Beeing Proud of my Daughter

I originally posted this on father’s day before this site was hit by a nefarious hacker and I’m reposting it because I want it to be somewhere on this site because it’s relevant to what I’m doing here.  That week my daughter, conscientious girl that she is, actually went ahead and made me a father’s day gift. But she didn’t have to. The academic pride she gave me that week would have been good enough by itself.

This isn’t to say I’m not proud of her at other times. I’m proud of all my kids and for so many reasons.  But that week, the week leading up to father’s day, she won her school “legal studies quiz” as well as the national board of education’s regional spelling bee. Those achievements specifically, particularly the second, made me proud in a way that’s specifically relevant to the topic of this site. She won the bee competing against kids from completely English speaking homes, many of whom were born and raised in English speaking countries. Did she work hard and learn word lists and have the help of a neurotic father? Yes. And those all certainly contributed. But to a large extent she did it through having gotten a solid grounding in the English Language from a young age and a large part of that was watching the right programs which gave her a love of the way language works.

You’re likely thinking “well that’s all very well – you’re clearly a father that’s very into education and wanted her to excel and so you sat down with workbooks and drilled these rules into her. But not everyone has that kind of personality or time.” You’d be right about my being into education (obviously or this blog would not exist) but you’d be dead wrong about the rest. My daughter has been a big fan of such shows as Sesame Street, Between the Lions, and the Leapfrog learning videos from the get go. I never asked her to pick up a phonics workbook – I didn’t need to. Not because she was necessarily a focused type of student who can block out other stimuli such as TV but because she watched the type of shows that turned those stimuli to her advantage. Her adversaries knew how to speak the language – but she understands the way the language functions and what its rules are.

Is your direct input necessary to your child’s becoming academically successful? Well, certainly it helps, but no, it’s not necessary. What is necessary is that they get positive input at all and that they get it in an enjoyable and interesting way. And if you can give it to them in place of an activity that’s generally considered a negative, mind numbing one, an activity that they’re eager to participate in and possibly even addicted to at a low level (obviously if it becomes too serious you should seek help but most kids have a tolerable low level addiction to the screen) then you’ve turned your child’s liability into an advantage and broadened their education where before it might have suffered. The same half hour I imbued my daughter with a love of mathematics by letting her watch Cyberchase or science watching the Magic Schoolbus could have been just as easily invested in having her watch Bratz. Maybe she’d have enjoyed it as much (I find it hard to believe she’d have enjoyed it more). I didn’t even need to spend time on either one beyond choosing what DVD to show her. But several years down the line my daughter has brought home a regional spelling trophy for father’s day. The Bratz watchers? They’re bringing home the receipt for the new summer outfits they ‘had to have at the mall or they’d absolutely like just totally die’.  I don’t know whether or not those fathers would prefer to be in my place – but I do know I’m glad I’m not in theirs.

The fact that her brother is now already asking her to prepare him for two years down the line when he’ll be the minimum age to compete is an added bonus. Certainly the cheers of her schoolmates that rocked the hall where the contest was held had a role to play in that. But the main achievement for me is that her understanding of language and the way it works paid off dividends in a very real and immediate way that in turn will encourage her to continue investing her time in expanding her knowledge base. Having won the contest this year already in fifth grade (the contest is open only to 5th and 6th graders and generally won as a matter of course by 6th graders who have a larger vocabulary) she’s in the rare position of being able to defend her crown next year – and she’s already planning to do so. And for me? My job is to facilitate that by providing her with access to material that will make it easier for her to learn on her own even when I’m not around to help her study.  I guess I’d better go hunt down some TV program that helps build vocabulary and language skills for sixth graders. If anyone has any suggestions feel free to post them. But even if you don’t, if such a thing exists I will keep searching till I find it.

A Bear and Blue House and A Little Blue Mouse

Age Levels targeted:

2-6

 Background:

Bear in the Big Blue House is a long running TV program that first started on the air back in 1997. It was designed for young kids and produced by the Jim Henson company. Yes the same Jim Henson who brought you the Sesame Street, Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock and Between the Lions characters, so you know that we’re talking about a show made by someone with top credentials in the world of child education on TV. Henson’s company eventually sold the show to another icon of the kids entertainment world, The Walt Disney Company, but the show’s format remained essentially the same and the new management simply allowed for a larger budget.  The show was shown in a number of countries around the globe Ireland, England and Australia

Overview of the show:

