Many adults with children of preschool ages have vivid memories of watching Saturday morning cartoons. Unfortunately, their educational substance amounted to little more than leaving children with the impression that using explosives was the preferred way of resolving feuds amongst sarcastic anthropomorphic woodland creatures. When their parents insisted that too television would “rot the brain” there may have been a lot of protesting, however, there was little a kid could say to counter the accusation.
As the years progressed the producers of TV programing seemed to have appreciated that entertainment need not be incompatible with education. Understandably, parents have been skeptical that the television could be a helpful tool in teaching and development; however, the shows and their writers have been difficult to ignore. However, with threats from Washington lawmakers that subsidies for Public Broadcasting Stations could be significantly reduced or cut off altogether, the timing has never been more urgent to spread the word regarding their efforts to provide the nation’s youngest citizens with quality academic tools right inside their living rooms.
Producers have been enlisting the help of veteran educators, science and technology experts, as well as child education specialists. They have been charged with the task of finding innovative ways of incorporating the basics of reading, science and mathematics in programs designed specifically for preschoolers. This is not merely available through selective cable channels either. These vital programs are available to children of every income level; raising the overall basic skill level of preschoolers across the US. While programs such as Sesame Street, Letter People and School House Rocks were the precursors of this concept in education programing; today educators and television producers have taken that concept a step further into the areas of Science, Mathematics and Technology.
Sid, the Science Kid
“Sid, the Science Kid” was created by Jim Henson Studio’s, following around a precocious computer animated preschooler named Sid. The show’s format begins with Sid waking up in the morning with a question of some kind about the world. As he interacts with the adults and his peers throughout the day, he asks questions, experiments, makes observations, and draws conclusions about the subject. At the end of the day before going to sleep tries to imagine a creative new idea to expand upon what he has learned that day. The show has taken concepts such as estimation, non-standard measurement, simple machines, vaccines, reversible and irreversible transformation, meteorology, anatomy, force and motion, as well as botanical sciences and made them easily accessible to toddlers and preschoolers. Sid asks questions such as, “Why did my banana get all brown and mushy?” or “Why do I have to get a shot?” worded specifically in ways mirroring a young child who is exploring the world for the first time.
The aspect of the show that may be the most fascinating to parents is perhaps the most subtle. For generations there has been a great frustration in attempting to raise children and offer them the best possible advantages before attending formal schooling. The dark humor in the statement “children don’t come with a manual” and it’s prevalence through the generations, is that the perception is that somehow parents have an instinct towards basic childhood education once they have children. The absurdity of this concept is as clear if one considers it akin to saying that a person would not expect anyone to become knowledgeable about auto mechanics from merely purchasing a car.
Sid, the Science Kid not only includes benefits for educating children on the rudimentary fundamentals of the scientific method; the show also provides a brilliant model for parents of what adults can do while their interacting with their children to help foster scientific learning. Parents cannot be expected to know what to do with their children to teach them or direct them in learning if they are not taught how. Yet, in this show, one of the most valuable aspects is that it gives parents an effective illustration for interacting with their children to continue the learning once the show is over and the television is turned off. Providing parents with ideas and activities gives them more confidence in their own ability to inspire their child’s learning, allowing them to more freely interact with their children. This begins a pattern of parent/child education interaction that can continue throughout the child’s educational career. Teachers and administrative officials have long complained that low parental involvement have been significant contributors to low student achievement.
The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That
Based on of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat and the Hat books, this animated series revolves around two children who are visited by the curious and highly energetic Cat in the Hat, voiced by none other than the acclaimed actor, Martin Short. The Cat pops up while the children are usually playing the backyard of one of their houses and find themselves in need of an answer to a question or trouble-shooting a minor problem with one of their projects. The Cat in the Hat then suggests they go off on an adventure to a faraway place to observe how some creature in the animal kingdom solves this problem or answers this question. The children ask one of their mothers for permission and, assuming they are playing make believe, the mother agrees. The show reinforces the scientific method as they go with the Cat to learn, explore, experiment and observe the Life Sciences first hand. Among the many subjects have been lessons on bats and echolocation; bees, hives and the pollination cycle; whales’ song; as well as the Darwin Finch and the Galapagos Tortoise, which were featured while explaining the concept of symbiosis. Microbiology and single celled organisms have also been explained taking life science television programing to places parents never before imagined.
Another computer animated series, “Dinosaur Train” is a show with a primarily paleontological focus. It features a family of Pteranodons and their adopted Tyrannosaurus Rex brother as they explore the many species of dinosaurs throughout the different eras on the time travelling Dinosaur Train. This is another brain child of Jim Henson Studios. They have broken each episode up into two parts giving children and adults a clear distinction between which aspects of the narrative use creative license and which are based on facts about the dinosaurs. Both pieces keep the episode interesting for children; help explain and reinforce complicated vocabulary, while keeping short attention spans tuned in. The show introduces children to a significantly larger variety of prehistoric life and explains the differences in physical features; eating, sleeping, migrating as well as social habits; climate changes within the various eras in the Mesozoic Period. The show also includes positive messages about family interactions between the Pteranodons; different types of families, as the main character is adopted; and cross-cultural tolerance as the family travels around the world and across time periods interacting with the different species and their habits.
Many of these concepts may seem exceptionally advanced for children of a preschool age. However, as any parent of a young toddler or preschooler has experienced, once a child realizes that they have the ability to explore and ask questions, there is no limit to the information they wish to take in. It is often stymieing to parents as to how best to facilitate them in this journey. Rarely is it out of a lack of desire that a parent does not provide their children with the resources to excel in this exciting developmental period. More often it is a lack of resources themselves which block their path. This is hardly a character deficiency as the educators with the resources educate themselves for years to be considered a certified expert in early childhood education and allowed into a classroom of preschoolers to teach. Why would a parent expect to be one after only having birthed a child?
The television has now become a positive and invaluable resource where experts can finally assist parents in finding that “manual” they have been seeking for so long. It does not even require an expensive cable package or satellite service to access. All of the shows mentioned above are available on the same Public Broadcasting Stations that offer similar programing aimed at the same demographic in reading and phonics. While budget cuts aimed at assisting the economy threaten their existence, perhaps their long-term benefit to the youth of the United States will convince Congress that a future with a more educated youth in math and science is a stronger economic future as well.