The Magic Schoolbus – A Reason to Stay Home

Age Levels Targeted:


The Magic Schoolbus is an animation version of a successful series of books. I actually discovered the books first back in my days managing a second hand bookstore. One of the advantages of working in a bookstore is that you have first shot at all the new merchandise as it comes in (of course one could also call this a disadvantage as you can find yourself spending your salary in a hurry). In the case of the Magic Schoolbus books I literally had to grab myself any ones I didn’t have yet before putting them on the shelves because parents would snatch them the moment they went on. While the books are excellent, it seems to me that the animated series actually improved upon the books, covering a lot more ground in greater detail than the books while leaving it just as child friendly.

Overview of the show:

The series is based on a very unusual third grade class at Walkerville Elementary school. The students themselves are a perfectly ordinary all-American class such as you might find anywhere in the US. The student body is a cross section of religions, races and colors with a range of scientific knowledge. What’s so unusual about this class is the one who conducts it: Ms. Frizzle.

Ms. Frizzle is the science teacher we all wish we’d had in school for pretty much any subject. While she may often dress and act strangely it’s regarded as being delightfully eccentric rather than laughable. Because what Ms. Frizzle has is a school bus. This isn’t any ordinary bus. The bus is magic and can shrink, grow, change form and do all sorts of other things as necessary to facilitate Ms. Frizzle’s in depth field trips.

The series action all centers on Ms. Frizzle’s field trips. These are hardly state board of education approved or the kind of trips you or I had in school. Ms. Frizzle sees every question her students ask as ‘inspiration for investigation’ (ok I’m not sure she ever uses that actual line but with her tendency to use rhyme exclamations it’s the kind of thing she would say and with the sheer number of times I’ve watched it with my kids just thinking of her has obviously taken its toll on my speech). She challenges the kids by literally bringing them into the process or situation they’ve asked about. Thus they learn about the planets by having the bus become a spaceship and taking a tour of our solar system.

They learn about how honey is made by becoming bees and saving a hive and learn about heat because without it they’ll freeze in the arctic.

The series is highly entertaining as a kid’s science series. However while it is aimed at the 5-12 age bracket, it can be of valuable use for all ages. I’ve heard of it being used in high school and even college and I learn things from it as an adult. The scientific information it imparts is solid without factual mistakes or ‘dumbing down for the kids’ sake’. Kids interested in understanding how the world works will adore this show. My kids are always asking me to get them more. This is an ideal show to get your kid started on understanding their universe.

The Main Characters:
The Bus
Yes, the bus, though it never speaks is a character on the show. It has its own personality and communicates with Ms. Frizzle. It’s not precisely anthropomorphized most of the time but it does often seem to be petlike. In one episode it actually becomes a bear and goes off in the city foraging for food. It is capable of becoming any type of craft necessary as well as some things that have no relation to any kind of machine.
Valerie Frizzle
‘The Frizz’, Walkerville elementary’s star teacher is the teacher we all wish we’d had in school. Quirky and eccentric with her red hair and outrageous outfits, she makes frontal lessons seem an affront. She’s always taking her students on field trips to go investigate phenomena that have arisen in daily life so that, for example, when Arnold wants to know why his hot cocoa has gone cold she takes the class to the arctic to learn about heat and cold and when Ralphie gets sick she takes the class for a field trip inside Ralphie’s body to learn about how the body defends against sickness.
Voiced by veteran actress Lily Tomlin, Ms. Frizzle’s origins are maintained as a teasing secret throughout the series. We do have hints dropped about her past careers here and there such as finding out that she used to work in recycling and that she toured with her own band for awhile. We also learn about her family as she’s regularly quoting them. In one episode we even find out that she had an ancestor pirate who used to take people on field trips on his magic galleon. But she’s clearly not in her first year at Walkerville elementary as we learn when a student from an older grade says ‘she took us on that trip last year’.
Liz is the class mascot, pet and at the same time Ms. Frizzle’s assistant. She goes on many of the class trips with them and often drives the bus herself and is on occasion left by Ms. Frizzle as the substitute teacher. In one episode she is actually the star as the children learn about lizards.
Outside of that episode Liz doesn’t add much educational value to the series but does provide endearing comic relief which keeps kids coming back (and thus exposing them to the rest of the show) so her value may be more than meets the eye.
Dorothy Ann
Dorothy Ann, whose last name we never learn during the series, is the class brain and resident bookworm. She’s always doing research on any subject that comes up and is often the catalyst for Ms. Frizzles field trips either because she can’t find the necessary information or because the information she finds seems implausible or at odds with someone else’s (usually Carlos’ or Ralphie’s) claim. At this point, Ms. Frizzle tends to decide that the class to discover the truth for themselves. While noone discounts the importance of book learning, the series makes it clear that books can often take you only so far and that books alone without your own experience won’t give you the whole picture. Dorothy Ann finally realizes this for herself in the episode “The Magic School Bus Blows its Top” where she loses her schoolbooks but then is awakened to all the facts she’s managing to learn through experience when she doesn’t use her books as a crutch.

