TV Is Not Bad For KidsBut It Could Be Even Better.
BY DOUGLAS MARSHALL
PLANNED PARENTHOOD is a wonderful thing. Because of it, my wife and I were able to arrange matters so that our two sons are exactly 18 months apart. “They’ll be close enough to play together,” we told ourselves. “They won’t be in our hair all the time.” The result is a mildly neurotic 4½-year-old and a slightly precocious three-year-old. They do play together, frequently and fortissimo, but they still require constant supervision 12 hours a day.
There are roughly three million children under the age of six in Canada today and the parents of this army of preschoolers know how unbearable those 12 hours can become. They seem so long, the days of whine and bruises, the harsh stay-inside days when tiny, tireless and imperfectly co-ordinated feet don’t patter but thunder. A young mother can age visibly in the claustrophobic atmosphere of spilled apple juice and non-negotiable demands. Small wonder if, in desperation, she falls back on the electronic substitute for the Victorian nanny, the much-abused miracle of television.
There's a great deal of conventional nonsense talked about the effects of TV on children. Publicity given to dubious psychological experiments with caged animals and outdated, highly idealistic theories about child rearing have left many mothers feeling morally guilty about the 50 hours a week the average child spends in front of the TV set. If 1 were in charge, it would be the mother who denies television to her preschoolers who would be roundly condemned.
To begin with, the argument that aggressive behavior can be “triggered" by
prolonged exposure to violence has never been proved with human beings. As Dr. Frederic Wertham. an American psychologist, puts it: “Artificially set-up experiments to measure aggression are not adequate because children are not rats." The best authorities state that no child is likely to be harmed by television if he is socially secure and has no psychological problems.
More important, the studies that have been conducted with preschoolers — in Britain, the United States and Japan — show that the intellects of children under six thrive on TV. From the age of 18 months, when the child is first attracted to the screen by the dancing patterns, TV cascades information to be sopped up by spongelike minds capable of absorbing knowledge at a phenomenal rate. By the
time he enters the first grade, the child who watches television has a vocabulary as much as a year ahead of his nonviewing peers. “TV has a greater educational influence than all the formal establishments devoted to education,” says Dr. Edward Palmer, who is director of research for the Children’s Television Workshop affiliated to the National Educational Television network in the U.S. “For a parent to say, ‘I don’t let my child watch TV,’ is to relegate him to cultural deprivation.” If television didn't already exist to meet the preschoolers’ needs in today's society, we would have to invent it.
For all that, there’s no doubt much of what is spooned out for children by the commercial networks is a criminal waste of the medium’s potential. I don’t feel guilty about letting my children watch TV; I just feel angry that most of what they see is artless drivel. Television is a magic key. It can be used to open the gates of a child's imagination in a way Lewis Carroll would have envied. Where are the Lewis Carrolls of the medium? Buried, presumably, under a commercial mountain of Captain Crunch cereal.
Buried, but alive and beginning to kick. 1 realized that when I arrived home one day recently to find my older boy bursting to tell me something. His eyes were alight with secret pleasure. He had evidently made a profound discovery. The dialogue went something like this: BOY: Daddy, I was walking down the street today and I saw a sandbox. 1 one a sandbox. Now you say. 1 two a sandbox. ME: I two a sandbox.
BOY: I three a sandbox. ME: I four a sandbox. BOY: I five a sandbox. ME: I six a sandbox. BOY: I seven a sandbox. ME: I eight a sandbox. BOY: Daddy! You ate a sandbox? How could you be such a dum-dum?
Not quite up to Dick Cavett. perhaps, but it represents an extraordinary multilevel development in a young child’s mind. Not only does it prove he can count (although that's not so unusual for a 4'/2 -year-old), but it also shows that he has mastered a fairly sophisticated verbal concept, the pun. Delighted by his delight, I naturally asked where he had learned it although I’d already guessed. It was Sesame Street, of course.
