Beginning Between The Lions

Age Levels targeted:

3-6

Overview of the show:

Between the Lions is a PBS puppet show designed to encourage reading by employing a plethora of different styles all aimed at dealing with a given episode’s linguistic and social topics. Similar to Sesame Street, the main action in the show focuses around the adventures of a family of lions living in a library (hence the pun is both on the saying ‘reading between the lines’ and the famous lions at the entrance to the NYC public library).  Between scenes, kids are treated to a variety of segments which repeat throughout the series though only a limited number of them will be used in any given show.  Though serious and professional, the show is also highly humorous and adults will enjoy it’s clever spoofs and references even while the kids enjoy the age

The Main Characters

The main characters in the show are the lions themselves.

Theo – the father of the family, Theo always tries to take the opportunity to teach his kids lessons using books. These books then also become the basis for the show’s other educational goal which is teaching whatever sound is the theme of that show. For example in the episode ‘little big mouse’ he reads the kids Aesop’s “the Lion and the Mouse” and words like “little” are taken from the story in the in between segments in focusing on the short ‘I’ sound.   Theo is intelligent and well meaning but sadly often suffers from a typical recurring motif in the world of television which is to make the male dumber than the female. I could go into this at length (and perhaps will in some later piece) but it’s tangential here

Cleo – the mother of the family Cleo is the brains of the bunch and multi-talented as we find out in an episode where she goes to a class reunion and we find out how good she is at such diverse skills as hunting and swatting flies with her tail. As with Theo, Cleo is always reading books to her children (indeed being a designated reader is an important theme of the show and even has its own advertisement at the end of each episode).

Lionel – the big brother of the family. Lionel loves to tease his sister Leona but actually loves her and looks out for her. This tension provides us with quite a number of episodes in which lessons are learned about family and how we treat others.

Leona –  the little sister.  Leona fills the role of the inquisitive learner and in some sense is the one with which young children will most identify. She learns from everyone and everyone is eager to teach her, her parents lovingly and Lionel  from different motivations at different times. But this doesn’t mean Leona’s by any means dumb. Quite the contrary and on quite a few occasions she ends up showing up her older brother such s in the episode farmer Ken’s puzzle in which Lionel keeps lording it over Leona that she’s too young to play a computer puzzle game he’s trying to solve and can’t. In the end Leona solves it and when Lionel, flabbergasted asks her how she’d done it she very primly tells him she wouldn’t know as she’s too young leaving Lionel sputtering in confusion.

There are a host of very important minor characters such as Click the mouse and Heath the thesaurus but I’m hoping to take them up in another later post. If I forget, someone please remind me :- ).

Types of skills the show teaches:

Highlighted Sounds – All the action in every show employs a focused use of the sound being taught in that episode.  For example an episode teaching the “ea” sound might focus on a story in which teaching or meat figure prominently and the “ea” words that can be used when discussing them.

Repeated Vocabulary – new words are used over and over in various contexts so as to familiarize the viewer with its use through employment in different contexts.

Definitions – The characters are often made to appear ignorant of a particular word or topic in order to enable another person to explain it to them.  Usually the questioner is one of the Lion Cubs, especially Leona, but not always.  Similarly, the explainers are usually the adult lions but Heath the Thesaurus often fills that role and Dr. Ruth does the same in her “word freakout” segments.

Printed Text – words often appear in writing on the show either for the viewers as screen text or on signs.  This allows your child to see what the word looks like while they simultaneously hear it pronounced.

Stories – children are introduced to literature by including stories in many of the episodes and having the action revolve around that story.  This also helps boost one of the programs main themes which is to set up a designated reading session for your child.

Songs – It’s no secret what an excellent mnemonic device a good song can be and Between the Lions features many songs designed to teach children rules of language wrapped in a catchy tune. Indeed the two adult lions, Theo and Cleo, even have “secret identities” as singing sensations BB King of Beasts and Tammy Lionette. But before you panic (oh no, am I going to be hearing him sing some TV show theme over and over) I should note that the songs are often quite enjoyable for adults too (ok I’ll admit it – many of them I know better than the kids and are even more likely to begin singing them than they are).

Social Interaction: Between the Lions is constructed much like its PBS predecessor, Sesame Street. There is a main story that runs through each episode featuring the puppets and often humans broken up by various segues that range from the animated to puppets to live people. The segue segments don’t necessarily connect to the main story but all connect to the main academic lesson of that show (for example “the oo sound” or the “short a”). Beyond the academic side of it, however, the story itself almost inevitably deals with a social problem or personal issue that needs to be resolved over the course of the show. Simply by watching on their own, most kids are able to understand the issues under discussion, however if you watch the show with your child you can take care to expand upon the lesson being taught. Discuss the issue being raised, consider all possible answers, find out what your child’s approach to the problem would have been. They can often surprise you with both their insightfulness and their original perspectives on the issue.

Site review:

This award winning show is a must for all preschoolers and that’s the reason that out of the well over 100 shows I plan to deal with on the site over time, I chose to begin with this one.  The show is wonderfully fashioned so that it mixes many elements and achieves just the right balance between them. Children will enjoy it for the stories and songs and jokes at their level while parents will find the allusions to and takeoffs of things within the adult sphere (such as a potato detective who does a perfect Phillip Marlowe impression, a segment on jousting knights which takes off on both Wayne’s World and Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s table

and Dr. Ruth Wordheimer who instead of treating human mating issues here deals with monkey vocabulary problems) amusing and the songs catchy for them as well. Both the social and the academic sides of the show are age appropriate and relevant to all kids.

My kids review:

My children absolutely adored this show to the extent that one of my youngest son’s first 2 word combinations was “watch lions!?” (in fact he got to be quite a bully about it for a time) If I had to pick the 3 shows that contributed most to my kids early linguistic development this would definitely be on that list, if not at the top. Another advantage of the show is that because it spoofs so many other programs on various levels, anyone, from child to adult, can enjoy it at their own level.

Anecdotal:

I’m sure everyone’s familiar with those birthday cakes where a photograph is scanned on to a page that’s placed in the middle of the cake, often of the child. My kids love those and one of the earliest pictures my daughter chose for her nursery birthday party was the cast of “Between the Lions.” Naturally her classmates were very impressed to see all those cool lions (I believe Theo may have been wearing sunglasses for his pose). Her nursery teacher was more impressed when I explained to them that this show (with which they were previously unfamiliar – maybe they don’t have the show in South Africa, I don’t know) were the reason she was reading words a year before any other kid in the nursery new their abcs.

Similar shows: Leapfrog’s Talking Words Factory Series, Sesame Street, Super Why, Electric Company