Using Media to Engage Families in Science

Jul 16 2019

Authors: Jennifer Stiles, Megan Silander, Gay Mohrbacher

EDC explores how media are an effective way to motivate families with young children to do science together. 

Editor’s Note: In our report Joining Together to Create a Bold Vision for Next-Generation Family Engagement: Engaging Families to Transform Education, we wrote about five high-leverage areas that might be important areas on which to focus capacity building efforts, with digital media being one of them. Digital media and technology offer unprecedented opportunities for children and families to learn together anywhere, anytime. When digital media are coupled with other high-leverage areas—like science—the opportunities for families to support and enhance student learning grows.  

Engaging in science from a young age can provide children with a foundation for school readiness and future academic achievement. Recent research suggests that parents feel responsible for helping their children learn, but only about half of parents—and even fewer low-income parents—feel confident helping their children learn science. Even when parents value early STEM learning, providing enriching science experiences can sometimes be challenging. We know from prior research that educational media, such as videos, apps, and digital games, can play a valuable role in helping parents strengthen their children’s literacy and math skills, and that media may be particularly effective for parents who lack confidence in helping their children learn. 

The PEEP Family Science study is further evidence that media are an effective way to motivate families to do science together. Coupled with hands-on activities, media can model science exploration, encourage discussion, and introduce content in a way that is fun and engaging for both parent and child.

Peep Family Science


With funding from the National Science Foundation, WGBH (Boston’s public media station) and researchers from Education Development Center (EDC) used the Emmy Award-winning preschool series PEEP and the Big Wide World to involve families in science exploration through media engagement and hands-on investigation. In collaboration with two home-visiting organizations—Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY USA) and AVANCE, which support parents whose children are not enrolled in formal preschool—the team developed “PEEP Family Science” (PEEP). PEEP offers families a collection of science resources in easy-to-download apps that include PEEP animations, live-action videos, contextual prompts for parents, activity instructions, and short parent videos modeling positive adult/child engagement strategies. Each app uses a PEEP video to introduce a new science concept and offers step-by-step guidance for parents and children to play and explore together, questions to launch conversations about the concepts, and ideas for taking an exploration further. With parents talking about the videos and doing related hands-on activities, PEEP aims to ensure that the focus is not on what is displayed onscreen but on using media to catalyze learning and bring concepts introduced by the app to life in the real world. 

A team of researchers at EDC studied the implementation of PEEP with English- and Spanish-speaking families enrolled in HIPPY USA and AVANCE home-visiting programs in both rural and urban communities. These organizations target and serve primarily low-income families. Of participating parents, 19 percent did not complete high school; 34 percent earned a high school diploma or GED; 25 percent attended some college or technical classes; 10 percent had an associate’s or technical degree; and 14 percent held a college or graduate degree. Sixty-three percent of parents were Spanish-speaking and 37 percent were English-speaking. Most parents accessed PEEP on their smartphones and were able to download the apps with ease. A few parents who were unable to download the apps on their phones borrowed a tablet from the home-visiting organization. Once downloaded, the apps can be used offline so that they do not use data. Families who did not have Wi-Fi access at home, or were unable to access public networks, used Wi-Fi hot spots provided by the research team. Below we offer some examples from the study about how families can use PEEP to support engagement in science.

How Peep Supports Family Engagement with Science Media

PEEP and the Big Wide World uses animated videos with characters to stimulate children’s excitement and curiosity. The show stars a wide-eyed chick named Peep, a skeptical robin (Chirp), and a feisty duck (Quack). They live in a large urban park—the “Big Wide World”—a place that invites all kinds of science adventures. As families watch Peep and friends explore science concepts, their engagement with the characters and story lines over time is designed to serve as motivation and help them develop new knowledge and skills.

Tip 1. Parents can maximize children’s learning from media by sharing the experience with their children. Asking questions and talking about the ideas in a video or game, or drawing children’s attention to important content, helps deepen their understanding.

To encourage parents and children to use media together, PEEP apps target parents as the primary user rather than children. PEEPprovides discussion prompts that encourage parents to start conversations and talk about ideas. For example, after watching a video about colors in which Peep, Chirp, and Quack play hide-and-go-seek, researchers observed a parent and child having the following discussion using prompts from the app:


Another family had a similar conversation while watching the characters play hide-and-go-seek:


Tip 2. Connecting the contents of the media to something in children’s everyday lives provides an important support for children’s learning.

Connecting a new idea to something children already know helps deepen their understanding. For example, when reflecting on a video about ramps, a parent and child discussed how Chirp made a zigzag pattern to propel a marble up a hill. The parent reminded the child of where he’d seen that pattern before—the zigzag stitch on her sewing machine. Some parents we interviewed described talking with their children about ramps they observed in their surroundings, such as accessibility ramps, hills, and slides on the playground.

How Media Helped Families Do Science

Tip 3. Media can also scaffold parent (and child) learning by modeling science explorations and language.

PEEP includes parent videos that model families engaging in science activities—watching and discussing videos, doing hands-on exercises, taking explorations further, and creating their own media (such as videos and recordings) while carrying out the activities. One parent said of the videos, “[They] were helpful in preparing for what we were going to do. It showed me what we needed to have on hand…. And then it helps to give ideas on what questions to ask … to help transition into the activity. I think that helped a lot.”

Tip 4. Use media as a steppingstone to hands-on science. Connect screen time with real-time exploration to create a rich, multidimensional learning experience.  

The PEEP apps pair videos with related hands-on activities to help children make the transition from viewing to doing. For example, in one video the character Quack is intrigued by how his voice sounds when he sings “mi-mi-mi-mi” into a large metal pipe.The app guides families through hands-on activities in which they explore how their voices sound when they sing through cardboard tubes. Children can also view media after their science explorations to reflect on their experiences and compare to the videos or games they use.


In addition, the PEEP apps offer ideas to help parents explore more with their children, such as repeating an activity with new materials or in a different place, like the park. Repeating fun activities helps children learn, and incorporating new contexts further connects the science content to the world around them.

Final Thoughts

In our study, the use of media proved to be one of PEEP’s major strengths. Virtually all parents reported that their children enjoyed the videos and were motivated to explore similar content. After using PEEP, parents related doing substantially more science activities with their children and using more strategies to support their children’s learning through media. Parents who were initially less confident came away feeling more comfortable helping their children explore science.

Findings from the study also pointed to a few challenges. Some parents and home educators expressed apprehension about using media with young children, and a few suggested that some parents faced difficulty in disengaging children from the media. Findings from our study suggest that programs using media should address these ideas and experiences explicitly and scaffold parents’ use of strategies for supporting their children’s learning through media.

About PEEP Family Science: Available for free in both English and Spanish, “PEEP Family Science” offers four apps, each dedicated to an individual topic: sounds, ramps and movement, colors, and shadows. Awarded a five-star rating from Common Sense Media, the apps can be used by parents interested in exploring science with their preschoolers.

About the Contributors:


Jennifer Stiles is a research assistant at Education Development Center.


Megan Silander is a researcher at the Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology.


Gay Mohrbacher is senior project manager for WGBH Education.