Sesame Street is probably the most
creative single show that American television has produced in its 25 years of largely moronic existence. It’s an hourlong daily program broadcast by the National Educational Television network and aimed directly at the preschoolers among the urban poor. For the harassed parents of these ghetto kids, nursery schools are an impossible luxury and the middle-class books on proper child rearing seem hopelessly irrelevant to their situation. However, Sesame Street's appeal is also universal. Since it began last November, it has picked up an incredible six million viewers in the U.S. Put another way, it has kept half of all the American children aged three to five quietly enthralled for at least an hour a day.
The show’s popularity is no accident. The first 26-week series — 130 programs — was put together after two years of research. The total cost: eight million dollars in government and private grants. The format is a careful blend of four elements: friendly adults, real children, the make-believe world of a host of charming Muppet puppets, and witty animated cartoons. It’s the way these elements are blended, the program’s pace, that makes Sesame Street unique.
The specially prepared cartoons, for instance, are deliberate imitations of conventional television commercials. Joan Ganz Cooney, the 39-year-old guiding light of the series, discovered that young children are not only fascinated by commercials — the first song many kids learn is Wrigley’s tedious Doublemint jingle — but they often learn to read by watching the words flick repeatedly across the screen. So consequently Sesame Street is punctuated every few minutes by animated sales pitches promoting the virtues of various numbers and letters of the alphabet. And at the conclusion there’s a voice-over announcement: “Sesame Street has been brought to you today by the letters F, P and W and the numbers 3 and 5.”
The show’s goals are to give the very young a head start in the use of letters, numbers and words, to teach them reasoning and problem-solving skills and to make the world around them more comprehensible. A follow-up study has been planned to see how much knowledge has been imparted. “It will be worth it if the kids learn to count to 10,” one of the program's executives said at the beginning. The evidence is that they are learning much more than that.
“The effect on my two preschoolers has been amazing,” says a Toronto mother who also has three older children. “Not only are they counting backward and forward and reciting the alphabet, they're also asking how to spell words and asking for word definitions. Subliminally, they seem to be absorbing much more knowledge than any of my older children did at this stage.”
Sesame Street is a unique blend of urban reality (top), Muppet puppets (left) and animated “commercials" plugging the virtues of various letters and numbers. This sequence for “the fat letter D" tells the story of how “a real dog found some dice on a hollow log, won a duck from a friendly frog, walked along until he spotted a door, dropped his duck on the floor, found a dime and bought a dinosaur." What else was learned? “If you dig a dinosaur, drop your duck for a dime. Courtesy of D.' "
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'You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of children's shows on this continent that don't set out deliberately to exploit children'
Fundamental to the show’s whole approach is its sense of full involvement. Children don’t just watch Sesame Streef, they virtually live there. It’s a phenomenon you have to see to believe.
Unfortunately, few Canadian parents have that chance. Sesame Street plus another excellent NET program for preschoolers, Misterogers’ Neighborhood, can be seen only by viewers who can pick up broadcasts Trom the U.S. border stations. While CBC programmers are watching Sesame Street with “great interest,” there was no decision at time of writing on whether to buy it.
The irony here is that the CBC is finally being overtaken in a field it pioneered and long dominated. Until recently the CBC was the only television network in North America with a department specifically devoted to the development and production of children’s programs. The department, with nine producers, is still second only to Weekend in terms of size.
Because of its facilities, the CBC over the years has been able to attract several Americans interested in the imaginative use of TV for children. Misterogers’, for instance, was launched by the CBC in 1963 and ran for two seasons before its creator, Fred Rogers, moved the show back to his native Pittsburgh. All the show’s essential features, its direct approach to the problems of being small and Rogers’ constant reassurance that he likes the child “just the way you are,” were first worked out in Toronto.
Similarly, the creative influence behind two of the CBC’s current preschool programs, The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup, is American. Robert Homme (rhymes with tummy) devised Friendly 16 years ago in Madison, Wisconsin, where it ran on an educational station for five years before moving to Canada. Ernie Coombs, who is Mr. Dressup, is a native of Maine who came to Canada as a puppeteer for Fred Rogers and stayed on because the opportunities here were then superior to anything available in the U.S.
