Children’s favorite media characters as teachers

Lessons learned in a land of make-believe
Brad Flickinger,, CC BY 2.0
Brad Flickinger,, CC BY 2.0

People, including children, create relationships with media characters in ways that are very similar to those that they form with real people. For instance, they see media characters as trusted friends, who they become attached to and feel comforted by when life is challenging. Media characters can be viewed somewhat like “comfort food,” making children’s lives less stressful. Media characters can also be children’s playmates, particularly when they are presented as puppets or created in some other kind of physical, tactile form.

At young ages, children often think that these characters are real, having human-like needs such as being hungry or sleepy. These experiences rely on beliefs that what is pretend is real, on the suspension of reality. The relationships that children form with media characters are called parasocial relationships.

Opportunities to create relationships with media characters are ubiquitous because media characters are everywhere. They are bought and sold on the marketplace, bringing toys, foods, messages, and fun into children’s lives, and they “live” on a variety of platforms.

My interest in these characters has been, in part, to figure out how to martial their immense popularity to make them engaging teachers.  For instance, I am interested in how to teach children early math skills that will make it possible for them to succeed in school.

Parasocial interactions for children’s early math learning

While past media characters have only been able to present content that children can watch and learn from through observation, new technologies allow those media characters to respond contingently to children.  iPad apps, such as Elmo games, are one such example. A new frontier of learning involves intelligent characters who appear to respond contingently to the child, which is a form of parasocial interaction.

Because human communication is facilitated by interactions with those who are close to us, my colleagues and I chose a popular media character – the animated Dora the Explorer – as our intelligent character in one of our studies. This study was presented at the Special Topic Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development about Technology and Media in Children’s Development in late October of 2016.

“My vision is that the use of favorite media characters as teachers will make a land of make-believe where pretense flourishes one that will have lasting and enduring effects on children’s early cognitive development.”

In this game, the child player was joining the animated Dora to gather items at a grocery store for her cousin Diego’s birthday. Items for the party, such as balloons, party hats, birthday candles, and party favors, come down a conveyor belt, at first slowly and later more quickly.  The child’s task is to count the items as they come down the conveyor belt before the trickster Swiper the Fox grabs them. Initial rounds present sequential number problems, which are presented randomly in later rounds.

Dora uses parasocial interaction techniques, i.e., replying contingently to the child via a Wizard, who is an unseen experimenter that hides behind a screen.  There are two kinds of questions.  One is small talk, such as, “how old are you?” to build repertoire with the child. The other is math talk, in which the math problems are solved.

The math problems involve the add-one concept (e.g., 4 + 1 is 5), in which a child counts in their head automatically.  Before this concept is mastered, young children often count on their fingers, which makes them go slower. Although counting on your fingers is a foundation for more complex math skills, being able to add in your head frees up cognitive resources so that harder math problems can be tackled.

In testing our initial prototype, we worked with 50 4-5-year-old boys and girls individually in their child care center. We found our prototype to be effective.  Children attended much more to Dora than to an experimenter who sat beside them or to distractions in the room. Children got faster at solving the problems across the first two rounds, which were sequentially presented problems that varied in how quickly they went down a conveyor belt.  Children also talked to Dora. One little girls, for instance, exclaimed, “She’s talking to me!” when Dora replied specifically to what she had said.

Interestingly, the children with stronger parasocial relationships with Dora in terms of treating her as a close friend were more likely to engage in small talk with her, thereby linking emotionally close relationships to actual interaction with the character. In other research, small talk results in more engagement with intelligent characters.

The future of intelligent media characters as teachers

Our second study is to compare the impact of our prototype when it has characters versus when it does not to see if the characters make a difference in children’s learning.  We think that the character will be much more motivating than the game that is played without one. We will also be able to switch out characters so that children’s favorites could be included in the game, making it highly personalized for them, and hopefully, even more engaging.

Eventually, our goal is to fully automate our prototype so that our current Wizard behind the screen becomes an electronic Wizard embedded in the game.

The promise of 21st century learning from media characters has just begun to be fulfilled.  Through this kind of work, I hope that media characters can help children master basic and essential math concepts in a fun way that will ultimately prepare them for the workforce of tomorrow. My vision is that the use of favorite media characters as teachers will make a land of make-believe where pretense flourishes one that will have lasting and enduring effects on children’s early cognitive development.

The Society for Research in Child Development, a membership association whose mission is to advance developmental science and promote its use to improve human lives, held a Special Topic Meeting titled “Technology and Media in Children’s Development” at the University of California, Irvine, October 27-30, 2016. The event featured presentations by over 100 leading developmental scientists on the role of media and technology in children’s development. For a full list of topics being discussed, visit or view the Online Program.

The author of this blog post, Sandra L. Calvert, presented her latest study on parasocial interaction with media characters during the Special Topic Meeting.


Calvert, S.L., Brunick, K.L., Putnam, M.M., Mah, E., Richards, M.N., Horowitz, J., Richmond, E., Chancellor, S., & Barba, E. (2016, October). Creating an Intelligent Character to Teach Early Math Skills. Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Special Topic Meeting on Technology and Media in Children’s Development. Irvine, CA.