The show almost always opens with Bear opening the door to the big blue house and letting his viewing audience enter the house. As he welcomes us in he inevitably wiggles his bear nose and say “mmmmm what’s that smell? Is that you? You smell just like (name of some sweet object). It must be because you’re so sweet” He then invites us into the house and either gives us an introduction to what’s going on at the moment if the show is around an event or he’ll suddenly be surprised by something he hears from another room and invite us to come check it out with him where we find the catalyst for the show’s issue going on. Over the course of the show Bear either helps reserve a conflict or teaches a lesson about some subject, often with the aid of a song.  At times there are also subplots going on during the course of the show and generally there’s a visit and story from Bear’s friend Shadow (see characters section below). Finally after all is resolved and the characters head off to bed, Bear goes to his balcony and converses with his friend Luna, the moon, about the day’s events in the big blue house after which they duet on the show’s goodbye song.

The Main Characters

Bear – Bear is exactly the kind of creature a child adores, feels safe with and instinctively wants to cuddle up to. I know that because it’s exactly what my kids all did with their stuffed animal version of him. He’s about 6 feet tall with thick light brown shaggy fur and a gentle calm voice and is responsible for the inhabitants of the Blue House. Bear is the ‘adult of the house’ patiently teaching his friends life’s lessons and intervening in their differences of opinions and finding ways to mediate. He loves cha cha music and especially loves to dance the bear cha cha cha. While there’s no Mrs. Bear, we’re given to understand that there’s a certain romantic feeling between him and a Spanish bear named Ursa who comes to visit him though it’s all very innocent and they speak about being very good friends. It’s only we jaded grownups to whom its transparent that there’s meant to be anything deeper than just being buddies. Being a bear, our hero unsurprisingly spends a great deal of time in the kitchen where many life lessons are learned and where he can serve up his famous triple berry pie.

 Tutter – Other than Bear himself, I’d have to say that Tutter, a small blue mouse who lives in a mouse hole in the house is the most dominant member of the cast. He’s very sure of himself and his ways, confident that his grandma flutter has taught him well. That said, he still has plenty of lessons to be taught by bear. One of Tutters chief characteristics is that he’s got a very strong sense of pride and tends to get easily insulted enabling Bear to teach lessons about getting along and not rushing to assume things about people’s behavior. Tutter is very attached to his grandma Flutter who appears in several episodes. It’s not clear why he no longer lives with her, but be that as it may her influence is felt constantly throughout all the episodes focusing on Tutter and he holds her in an almost fearful regard, though as we learn in one episode much of this comes purely from Tutter’s perception of what she expects of him and not of how she actually behaves or of what she does value in him.

 Treelo – Treelo the lemur seems to be the obligatory babyish character that seem to be a signature of Henson’s productions. Sesame Street has Cookie monster with his broken speech and Elmo’s World has Elmo with his baby voice.  Bear in the Big Blue House has Treelo with his own baby voice and often incomprehensible speech that leaves omits necessary parts of speech. He lacks the humor of Cookie monster or the show headlining ability of Elmo but he is useful for teaching lessons about getting along with other creatures – especially with Ojo and Tutter. Personally I’m not a big fan of intentionally having characters using baby language or poor grammar. I’m not saying that the arguments for it (that it makes certain children identify more with the character and thereby connect with the show) don’t have any validity. However I’m just noting that that’s how I feel about Treelo and the other Henson muppets of this kind. On the other hand, as I’ve noted elsewhere,  my personal feelings about the character are not necessarily a reason to negate the character, and certainly not the whole show.

Pip and Pop – the two very funny otter twins of the show are Pip and Pop – or perhaps Pop and Pip, as they’re really quite impossible to tell apart even once they’ve told you which is which. The mischief the two of them get up to allow Bear to teach lessons about appropriate behavior while their different opinions at times, despite identical looks allow Bear to teach that even when people seem outwardly the same they’re still individuals with their own opinions.

 Ojo – Ojo is an inquisitive bear cub who serves as an excuse for bear to give lessons in “growing up” to kids. He is very avuncular towards her and is generally more than happy to take part in the roles dreamed up by her very active imagination such as when she decides she’s a famous “flamingo dancer” (no – not a typo) and wants to dance with him.

She often gets frustrated by her inability to do things and bear has to explain them to her or explain why she’s not ready to do them yet. She’s very friendly and outside the house has a rabbit friend who lives near the otter pond.

 Luna and RayLuna, the moon is a staple character in the show. At the end of each episode Bear goes out on his balcony and discusses the events of the day in the Big Blue House with her in a conversation that generally contains some wisdom on Luna’s part stemming from the fact that as the moon she sees whatever trait or human behaviorism is the topic of the show happening all over the world. The show concludes with Luna and Bear singing a duet of the show’s theme song and wishing each other good night.

