"Media literacy is not just important, it’s absolutely critical. It’s going to make the difference between whether kids are a tool
of the mass media or whether the mass media is a tool for kids to use."

- Linda Ellerbee, broadcast journalist

The world of the 21st century differs greatly from the past, particularly in the area of technology. For today’s young children, encounters with media and technology are familiar experiences in daily life, from the grocery store visit where items are scanned to the ATM machine where Mom does her banking. Even toddlers know the intricacies of playing a favorite videotape or DVD long before they have words to express their actions. When you add to this today’s technologically advanced toys where sounds and movement are the norm, it’s impossible to separate technology from everyday life. By the time children become teens, they spend more time on the Internet than even watching television.According to a 2002 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than three quarters of American children aged 12 to 17 go online.

It’s important for adults to recognize that young children experience technology as end-users rather than as media producers. For them, the learning curve related to media begins with exposure in daily life. Eventually, the child develops the skill to take an active role in using media as a tool to accomplish other goals.

Digital technologies have made media arts tools—television, film, video, photography, radio, audio recording, computers, and the Internet—accessible to more people than ever before. Having the world at their fingertips is an exciting prospect for older children. At the same time, the sheer mass of images and sounds now available can be daunting, increasing the importance of adult guidance. Media arts tools should be used to enhance and encourage young children’s creativity and imagination—not to replace it.

The Media Arts

Visual Media

Mainly film, video, DVDs, photography, and television. The use of still cameras to make arresting images and new, inexpensive camcorders to make movies offers children opportunities to create visual media art. Television provides access to a wide variety of art forms, especially film and photography.

Audio Media

Mainly radio, audio tapes, and CDs. Audio recording equipment can be used to produce music, comedy, and narratives using spoken word and sound effects. The radio, as well as familiar devices like CD players, can expose children to a wide range of music and spoken word art forms.

Digital Media

Computers have become the most prevalent tool for creating and using digital art. In many cases, their use with other media forms—for example, using editing software to create a movie from camcorder footage—provides new and exciting possibilities for working in the media arts. In many instances, digital technologies, which are often cheaper to use than older equipment, are replacing other media tools.

Media Literacy in Today's World

In the media-saturated world in which we live, every child needs to be media literate. That means knowing not only how to use the new technologies, but also when and why. Children often demonstrate a level of sophistication that is surprising to adults. In fact, children readily adapt to new technologies, often more quickly than their parents.

As the quantity of and access to images and sounds increase, all of us—and especially children—need to remember that all media are made by people with a specific purpose in mind.

The skill and artistry of media professionals make it increasingly difficult to separate the real world from the crafted worlds represented in a wide range of media formats. Media literacy allows audiences to appreciate the best of the art form while increasing their awareness of subtle, as well as overt, messages.

As with all of the arts, parents and teachers should guide children through the intricacies. With preschoolers and kindergarteners, it is important to relate issues to common experiences familiar to children. A relevant discussion about television commercials could focus attention on the fact that ideas represented through media are not necessarily true or beyond criticism. For instance, children should know that a television commercial is intended to send a specific message that will persuade audiences to consume the product.

Elementary students typically have analytical skills that surpass those of younger children. They can grasp the basic concepts that film and video makers, television and radio producers, and computer and other new media artists use. By studying the media arts, children can gain valuable insights into the world around them, especially if they receive quality media education in their schools and guidance at home. Media make strong impressions on children. It is for this very reason that adults should share the experience and provide a balanced perspective.

Engaging Young Children in the Media Arts

Given the demands of time, work, and family life, few parents can monitor everything a child sees, hears, and experiences through the media. It is possible, however, to promote positive use of media by fostering active media criticism, and encouraging your child to play and experiment with media arts tools. The key is to ensure that expectations and activities are appropriate for the age and capacities of the child. Here are a few suggestions for activities, some appropriate for preschoolers and others better suited to elementary students:

