Watchful Eyes

Michael Abernethy

Kids want entertaining visuals: bright colors, silly action, friendly faces. Songs are good too, inane songs that play in endless loops.

One morning while in the first grade, I woke up feeling slightly under the weather. I convinced my mother that I was too sick to go to school and curled up on the sofa, secretly excited that I could watch Cadet Don, a Houston-based kids' show featuring an astronaut, his puppet companions, and his vast cartoon collection (primarily Looney Tunes). Unfortunately for me, Cadet Don was pre-empted that morning for a news special on the new Pope, so I got dressed and went to school.

Local kids' TV hosts like Cadet Don and Kitiric (who dressed in a kitten suit) entertained tens of thousands of children during the '60s, and some even went on to national fame, such as Soupy Sales, Buffalo Bob, and Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. Now, however, children's television is big business, complete with merchandising and government oversight. And lots of watchful eyes.

Some of those eyes belong to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which adopted new regulations last year mandating that multicast broadcasters, those sending a digital signal to two or more stations, must air three additional hours of children's educational programming per week for each station owned. Unfortunately, the FCC failed to define "educational," allowing one station to air The Flintstones as a "historical" show.

A study by the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Texas reports that pre-kindergarten aged children who watch educational programs do significantly better on standardized tests than those who do not, while those who watch only entertainment programs do worse. As well, the ages of two and three years old are the most influential for TV viewing ("Television Can Enhance Children's Intellectual Development," Ascribe Newswire: Health, 21 September 2001). Since the Kaiser Family Foundation has determined that children aged six months to six years spend as much time watching TV as playing, what they watch is important (Ellen Wartella and Gary E. Knell, "Raising a World-Wise Child and the Power of Media: The Impact of Television on Children's Intercultural Knowledge," Phi Delta Kappan, November 2004). Further complicating this question of early media influence are recent accusations that the Teletubbies, SpongeBob Squarepants, and Buster the Bunny have a "homosexual agenda." While the accusations are baseless, they have drawn additional attention to the genre of kids' TV.

Considering all of these factors, parents would be wise to monitor their children's viewing. Which shows benefit kids? Which turn kids' brains to mush? Not a parent myself, I consulted with friends who are in order to get a list of "must-see" TV shows for the pre-kindergarten crowd. Then, to learn more, I watched 14 programs, on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney. I divided them into two categories: shows that teach and shows that encourage physical activity. Unaware of the benefits of educational programs, kids don't view TV as a learning experience. They want entertaining visuals: bright colors, silly action, friendly faces. Songs are good too, inane songs that play in endless loops.

No show I watched combined education and entertainment as effectively as Sesame Street. Now in its 36th year, it retains many famous features, such as the letter and number of the day, and has added new segments, like "Elmo's World." The episode I saw was a few years old, featuring guest appearances by the late Michael Jeter and a young Liam Neeson. (An advantage of some kids' shows is that, barring a major overhaul of the alphabet, they can be rerun endlessly.) Sesame Street has increased its use of Spanish language and sign language, but has abandoned those interactions among neighborhood residents -- human and Muppet -- that I remember so fondly.

For lively interactions, you might turn to Blue's Clues. Taped in front of a green screen, Joe (Donovan Patton) acts the hyperactive fool, talking with both the audience at home and cartoon characters. Patton's very good at it, and Blue's Clues' instruction is patient and involving. It's one of the only shows that asks kids to solve problems and gives them time to figure out the answer on their own. So does Dora the Explorer, featuring a Mexican protagonist (much of the show is in Spanish). As the answers to Dora's numerous questions are obvious, kids are easily excited by their ability to answer correctly (I had my own fun, coming up with wrong answers), as Dora goes out of her way to compliment kids for their participation. The previously mentioned University of Texas study determined that this type of interaction between show and viewer provides the greatest rewards for children learners.

I was disappointed by a few purportedly educational shows, among them Barney and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. I realize criticizing Mr. Rogers is blasphemy, but his segments in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe (the fictional world where puppets and actors interact that is separate from Mr. Roger's "home") struck me as pointless even when I was a child. The episode I saw had one of the puppets constructing umbrella-adorned rocking chairs. The scene was neither amusing nor educational, and the chairs were not functional. The draw is Fred Rogers, who excelled at making kids feel worthwhile and loved, and the show suffers when he isn't on screen. Barney is also loved, at least by children. While the format -- songs and topics all over the map -- is irritating to an adult, it's apparently fine with kids.

The most effective educational tool employed by any of the shows is repetition, offering the same lesson in different and creative ways. I lost track of how many times Sesame Street counted to 20, but each was unique. Sesame Street and Barney end each episode with a recap of the important lessons learned that day. In contrast, the lesson of a Dragon Tales episode -- it's good to try new things -- was reduced to one line, inserted before a game sequence.

Shows designed to wear kids out also repeat, offering serial bouts of singing and dancing. While these shows lack intellectual value, they emphasize the importance of playing. The Wiggles features four grown men who sing and bop around like idiots for 30 minutes. Since kids lack the coordination to dance, any type of energetic movement -- flailing arms, hopping around, spinning, and yes, wiggling -- counts as dancing. These performances use bouncy, simplistic songs, so young children can easily follow rhythms and lyrics (and drive their parents nuts by singing them all day). Teletubbies also gets kids moving. Aimed at two- and three-year-olds, it uses even less sophisticated songs, without lyrics. One episode of Teletubbies convinced me of two things: it is great fun, and Jerry Falwell, who maintains that Tinky Winky is gay, is an idiot. Test patterns have more sexual content.

Also under fire by the religious right is Postcards from Buster, about a traveling bunny and his family. Buster recently acknowledged that some kids have two mommies. Unfortunately, my local PBS station chose not to air the controversial episode, but the psychological damage caused by an episode of Buster has to be less significant than the damage caused by religious right ranting to children who do live in same-sex households. That aside, the episode of Buster I saw was dull, offering children neither education nor entertainment.

My week of watching children's shows convinced me that the essential components haven't changed much since I was young: live action sequences mixed with animated sequences, humans interacting with puppets and cartoon characters, all buoyed by silly songs. Production values have improved and the pacing is more brisk than I recall. And educational components are enhanced, informed by years of research in preschool instruction and overseen by professional educators.

Of course, not everything a child watches on TV has to be educational or physically beneficial. (We certainly don't hold adults' programming to that standard.) Allowing children a mix of programming is healthy, and the ultimate responsibility as to what they watch lies with the parents. There's no substitute for watching and discussing the shows your kid likes, and really, would it hurt you to put down the dishrag and dance along with the Wiggles every so often? Your kids might not only learn their ABCs, but how cool mom and dad can be as well.

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