 Ray, the sun, is a less frequent character (he appears quite a number of times during the series but not every episode as Luna does). At times the episode will open with Bear’s asking him what the weather for the day’s going to be like because of some activity or another that he has planned for the house’s inhabitants.

Shadow

Shadow is a black silhouette of a girl on the wall who appears in most of the episodes and tells Bear a story, generally (though not always or directly) related to the main topic of the show. We never see the girl – at least not in any episode I’ve ever seen – just the silhouette and she often refers to her life as a shadow. When Bear asks her what she’s been up to or where she’s going she tends to reply with statements like “I’m off to play hide and seek with my friends the moonbeams” and similar statements.

In addition to these there are a number of more minor characters who appear throughout the series. There are a veritable host of these, the most important of which are Tutter’s grandmother Grandma Flutter, Jeremiah Tortoise and Doc Hog. Many of the characters on Bear in the Big Blue House are recycled from another Henson show called Jim Henson’s animal show,” a ‘news’ show in which a bear and a skunk interview other animals.

Types of skills the show teaches:

The show teaches many social and practical behavioral lessons ranging from getting along with friends or as part of a larger community to understanding values and what things matter and which don’t. The lessons are imparted in a fun and light manner which allows the kids to get into the events as a story before they suddenly realize how this can relate to something practical in their own lives. Seldom is it preachy and, on the contrary, when things are taught in a preachy manner (usually by Tutter) it’s in order to hold it up as a mistaken assumption which Bear then has to correct  as part of teaching a lesson. For example in one episode Tutter wants to set the table in a particular way and insists it’s the only way to set a table while Treelo wants to do it another way and finally bear intervenes to suggest to Tutter that perhaps they could find a compromise and invent a whole new way of setting it (which of course they do to the satisfaction of all.

Site review: As mentioned above this is a Jim Henson production which speaks for itself. It’s hard not to like the characters who are not only large fuzzy and friendly but are also well rounded characters. They each have their own distinct personality traits except pip and pop who are apparently meant not to.

Some questions which I’ve never really gotten an answer to regard the background of the show. What exactly ARE two bears, a lemur and two otters are doing living together at all (especially the otters who clearly have a pond nearby). Why are they living in a human style house and how exactly can they afford to live there since none of them seem to have employment of any sort (except for Bear whose job is to take care of them and minor characters such as Doc Hog who’s the town doctor). But admittedly this is just nitpicking as the show isn’t intended for kids at a level that tend to wonder about such things. The setting, presumably, is made as it is in order to bring a set of diverse characters into close proximity where they need to learn social skills and learn to get along with each other with the helpful tutelage of bear.

My kids review: My kids have all adored this show in turn. At least one of them was successfully toilet trained on the Bear Potty episode one of the songs from which you can see below

and for another his first TV song memorized. For a long time my two older sons would always refer to the moon as “Luna” not because they know any Italian but because that’s the name of the moon character on the show. The various tv tie-in books were subsequently a hit as well. I didn’t find them to be as good as the show, personally, but the kids were so Bear obsessed that if it had him in it they wanted it read to them.

Anecdotal: when my son first discovered baseball his favorite player was Derek Jeter. While this likely would have happened anyhow, me being a Yankees fan, a large reason for this was the episode “At the Old Bear Game” in which baseball legend Ferret Jeter shows up at the Big blue house and reveals to the awestruck inhabitants (especially Pip and Pop) what a baseball star Bear was in his youth, the morals being that 1) people we take for granted often have a lot more to them then you’d know if you only cared to ask and 2) Bear’s taking care of everyone at the house is just as heroic and important as being a big league ballplayer.

Similar shows: Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Breakfast with Bear, Jim Henson’s Animal Show, Bannanas in Pajamas

 

Educational Shows Kids Love And Shows Parents Love To Educate With

In today’s posting I’m going to take a break from what I’ve been doing so far, which is reviewing individual educational TV shows. Acquainting you with good television programs for your kids is of course a main goal of my site. But it’s not the only goal. A large part of my focus is on considering the philosophy inherent in determining what makes a TV program useful for expanding your kids’ education. What are the criteria that ought to be considered in determining whether a show is educationally good or bad? Good for whom? Good how? Over the next few postings I’d like to consider issues of how we use TV as a tool and how that informs our choices of the  programs we use for TV education.

In this first posting I’d like to pick up on an issue I discussed in my last piece, my review of the show Boohbahs, and consider the issue of educational shows kids like vs. shows adults like to use to educate their kids. These groups certainly overlap but are by no means the same. Adults and children apply different criteria to judging content and their approval or disapproval rests largely on how closely the program conforms to those criteria. If the adult’s main criterion is education and the child’s is enjoyment, a balance has to be struck for the show to get high marks from both rating systems.