  • Search for media in everyday life. The use of media is now a part of childhood. Just look in any toy store, even in the baby section. In the past, children’s toys were simple objects like blocks, books, and dolls that required activity and imagination on the part of the child. Technology has changed that! Encourage your child to look at his or her toys to see which ones include media-related elements. Engage your child in conversation about toys such as barking toy dogs and compare them to the real thing.
  • View actively. With preschoolers, sing or dance along with the TV, DVD, and video. With older children, focus attention on details like how lighting makes a scene scary or how background music sets a certain mood. At another time, encourage children to make up and act out their own stories starring their favorite characters.
  • Sing a song or tell a story on tape. A comfortable first activity with media is tape recording your child’s voice as he or she tells a story, sings a song, or puts on a puppet show. Replay the tape. Most young children are totally fascinated by hearing their own voices and the voices of their friends.
  • Be a Star. Plan a birthday party entitled “Be a Star” and send invitations for a gathering of your child and his or her friends. Let the children select their favorite songs from your collection of children’s CDs as well as your “oldies” and then tape record the group singing along. At the end, give every child a chance to sing independently. This solo could be a familiar song or an original tune made up on the spot. Make copies of the tape for every child to take home. Pretend to have a media opening with fancy dress up clothing and special foods. Invite parents to the “Opening.”
  • Visit children’s museums, science exploratoriums, and technology centers. In many communities, first-rate museums offer opportunities for children to have hands-on experiences with media art tools. Some may have a radio or television “station” they can explore. Others use computers to engage children in interactive exploration and self-expression.
  • Become a shutter bug. With appropriate supervision, even preschoolers can take simple pictures with a digital camera. The beauty of this medium is that pictures that are not quite up to par can easily be discarded without cost. Parents or teachers can review pictures with children and then choose the best for printing.
  • Make a movie. With a video camera, older children can become a director, producer, or star of their own videos. Encourage your child to use the camera to tell a story, perhaps using family and friends as actors and subjects. Children and parents can collaborate to write a simple script and shoot it. Turn a room of your home into a theater, make some popcorn, and invite friends and family as guests for a screening of the finished product.
  • Use media to prepare for attending live performances. Help children learn about live performance by showing them a concert, play, or ballet on tape. Not only can children begin to understand what to look for in these performances, but they can also gain a sense of appropriate behavior. Point out details such as how the instruments in an orchestra are grouped in different sections, how the audience sits in the dark to help focus attention on the stage, and how people wait to clap until a scene, movement, or song ends.
  • Introduce your child to new kinds of art forms through media. Designate selected family video nights to explore a new genre of film, style of dance, or type of music.
  • Use the Internet. Find Internet sites that give your child an experience that may not be accessible in your community. For
    example, many museums have Web sites that offer interactive games and activities that introduce young children to museum collections. Access to the Web needs to be carefully supervised for all children.
  • Use digital media to expand knowledge. Many new media offer background material or enhancements in addition to the main show. Renting DVDs rather than videotapes allows children to hear directors describing the choices they made in making the films. Jazz clips on a university Internet site, for example, might include a music professor’s notes about the history of the piece.
  • Create your own Web site. With scanners, digital cameras, word processing software, and digital music making tools, you can demonstrate the power of media by constructing a Web site to create a family page to share with grandparents, cousins, friends, and others. This collaborative process may lead to more independent activities as children mature and gain more sophisticated skills.

Talk to children about the media they see, hear, use, and produce. Ask them to share their interpretations and let them know your opinions. Conversations about media help children develop the vocabulary to appreciate and analyze what they watch and hear.

Education and Special Programs in Media Arts

Elementary schools offer children a wide range of technology experiences. Although computers can be found in many preschool classrooms, more formal involvement in media arts instruction begins with older children. Schools can enhance children’s educational experience by providing students with opportunities to express themselves using media arts tools. Computer labs and Internet access are becoming more and more the norm in elementary school buildings.While the basics begin in elementary schools, they serve as a foundation for more advanced media productions in middle and high school.

In schools with quality media arts programs, instructors encourage children by answering their questions and by taking students’work seriously without holding children to unrealistic standards. Good teachers gently critique student work in ways that help children understand how to achieve their own goals. That kind of feedback not only helps hone artistic skills, but also provides a positive model for children to share their opinions with others.

As a parent, you can reinforce the efforts of media arts educators by providing students with opportunities to continue their work
outside of school, and by attending student performances or art shows. Work with schools to help them get and maintain the equipment they need. Schools can create programs that offer free computers, digital cameras, and other media tools. Offer to share your own skills with teachers and ask them to help you get to know your child better through the art your child produces.


Web Sites

Alliance for a Media Literate America
This membership organization for people involved in media literacy education runs the National Media Education Conference.

Center for Media Literacy
The Center for Media Literacy provides a comprehensive catalogue of selected publications, videos, and teaching materials. This Web site also offers resources for preschoolers and early elementary students.

National Alliance for Media and Culture
The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) is a nonprofit association comprised of diverse member organizations that are dedicated to the production, exhibition, distribution, and preservation of film, video, audio, and online/multimedia arts. Its mission is to strengthen media arts organizations as an integral part of the community; facilitate the support of independent media artists form all cultural communities and regions; integrate media into all levels of education and advocate for media literacy as an educational goal; promote humane uses of and individual access to current and future media technologies; and encourage media arts that are rooted in communities, as well those that are global in outlook.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)
The Public Broadcasting Service, created and owned by the nation’s public television stations, exists to serve its members with programming and services of the highest quality and to demonstrate the imaginative use of technology to advance education, culture, and citizenship.


Voice/TYY: (202) 682-5496 For individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Individuals who do not use conventional print may contact the Arts Endowment’s Office for AccessAbility to obtain this publication in an alternate format.
Telephone: (202) 682-5532
National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20506-0001
(202) 682-5400

Additional copies of this publication can be obtained by contacting the NEA Web site: www.arts.gov.

A Great Nation Deserves Great Art.
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20506-0001
(202) 682-5400