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.

7 Responses to “Educational Shows Kids Love And Shows Parents Love To Educate With”

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