There are many programs which are clearly educational and will impart positive values and messages to the kids that watch them. However, some of these shows are disliked by parents for various reasons and ironically these are often shows that children respond to particularly well. This may be for a variety of reasons such as

  • the program’s creators designed the program to appeal to the children’s level without taking the parent into account at all
  • the parent feels that there are harmful elements in the program or that
  • the parent disagrees with the show’s philosophy of relating to kids by ‘dumbing down’ the material or ‘talking down’ to the kids.

Whatever the reasons, it almost inevitably creates situations where we are either depriving our children of something valuable because of our own prejudices or, alternatively, that we expose the child to influences we consider negative because they respond so well to the program and so we make a sacrifice for the sake of the positive elements in the program.

In approaching these questions we need ask ourselves two larger questions in regards to our use of TV as an educational medium, to wit

  1. What is the purpose of using TV as an educational tool at all?
  2. Is it preferable that a program be informationcentric or childcentric?

Before proceeding, I’d like to say that I don’t have definitive answers to the questions just posed. I have opinions, of course, but along with those opinions I also hold the overriding convictions that

  • the answers will differ from parent to parent, child to child and environment to environment and even from one time to another
  • there is no one answer that works across the board for any one child in all situations and even if there were it would likely be completely different for the sibling of that same child.

That said, there should be general guidelines of what to consider when approaching each question with regards to our children and that’s what I want to discuss and I hope people will feel free to comment on (there IS a reason for the comments box on my pages – I want you to think of this as an interactive site where you can feel free to put in your 2 cents and contribute thoughts which will I’m sure illuminate me as well as other readers). I’ve always greatly respected the adage that “sometimes asking the right questions is as important as (or more important than) the answers.”

So let’s consider the issues point by point. What exactly is the purpose of using TV as a teaching medium? Well first of all, of course (and to paraphrase Sir Edmund Hilary’s famous quote about Mount Everest) because it’s there! TV is a near inescapable part of our lives. Sure there are people who manage to cancel out a great deal of the mainstream media power inherent in it. I, for example have no TV reception and live solely with DVDs and streamed internet content which gives me a huge measure of control over what my kids have access to. But even that’s not hermetic. Most of us who do that have friends and relatives who have and watch TVs and our kids have friends at school who watch it as well. So there is always going to be some exposure. True there exist some insular communities (ultra-orthodox Jews in areas of Brooklyn and Amish in Pennsylvania) that have created a complete bubble but that’s a tiny percentage of western civilization. For the majority of us TV is a reality and we need to balance out its negative influence and turn it to positive use to the best of our abilities.

TV’s strength, obviously, lies in its ability to capture a child’s complete attention and indoctrinate him or her with anything the material’s creator chooses. This is its greatest danger when left in the hands of the consumer minded creative directors of general television. However it is its greatest value in the hands of responsible education minded parents and teachers. The question then becomes to what extent we use that hypnotic power as part of our educating toolbox.  Yes it’s true that to some extent children will absorb material thrown at them by a TV program simply by virtue of its being there on the screen. However it’s also true that the more the child relates to the specific program the more thoroughly they’re likely to absorb the show. A child will absorb a certain amount of information from a show even if all the characters do is speak directly to them spouting information. However if the show tells a story, if the characters interact with each other and illustrate the lessons they’re trying to teach the message is likely to be more memorable and stick more thoroughly.

This brings us to our next point – whether a child gains more from a program that focuses on imparting information to them or from one whose focus is on connecting with them and imparting information through that connection. One of course does not negate the other. Obviously the ultimate goal is to connect with the child and through that connection and relying on his or her focus imbue them with the maximum amount of information and values to them. However, because of the natural tension between directed information and the natural flow of experiential learning children respond to most naturally these two goals are usually at odds to some extent. A child may be given more information about healthy eating from a person with a chart explaining food groups, building blocks of proteins, fats and carbs etc. than they will from Barney singing a song about the foods he eats. However in measuring the percentage of total information retained an hour or so later you may well find he can’t remember much about the chart except that there was a picture of cheese somewhere near the top while he can remember lots of facts that appeared in the Barney song.

In considering what programs are educational and for what ages I try and take into account the general development of children and their ability to learn from the more informationcentric frontal method of giving them information on the one hand while taking into account their tendency to dismiss certain types of experiential learning as ‘babyish’ on the other.

