“You’re not supposed to let them watch any screens before they’re 2 years old,” my sage mom friend told me over a lunch while I was pregnant. I nodded studiously, still under the naive impression that I would do everything “by the book.”
“But if you do…” she continued.
“Yes?!” I leaned in closer.
“Then you’re gonna want to know about this one YouTube channel.”
That channel is Songs for Littles—a low-tech, educational show for babies and toddlers that’s filmed in a Brooklyn apartment not too far from where our daughter was born. Despite its humble production, the show has racked up more than two million YouTube subscribers and a deeply adoring fan base. In a recent segment of the Today show, host Rachel Griffin Accurso, who goes by “Ms. Rachel” on the show, was championed as a “rock star” for the under age 4 set.
As a preschool teacher and mother of a toddler herself, Accurso told Today that she was inspired to create the channel when her own child exhibited a speech delay and she was unable to find great resources for him. She seems to be achieving her mission: on social media, many parents have gushed—sometimes in tears—about how watching the show has helped their children talk more. Meanwhile, speech therapists have shared they give the show their seal of approval.
“Ms. Rachel uses some of the same techniques speech therapists use to support language development such as repetition, pausing, parentese, and she keeps language short and simple,” Brenda Batista, a certified speech language pathologist and creator of Tiny Talkers Speech, told me in an email. “This is as good as screen time is going to get.”
What happened when I introduced my baby to Ms. Rachel
Though I’d intended on strictly limiting screen time for our baby, I started introducing Ms. Rachel for just a few minutes at a time when our daughter was about 5 months old. Many of the songs are variations on classics, like “Wheels on the Bus” or “Row Row Row Your Boat,” while others I’ve never heard before and seem original. Regardless of which song played, our daughter took to them like a puppy to a squeaky toy. Her reaction when we turned it on was immediate—she could be bored, whimpering, even full-on wailing, and the moment Ms. Rachel or one of her friendly costars pops on the screen, she’d be grinning and flapping her arms with glee. In fact, it inspired some of her first gestures, like clapping.
Regardless of which song played, our daughter took to them like a puppy to a squeaky toy.
At first, I did a lot of hand-wringing about showing these videos… Is it going to ruin her brain? Is this lazy parenting? My concerns increased when I’d turn it off and she began grabbing greedily at the remote, jabbing furiously at the buttons in an attempt to bring back her friend. Ultimately, though, the breaks from active parenting are worth it, and what makes me feel OK about this channel in particular is that it’s structured in a way that supports language and speech development.
Why babies love Ms. Rachel
Accurso, who has a master’s degree in music education from New York University and is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in early childhood education, has done her research when it comes to young children. In videos, she talks in a sing-songy, enthusiastic voice, and slowly enunciates words. This form of speaking, referred to among researchers as “parentese,” may be a little annoying to adults but is actually shown to benefit children.
For example, a study by researchers at the University of Washington showed that children of parents who were coached in using parantese used significantly more words than the children of parents in the control group. Surveys showed that parents in the former group estimated their 18-month-old children knew about 100 words, whereas parents in the latter group estimated their kids knew about 60.
Why I love Ms. Rachel
Aside from the educational element, the cast of Songs for Littles includes a diverse array of singers and performers. While Ms. Rachel may look like the quintessential preschool teacher in a pink headband and overalls, the cast includes singers of different ethnicities and gender identities. A singer named Jules, for instance, who plays acoustic guitar numbers that could pass for good adult indie pop, identifies as they/them on the staff’s “About” page. I appreciate this, as it’s important to me that our child sees different kinds of people perform. The show’s cast also just includes stellar performers. Many of them, including Accurso’s husband, have backgrounds in theater and have worked on Broadway shows like Hamilton and Aladdin.
Now that our child is 14 months old, I put on Songs for Littles at least a few times per week. Seeing how she’s learned from it overrides any guilt I have about screen time. Of course, we still believe in moderation. Other than one very tough week when she was sick and all rules went out the window, we try to keep any screen time to under an hour in a given day, and to not watch it every day.
Do I still have pangs of guilt when I realize that we’ve let the show run a little too long? Sure. Are there times when hearing “Wheels of the Bus” for the thousandth time makes me feel slightly insane, like I’m some kind of happy-go-lucky space-time vortex in which everything must be repeated ad infinitum? Of course. But given the infinite number of things I’m juggling and stressing about, any worries I have about the impact of Ms. Rachel are far, far outweighed by my appreciation for her and the joy she brings my kid.