Friendly is the shorter and simpler of the two programs. But the simplicity is deceptive. It masks a careful structure
worked out by Homme and his puppeteer, Rod Coneybeare, that has varied little over the years. Every program is built around a simple theme — the concept of chasing, the reason people wear hats — that is illustrated either by a storybook or by music. Friendly is an obvious father figure. The kids identify either with a rooster puppet called Rusty, representing an excitable younger child, or with Jerome the Giraffe, the know-itall older brother.
“We try to create an awareness in the child,” says Homme. “We want to become part of his life for 15 minutes. The structure of the show is important because it stresses the beginning-middleend concept. There’s no great psychological theory behind the show. We use our intuition. I try to act as a reasonable parent with a couple of kids. The mood is one of quiet masculinity. You could say that the manner is the message. We assume kids like us.”
They do. Friendly has an audience of some 800,000 Canadian children and is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. where it’s carried on NET just before Sesame Street. (Not all the American audience are children. To the embarrassment of Homme, the father of three teenage children and one 11-yearold, Friendly is the latest hero of the homosexual underground and the show is greeted by prolonged cheers in New York’s gay bars.)
Mr. Dressup is a much more elaborate production. It has a larger audience and appeals to a slightly older viewer (the average age is four rather than three). Here, children identify with a little-boy puppet named Casey. Mr. Dressup himself represents, in Coombs’ words, “an eccentric uncle.” As he bounces around a remarkably versatile set — building or drawing things, experimenting with words, sometimes stumbling and making mistakes — there is a near-perfect blend of fantasy and hard fact.
“Like Sesame Street, we’re aiming for intense involvement,” says Judith Lawrence, the show’s puppeteer and a former nursery-school teacher. “Kids will watch anything as long as it’s interesting. The program is first and foremost entertaining. Yet the theme message gets across. Letters we’ve received show that Mr. Dressup often influences the pattern of a child’s play for the rest of the day.”
Three full-time scriptwriters supply the ideas for Mr. Dressup, although some of the shows are written by Miss Lawrence or by Coombs (he picks up suggestions from his seven-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son). There is considerable flexibility in the subject matter. Sometimes the theme can be a straightforward demonstration of where wool comes from. Sometimes the show will deal with more complex problems, such as why grown-ups want to be alone on
occasion. Topicality is an important element (Mr. Dressup has pretended to go to the moon) and producer Bob Gibbons has even tackled the race question with a discussion about skin color when a black folk singer visited the show. He’s now trying to figure out an acceptable way to raise the subject of sex.
All in all, Mr. Dressup is the most exciting and beneficial thing produced for Canadian preschoolers and their parents since diaper services were started. Not only is it a resounding success with normal, bright children, but it has also proved itself immensely useful for those who work with backward or retarded children. A typical letter from Mr. Dressup’s fan mail runs like this:
“It is so refreshing to see a program that is really planned with the children in mind — imaginative, but within their grasp; stimulating, but not frightening; realistic, but not cold. Mr. Dressup, his friend Susan and the puppets are all very special ‘friends’ to my children even in the hours between programs.”
In the face of such positive achievement and mass approval, it is sad to learn that Mr. Dressup was almost stillborn. Its predecessor. Butternut Square, was canceled back in February 1967, during one of those budget squeezes in which the CBC systematically kills off its best shows in order to save money. It was only after Coombs and his colleagues promised to pull the show together on a shoestring that Mr. Dressup was allowed to make his entrance. The program has a little more money now but producer Gibbons is still operating with two cameras when he’d like three, and in blackand-white when the program cries out for color.
This seems to me an extraordinary situation for a public television network to be in. As Bob Homme says, “You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of children’s shows on this continent that don’t set out deliberately to exploit the child.” (A prime example of such exploitation is CTV’s Romper Room, produced in Canada under a license granted by the format’s American owners, which violates almost all the enlightened principles I’ve been discussing.)
If you include the Montreal-produced Chez Hélène, the CBC still has only 55 minutes a day devoted to constructive programs for preschoolers — and it skimps on those. My view is that the corporation should be providing much more and that we, as taxpayers, should be demanding it. Sesame Street proves that the creative possibilities of children’s television are limitless. With TV we can begin to build the best-educated, most imaginative generation that ever grew up in this complex world. They’ll never forgive us if we continue to blow the opportunity. □