But while I can give general guidelines, you, of course, know your child best. When considering a show’s likely appeal to your child you’d do well to consider the following questions

  • Does my child have a short attention span or an ability to stay focused for long periods
  • How  receptive does my child tend to be regarding the type of information the show’s trying to impart (for example if it’s a math show is the child fascinated, bored or averse to math)?
  • Does my child like mnemonics such as songs and rhymes or does she resist them, considering them ‘babyish’
  • Is my child patient about information that takes time for him to absorb and pay attention even if he doesn’t completely understand it right now or does he just tune out completely if there are things that he can’t fully relate to immediately
  • Am I looking to educate my kid right now on a specific subject or am I looking to build up a long term interest in and enjoyment of the program in general and using it for targeted learning can wait for another time?

Your answers to these and similar questions (hopefully my readers will have additional suggestions) will likely inform your decision as to whether a specific program suits your child’s educational needs both immediately and for the future. Remember that s your child is constantly developing what’s useless for her now may be perfect for where she’s at a few months down the line and what he responds to now may be sneered at as being ‘for babies’ a few months down the line.  While there may be (in fact likely will be) shows you’ll dismiss entirely, any program that you like but your child fails to respond to should be filed away for a future revisit.

Boohbah – A World Of Storytelling

Age Levels targeted:

2-5

Background:

Boohbah is a British production that started its programming run of over 100 episodes in 2003. By 2004 the series had begun showing in the United States as well on PBS. Boohbah, unsurprisingly, was created by Anne Wood of Ragdoll Productions, the creator of the Teletubbies series. I use the term ‘unsurpisngly’ since, as will be further noted below, Boohbah  and Teletubbies bear a strong resemblance to each other and target similar age groups.

Overview of the show:

Boohbah is the Hebrew word for doll and while that may or may not be coincidental, it’s certainly a very apt description of the show’s characters, who are essentially life sized dolls of a science fiction look.  Boohbahs are described on the show’s website as being “magical atoms of power” that endow children with the ability to imagine. In appearance, they are pudgy people-sized creatures, covered from foot to neck in heavy colorful body fur that sparkles with tiny pinpoints of lights. In contrast to this, they sport bald heads, which they can pull back into their necks and eyebrows made up of rows of lights above their overly large eyes. They don’t communicate in words but with squeaky noise exclamations.

Boohbah tends to follow the same pattern each show. It opens with the Boohball flying over several countries. The Boohball, a shimmering white sphere, is the Boohbahs’ home and it makes spot appearances throughout the show. It is constantly travelling from one country to another, always at the behest of children who summon it by calling out to it. At the center of the Boohball are five ‘recharging stations’ where the Boohbahs recharge their energy. This energy is generated by the children’s laughter that results from their joy in interacting with the Boohbahs and the Storypeople world.

This opening segment is followed by a Boohbah dance in which children summon the Boohbahs by name upon which the Boohbahs join hands with each other in a frenetic dance. As they whirl about they gradually all lose control. At this point the process is reversed. As each child calls out a Boohbah’s name the Boohbah stops spreads their arms and heads and pulls their heads into their necks. Once each of the Boohbahs is standing in this position the children yell out “Booh” all together at which point the Boohbahs fly up and form a circle.  In keeping with the science fiction feel of the show, the Boohbahs fly by holding each other’s hands and making musical notes (a distinct note for each) while sending out a flash of their personal colored light (identical to their fur color) to enable their flight.

Each of the 25 minute long episodes of Boohbah is based around storytelling.

The show is primarily concerned with having children using their minds and bodies for learning and entertainment. Good things will always happen to those who use their imaginations in Boohbah. Thus the next part of any Boohbah episode features a child or group of children giving a gift to the people of Storyland (generally a play item or an article of clothing though there are diverse objects presented throughout the course of the series) by blowing it to them. The Storyland section of that episode of Boohbah will then center on the gift the children gave the storypeople. Often there will be more than one gift given to the Storypeople during a given Boohbah episode. The original gift will be at the heart of a story in which the solution to a conflict will be facilitated by another item. The children, observing this need, are able to stop the action mid-story by repeating the magic word “Boohbah” and blow the second item to the characters so the story can that continue on to a satisfyingly resolved end.  At the story’s end the Boohbahs do another dance, generally more complex than the earlier one and which tends to relate, if loosely, to the Storyworld segment. The show ends with the Boohball answering to the summons of children from afar calling out to it to come to their country.

It should be noted that the US version of the show has another section in which children do simple dances of their own, encouraging the children watching on TV to join in at home.

