Media literacy feels like a weighty topic for kids of any age. But in the preschool years, it’s about teaching them how to think about the information that’s coming through TV, radio, the Internet, books and beyond. First though, we as parents need to help our kids understand that the stuff they’re seeing, hearing and clicking on is information. Then, we can progress to teaching the basics of media literacy for kids: Understanding that someone created those shows, words and music, that they were created for a purpose and that people can decide for themselves what to make of the things they hear, see and interact with.

What’s wonderful about the preschool years—the innocence, the love of make-believe and the emotional connection to characters—makes teaching media literacy skills a little tricky. But the amount of advertising, age-inappropriate content and mature information they’re exposed to (combined with the fact that they can’t yet read) makes them vulnerable to misunderstanding, manipulation, confusion and even fear.

You can start teaching preschoolers media literacy for kids by using any of the content that they’re exposed to, from TV commercials to movies. Just get them used to talking and thinking about things.

Use visual examples of the ideas you’re trying to teach—and back off if you sense they’re not ready to give up their pretend world quite yet.

  • Start with what they know. Use ideas that they know are pretend, such as monsters or other fantastical creatures. Talk about how those things aren’t really real—they’re just ideas we’ve made up in our heads.
  • Relate their media to the real world. When a character does something realistic or a scene is realistic, make the connection for kids: “That’s how it would happen in real life.”
  • Compare and contrast. Use items that they’re familiar with, such as toy or food packaging, and ask them to explain the similarities and differences between what’s inside and what’s pictured on the outside.
  • Talk about the differences between media and reality. When you’re reading together or watching TV, discuss what would happen if someone really did what’s in the book or on the show.

Here’s what you should ask:

  • TV shows: What’s this about? What did you see and hear that made you think that?
  • Commercials: Did you recognize any of your “friends” (characters that they know)? What did they tell you?
  • Storybooks: Who’s telling the story? How do you know?
  • Movies: What happened in the story? What’d you think about it?
  • Online games: What happened when you clicked on that? Did you hear a sound when you clicked?
  • Product packaging: What’s the picture on the box? Is that what’s inside the box?
  • All of the above: Did they show the character/toy/object close up or from far away? Why? How did that make you feel? What made you feel that way?

Caroline Knorr writes for Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out ratings and recommendations at commonsense.org.

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