarked, and make sure that they offer lots of educationally-based media for their kids.
Not all media producers use education as a basis for television shows or online games and apps, but WGBH does, which is what sets us apart. We work with advisors and do research to make sure what we’re producing is useful, educational, and really helps kids learn. Common Sense Media and Parents’ Choice Awards are also great places for parents and caregivers to find reviews of games and educational content.
Another thing to keep in mind is that web-based and mobile activities are a good way to “cool down.” If kids have been outside running around all day, they can wind down with a game online. And they’re still learning, because every PBS game is packed with educational content. Of course, web-based games and interactive media can be incorporated into summer reading programs as well.
Martha Speaks has a new mobile optimized site. What is this? How can families use this as a learning tool?
The Martha Speaks mobile optimized site, which you can only view on your handheld, touch-screen mobile device, is an alternative to the Martha Speaks website. As we see more and more people accessing our websites by mobile devices, we are rethinking our ideas on design and optimizing sites for the large or small screen.
I am very excited about mobile technologies and their impact on children. Kids can use them everywhere, so it breaks down the notion that learning only happens in the classroom. Kids are now learning in both formal and informal settings—in the car, on a bus, waiting in line. Games are designed for individual kids, but the awesome thing about mobile technologies, especially for younger kids, is that a parent or adult is usually involved, since the child is generally using a parent’s mobile device.
We know that having a parent present has a greater impact on learning, so it’s great to have parents involved in their child’s learning, and talking with the child about what they’re playing. With the Martha Speaks iPhone app, for example, parents/caregivers are aware of the words kids are learning and can use them during their daily routine.
What keeps you busy at home?
I have 1-year-old twin boys so that keeps me very busy! We have lots of outside time at the water table in our backyard and at the pond near our house. We painted a wall in our house with blackboard paint so they can chalk it up—I draw pictures of animals and we make the animal’s sound together. We go to the library (where they wreak havoc but are working on their inside voices!) and they get to pick the books we read to them before bed each night. Currently, two of their favorites are Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin and John Achambault.
We use our fair share of media too. My twins were born just before the iPad and it’s incredible how much has changed in just their tiny lifetime. They love interactive stories on the iPad. It’s stunning to watch them interact with this kind of technology—they have an intuitive facility that is just mind-blowing.