The Main Characters

Each of the Boohbahs is distinguishable by its fur color. Thus Zing Zing Zingbah is distinguished by his orange colored fur, Jungbah by her pink fur and Humbah by her yellow fur. The blue furred Boohbah is Jumbah and his purple friend is Zumbah

The other main characters are the Storytellers- Grandmamma, Grandpappa, Mrs Lady, Mr Man, Brother and Sister, Auntie and Little Dog Fido. These appear in independent, narrated segments. The Storyland characters don’t speak themselves (unless you count Fido’s bark)  The Storyland segments follow a consistent pattern with the people there being magically granted a present sent to them by a child or group of children.

As noted, the Storyland people aren’t so much characters as storytelling media. Each Storyland character has a different perspective and when they come into contact with a Boohbah they tell different tales.

Learning value

The show’s website claims that “The design of the show – visually and otherwise, draws upon early concepts in science, maths and art and combines these with ‘televisual magic’ to create a uniquely funny television experience.” While the show may be based in science, maths and the arts, the main thrust of the show is a social one. There are several social interactions constantly at play during any given episode of Boohbah. There is the relationship among the Boohbahs themselves, between them and the children, between the children and the storypeople, and among the storypeople themselves.

There are also life lessons and morals to be pointed out to your kids as you watch with them how the storypeople deal with their dilemmas both in seeking to solve them and in implementing the solutions together. It thereby helps foster decision making skills and sharpen their problem solving abilities. It also builds their self-confidence and encourages independent thinking.

Naturally the very existence of a storyworld in which children can actively contribute to the development of your child’s imaginative play, as it encourages them to dance, move about, and create stories.

Site Review

This show is more “interactive” than most, as it encourages the children to play along at home – the characters will want to do something and will ask the audience to help by jumping, blowing, whistling, saying “boohbah” (their word for the use of imagination), etc.

By making children participants in the learning growing process, Boohbah stresses the centrality of active participation activity and logical thinking in child developmental play. The fact that the series and its characters are based on patterns and pictures from the natural world, it helps children to gain an understanding of basic scientific and mathematical ideas.

I can’t say that I personally took to the show as a parent (well, ok I’ll admit I can see the appeal of the story people) but this brings us to an important question which I intend to deal with elsewhere and I think it’s an important one to ask which is “what is the relative importance of the kids enjoying the show vs. the parents enjoying it?” Certain shows can be incredibly aggravating to adults and certain characters even more so – and yet the kids eat it up and clearly learn things from those shows we want them to learn. To me, Boohbah is just such a show, especially the Boohbah characters themselves

My kids review: My kids reaction to this has to be divided into 2 parts. The segments with the Boohbahs themselves were quickly dismissed as childish at a very early age. Plump oversized furballs forming a circle totally failed to impress my kids past the age 3.5. The use of “baby sounds”that seems to be one of the methods of ‘connecting with the audience’ quickly loses its appeal once the children’s own development has moved them beyond the need for that or because other shows have accustomed them to proper interaction. However, the segments with the story people held their interest till a later age – even at 5. the storypeople characters could be amusing in a way that appeals to young children (think of Mr. Noodles on Elmo’s World). On the negative side this led to periods of interest punctuated with periods of “let’s watch something else.”

To its credit, one could argue that the Boohbah segments attract the younger kids and then as they develop they can move naturally into appreciating the story people segments thus creating a smooth transition within a single show. On the whole, however, I found Boohbah to be one of those shows that annoy me but that kids respond to and can learn from, though not, in this parents opinion, to a great deal of depth.

Similar shows: Teletubbies

Cyberchase – Math Cyberspace

Age Levels targeted:

5-12

 Background

 Cyberchase is one of the top shows out there focusing on teaching math to kids. Also, unlike such shows as ‘Square One TV’, Cyberchase is perhaps the only show with a consistent set of characters and plot.  Cyberchase is an animated adventure series produced by Thirteen/WNET in New York, that first aired in 2002 with the aim of teaching mathematical principles and ideas in a lively enjoyable way that elementary school kids could comprehend. The characters are regularly involved in fast action mystery plots only solvable through the application of mathematical solutions thus drawing kids in and necessitating that they grasp the math to understand how the case is being solved. In my opinion it’s not far-fetched to make the analogy that Cyberchase is to math what The Magic Schoolbus is to science.

