Editor’s note: This is the second of a weekly guest spot by children’s media consultant Ashley. Ashley is a television and online producer and Executive Editor of Children’s Media Consultant.com. She holds a B.A. from Columbia University and a M.A. concentrating in children’s educational media and preschool ecology from New York University. She resides with her family in downtown New York City. You can visit her blog at childrensmediaconsultant.com.
Depending on who you ask, children’s television may or may not have come a long way.
New entries like “Yo Gabba Gabba” feel retro in a classic “Sesame Street” or “The Electric Company” style, but offer a more modern take on design and music. Kid’s TV beat broadcast to the punch and has already issued user-generated content in a mixed media format. Networks have caught on to the lack of diversity in children’s programming, and have debuted “Go, Diego, Go,” “Handy Manny,” and “Ni Hao Kai-Lan” featuring Hispanic and Asian-American characters and culture. And although shows have focused on literacy before (after all, that’s what “Sesame Street” has taught multiple generations since its debut in 1969), there’s a new found effort with programs like “Super Why”, “Word World”, and “Wordgirl” to teach your kids more than just the alphabet song.
But not everything on TV has progressed forward. Saturday morning cartoons are in an ’80s redux this fall, featuring familiar characters such as the Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These shows claim to educate viewers with prosocial skills, but if that’s what you really want your kids to get out of TV, then stick to “Mr. Rogers.” He did it best.
Although less common right now, math is still a subject you can find on children’s television. “Cyberchase” still stands as the best kid’s math show. Joining it, Nickelodeon has promised a new preschool series, “The Umizumiz” for 2008, about a miniature urban repair squad that helps solve everyday preschool problems using basic math skills like counting, patterns, and measurement.
Science shows, on the other hand, aren’t too abundant. Once upon a time we had “Mr. Wizard,” “3-2-1 Contact,” and new episodes of “Bill Nye, the Science Guy.” Now, with a little digging, we can find “The Zula Patrol,” which emphasizes national science education standards, focusing on scientific investigation and discovery, and astronomy, and “DragonflyTV,” a multimedia science show for 9- to 12-year-olds on PBS.
Despite all of this, there is STILL something missing on children’s television.
Ecology. Environmentalism. Going green.
Although the inhabitants of our world are diverse, the one thing we all have in common is the planet on which we live. We share the same sky, the same oceans, the same soil. And all of it is in danger. In order to tackle issues that have and will continue to affect each and every one of us — like global warming, animal extinction, pollution, conservation, etc. — we must embrace an “eco” frame of mind. If the next generation learns to make a minor, habitual change — by practicing recycling, for instance, even on the most local level — there is the potential to make a huge impact on the global environment.
The challenge lies in how we can teach such a subject effectively, and how to use what children already embrace as an educational tool.
Children’s television has the ability to effectively teach its millions of viewers about environmental issues, yet very few programs attempt to do so.
“Captain Planet” was really one of the first to do it in the ’90s, featuring super heroes out to save the planet against eco-villains with names like Sly Sludge and Looten Plunder. It’s obviously a very commercial example, which you can catch in re-runs on Cartoon Network’s Boomerang channel. But what’s come since then?
It’s a Big Big Win
The best example of an ecology curriculum on current children’s television is “It’s a Big Big World” on PBS. The show uses a diverse collection of animals who live in the canopy of the rainforest. Through their stories, viewers aged 3- to 6-years old experience scientific discovery, the diversity of animals and what they need to survive, and geography, providing the viewer with a basic understanding that the world is more than just what’s outside their own neighborhood.
By emphasizing discovery over the memorization of facts, “It’s a Big Big World” is able to foster a sense of excitement about the learning process. After all, curiosity is the basis of all good scientific inquiry. If you haven’t caught an episode of this groundbreaking series, don’t miss it.
The preschool series “Franny’s Feet,” also on PBS, is another ecologically-minded children’s television program, although the emphasis is less obviously “green” and more about globalism. The show’s pedagogy teaches exploration, world awareness, and problem solving.
Have you seen something on children’s television that teaches basic environmental concepts and fosters an appreciation of the natural world? Why do you think there is so little on this topic on kid’s TV? Is TV (as an indoor, inactive medium) the right place to teach ecology?
For more reviews and commentary on children’s television and other media, visit Children’s Media Consultant Online.