Arnold while often the one whose curiosity is the cause of field trips (such as the trip to the arctic inspired by his dismay over where the heat from his no longer hot cocoa’s gone) is the one member of the class seemingly not too keen on the trips. Yet despite this, he’s clearly happy to be in the class and proud of having gone on the trips after the fact as is clear from the bragging about it he’s clearly been doing about it to his cousin Janet that she reveals to us in the Lost in Space episode. While Arnold’s Judaism is generally not a huge issue in the show it does play a part in the holiday special episode when the class decide to give up seeing the Nutcracker Suite showing they’d planned on attending in order to be with Arnold on the first night of Hanuka.
Phoebe Terese
Phoebe’s rolein the show is to keep reminding us how different Walkerville elementary in general and Ms. Frizzle’s class in particular is from what one would expect at most schools. Throughout the series whenever anything incredible happens Phoebe always notes that ‘in my old school we weren’t allowed to…’ anything from going inside a chicken’s egg to turning into salmon.
Phoebe is an exceptionally shy soul as we discover when she’s given the starring role of the class play in the ‘gets planted episode

Ralphie Tennelli
Ralphie is the class jock which is emphasized by the baseball cap he wears and his constant references to sports. In class he mostly tends to daydream about such things as hitting the winning homerun but he enjoys the field trips as much as anyone else, especially in the episode where the class learns about friction while trying to play baseball in a world in which there is none.

Carlos Ramon
Carlos is the class clown who always has a groaner of a pun or joke for any situation. His corny jokes are always sure to elicit a “Car-los!” from his groaning classmates. We discover in the “going batty episode that he gets this from his father whose similar jokes elicit a “Mr. Ramon!” from his fellow parents. Carlos serves as an antithesis of Dorothy Anne, preferring to use his hands, mind and intuition to come to conclusions as opposed to her research style.
Wanda Li
If Carlos is the antithesis to Dorothy Anne, Wanda plays a similar role to Arnold. The class’ spunky Chinese tomboy is always gung-ho to seek out and make new discoveries regardless of the risks. Wanda’s an interesting combination of soft and hard, loving the ballet and caring about her friends on the one hand, while engaging them in debate and challenging them not to be afraid on the other hand.
Keesha Franklin
Keesha is the sarcastic class skeptic and plays the foil to Ralphie who tends to have his head in the clouds.
The class artist, Tim can usually be found sketching away at something (usually a picture of one of his classmates engaged in the class’ adventures. He’s a quiet boy who rarely plays a central role of any kind in the series. The one exception to this is the episode in which the class helps him deliver honey from his grandfather’s honeybee farm.

Janet Perlstein

I hesitated as to whether or not to include Janice as a major character. She’s not really a member of Ms. Frizzle’s class and only appears in a limited number of episodes. However she tends to be a major character whenever she is in an episode and she’s mentioned so often even when not there that I figured I’d include her.

Academic skills the show teaches:

The show encourages scientific and analytical thinking, stimulates curiosity and encourages innovative thinking. Although Ms. Frizzle clearly always has the answers to the problems herself, she often lets the kids work their own way out of the situations the bus has landed them in. Thus for example in the episode The Magic Schoolbus gets Planted where Phoebe is turned into a plant and must reason through the process of plant growth in order to grow into a beanstalk on time to do the school play proud

Social skills the show teaches:

The show encourages cooperation among peers. It fosters respect for each others ideas and being willing to consider that one’s own preconceived notions may be wrong or flawed. And of course it encourages kids to consider that their teachers may have a wealth of knowledge and interesting things to teach them which in these days of almost automatic disrespect for teachers is a valuable lesson unto itself.

My Kids Perspective

My kids have all adored this show. Even my daughter, whose been enjoying it in kindergarten and is a real science buff (this is a child who in the 3rd grade created a 41 slide powerpoint presentation on the periodic table on her own initiative and delivered it to her class) still enjoys the show as she approaches her teens and my 3 year old is mesmerized by it as well though he doesn’t really understand what’s going on yet (just enough to say he wants the ‘magic school BUS’ emphasis on last word his). They also enjoy the books of the magic schoolbus which parallel the various episodes so that one could say it inspires reading as well.

Site Review
The Magic Schoolbus is one of the best shows out there for introducing kids to science. It is very in step with a major philosophy of this site which is that even within the school framework children learn best through seeing and experiencing the subject matter that needs to be absorbed. Ms. Frizzle is a teacher who clearly understands this.

One of the show’s major characters, Arnold, is probably best known for his line “I should have stayed home today.” As a kid I remember that there were educational shows, such as The Magic Garden, that I felt were worth staying home for and at times I’d even fake sickness to watch them that were worth staying home for to the extent that I even once skipped a scheduled morning school trip to an ice cream factory in order to have a chance to be home in the early afternoon and watch the show (ok so maybe I wasn’t completely your typical kid).  The Magic Schoolbus is just such a show. Hopefully your kids love of learning will encourage them to want to spend time in school rather than staying at home watching TV. Of course you could have the best of all worlds by just buying the shows. But if your kids are at home for whatever reason this is the kind of show you want them to be watching.

Anecdotal: in my daughter’s kindergarten, part of the birthday party festivities required the birthday child and their parent to provide an activity for the kids. Most of the kids would do some simple activity like reading a story or makinga quiz about the child. Not my daughter! She decided she wanted to have everyone perform the volcano experiment based on the episode the Magic schoolbus blows its top. So the kids all got cups of baking soda and materials to pour into it to try and find what would and what wouldn’t cause an explosive chemical reaction allowing them to blow up a balloon.

Similar shows: Beakman’s World, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Sid the Science Kid, Cyberchase, Mister Wizard