 

Overview of the show:

The guardian of cyberspace, Motherboard, employs three Earth kids from real space, Jackie, Matt and Inez, who, teamed up with their friend Digit the cyboid (a cyborg bird), work tirelessly to foil the plans of the evil Hacker. Aided in his evil plans by his cyborg sidekicks Delete and Buzz, Hacker is constantly scheming to defeat Motherboard and take over cyberspace. The series action occurs in Cyberspace on places called ‘cybersites’. These cybersites often are strongly based on present or historical earth places and cultures or from popular earth fantasy. The virtual characters that live on these cybersites help the heroes  in their fights to save cyberspace in general, and often their cybersite in particular, from Hacker’s latest evil plan.

The kids main weapons in their fight against Hacker is their logical reasoning and mathematical abilities. Each episode revolves around specific mathematical concepts and principles developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). The key to solving the mystery and saving Cyberspace depends on their ability to successfully employ mathematical concepts for practical use.

In addition to the main, animated, show, there is also a live-person segment called ‘Cyberchase for Real’. In this segment, two teenagers named Bianca and Harry demonstrate how useful mathematics can be in solving real life situations.

The Main Characters

Over the course of their adventures in the vast reaches of Cyberspace, Cybersquad meets up with many of its inhabitants

Motherboard

Motherboard, who resembles a mainframe computer, is the guardian of Cyberspace. She resides at the Control Central Cybersite. Her main antagonist, and former assistant, Hacker is always attempting to destroy her and take control of cyberspace. Before leaving her employ he tried to hit her with a virus which failed but has left her weak.

The Hacker

The Hacker (often called ‘Hacker’ though you risk his wrath if you do so to his face) is the series main villain and is generally the one the cybersquad needs to defeat to keep the inhabitants of Cyberspace safe. He is voiced by longtime actor Christopher Lloyd remembered well by parents from such series as 1970s’ “Taxi” and recognizable to kids from the movie and series Back to the future. He is green faced, black haired and has a jutting chin of which he is vainly proud. Dr. Marbles, Motherboard’s technician, created Hacker in order to help Motherboard. When Hacker rebelled he was exiled to a place called the Northern Frontier from which he managed to escape. He travels about Cyberspace in a ship called the Grim Wreaker.

Hacker has two cyborg henchmen named Delete and Buzz, who are of limited dependability. Often Hacker ends up having to do the jobs he assigned them himself though at times they come in useful in dealing with his hated archrival Motherboard and her Cybersquad of kids. The Cybersquad is a constant thorn in his side and it’s rare that he refers to them without attaching an (often alliterative) expletive.

Digit

Digit is a parrotlike creature originally created by Hacker to be one of his evil henchmen with Delete and Buzz. Ironically though Digit ends up abandoning Hacker to join the other side, the Cybersquad much like Hacker himself abandoned his own (and Motherboard’s) creator Dr. Marbles to set himself up against her. Upon realizing how evil Hacker was, he switched sides, taking over Hacker’s old job as assistant to Dr. Marbles before eventually being assigned to Cybersquad.

Digit works alongside the kids to defend Motherboard and Cyberspace against Hacker. Although he is able to fly using his tail feathers in a propeller fashion (and occasionally with his wings), and does so in many episodes, he prefers to walk due to acute acrophobia. As a cyboid he is able to carry items with him in his chest which can at times prove invaluable to Cybersquad.

Jackie

Jackie is an athletic African American girl with an artistic side to her. Her tendency towards order and meticulousness are usually key tools in enabling the Cybersquad to efficiently solve problems. On the other hand she also has a tendency to freak out at times when the Cybersquad are in a crisis, a trait which leaves her open to teasing from Matt

Matt

Matt is a hands-on kind of problem solver who’s best at dealing with a problem when he can touch it with his hands. If he can’t grasp a problem physically, he often holds and plays with a yoyo instead which helps him think. He’s somewhat of a packrat, collecting all sorts of useful items in his knapsack. It is hinted at in the series that he may have feelings for Inez (and she for him) despite (or perhaps evidenced by) his teasing of her and his tendency to be protective towards her.

Inez

Inez (‘don’t call me Nezzie!’) is a bespectacled nine year old Hispanic girl with a high level of diction that brings Matt’s teasing down on her frequently. Though the youngest of the kids, she’s also the most knowledgeable. Her school smarts, however, are not as useful in solving as many of their cases as Matt is with his natural talent. She tends to be a bit of a worrier, often exclaiming that a situation is ‘not good at all’ only to have it subsequently worked out by the other members of Cybersquad. Inez is the glue that keeps the Cybersquad a cohesive unit, being the one best at facilitating compromise among the group when they disagree on anything.

Buzz and Delete

Buzz, a small spherical cyborg with thin limbs and a big mouth, and his skinnier, taller comrade Delete, who’s marked by his canine snout, are Hacker’s henchmen in his evil campaign to take over cyberspace. Neither of them are as evil as Hacker and show a kind side now and again although Buzz likes to fancy himself a tough guy. Neither of them are particularly smart (Buzz can at best be described as ‘not quite so dumb as Delete’) and are generally quite easy for the Cybersquad to outwit when necessary) leaving Hacker to do all the brain work (and often the legwork as well when they botch the original assignment). On the other hand they don’t have Hacker’s overbearing ego either and often recognize that Hacker’s about to walk into a blindingly obvious trap or commit an obvious mistake that the much smarter Hacker fails to notice (or heed their warnings) out of sheer hubris. This serves as a valuable lesson to watching kids that no matter how obvious something seems or how sure one is of one’s abilities it’s important to always check one’s assumptions before blindingly rushing to a bad decision.

Other repeating characters worth mentioning are Motherboard’s technician Dr. Marbles, Wicked, another villain with a love for shopping who at times teams up with Hacker and at times opposes him, and Slider a Cyberspace inhabitant the squad helps on whom both Jackie and Inez appear to have a crush.

Academic skills the show teaches

Cyberchase teaches children firstly that there are practical uses for math all around them and secondly that anyone can understand and apply it. The show encourages kids to consider these applications in their own lives and to use math to help them with their daily real life problems. As mentioned above, the shows have been designed to support the curriculum of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics thereby allowing parents to let their kids watch the show as a complementary educational supplement, assured of the fact that it is supporting and strengthening the math material their child’s getting in school.

The series stimulates a love for math at the crucial stage in which all too many children’s interest in math wanes; often as a result of a lack of confidence in their ability to grasp and use the subject matter. By showing the practical and fun application of math in the series, and showing the advantages of understanding it for daily life usefulness in the ‘cyberchase for real’ segment, it instills kids with a positive attitude towards mathematics. Kids who watch the show regularly will gain greater motivation for math and a greater confidence in their ability to solve mathematical problems. The experience they get from working through mathematical challenges as part of helping Inez, Jackie and Matt solve problems in the show is transferable to solving problems in the classroom and math workbook framework.

 

Social skills the show teaches

The show constantly emphasizes the importance of teamwork and mutual respect for other’s abilities, teaching this from both a positive and negative standpoint. Despite their occasional disagreements, the cybersquad members respect each others skills and abilities and pool those talents together in order to solve their case or thwart their nemesis. On the flips side, The Hacker’s tendency to dictate his plan of action to his henchmen while sneering at any input they might have to offer as coming from inferior minds and not worth paying attention to, ultimately ends with his being thwarted by the Cybersquad’s teamwork.

The ‘Cyberchase for Real’ segment follows this theme as well as Harry and Bianca tend to have greater success when working together on a project than when they compete.

 

Site review

Cyberchase is simply an excellent show for kids. What’s more, while I usually advise parents to watch TV with their kids in order to help support the kids maximum absorption of the show’s material, in this case the parents may find that they have some things they can learn as well.

Both children and parents will find themselves drawn in by the action and suspense in each show. Kids see the episodes as mysteries and the interesting math tricks they learn along the way to the solution as being cool and useful. The humor helps make what’s all too frequently dismissed as a ‘dry subject’ fun and approachable. More advanced kids often try to solve the problems ahead of Mattie and his friends while the rest are absorbed in making sure they understand the solution as it unfolds because they care about understanding it.

 

My kids perspective

My kids have loved Cyberchase ever since they first saw it and come back to it again and again. In fact, even as I type this review my 5 1/2 year old is watching it (along with, I suspect, his 11 year old sister, who should be doing her homework. But, as its an educational show and it is a vacation day for them, I’m not going to get preachy with her). Will he get all the concepts being taught yet? No, probably not (though he’s quite advancd) but he enjoys the story and is stimulated by it to ask questions about those things he doesn’t understand. Is his sister too old for it already? Possibly, but the stories are still good and sometimes even with an older kid, even with a solid A mathematics student ideas get triggered by something they see there and they find a new use for a mathematical concept they hadn’t thought of the first time around or get a deeper understanding of something they’ve learned in school that until then had only been theory and are now seeing put to use in practical application on the show.

Anecdotal:

My kids like to use the ‘tricks’ they learn from the programs they watch and apply them in real life. But it got a bit much when they saw the Cyberchase episode Ecohaven CSE which taught body proportions math. Apparently some body parts are consistently proportional to others so that by measuring one part you can predict the lengths of others.

Suddenly they were measuring themselves, us, and their friends and giving people information about themselves based on their calculations. It was ages before I got my tape measure back!

 

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