The Way Kids Are: The best educational TV will shout to kids: ‘You’re smart’

Who are these kids of the '90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? 'The Way Kids Are' is a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand kids. Each column will begin by...
May 1, 1997

Who are these kids of the ’90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? ‘The Way Kids Are’ is a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand kids. Each column will begin by describing a recent experience with a child, followed by an analysis that will examine what this teaches us about children today. Submissions can be made by contacting editor Mark Smyka by phone: 416-408-2300, fax: 416-408-0870 or e-mail:

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Emily, age five, was leafing through Winnie the Pooh. A chapter book with few illustrations, it is one of her favorites for bedtime snuggling with Mom or Dad, but not something she would likely take on solo. Curious, I asked, ‘What’cha doing?’

‘I was making a birthday card for Grandma,’ Emily replied, ‘and I didn’t know how to spell ‘happy birthday’.’ She was searching for the chapter in which Eeyore has a birthday!

‘Great,’ I encouraged her, and hurried down the hall to tell my wife proudly, ‘we have a researcher.’

With this one action, Emily served up a whole stew of learning skills that had been simmering in her preschool mind. She was writing, adding words to her drawings. She made the link between something she had often spoken or sung, and what she wanted to put on paper. She knew there was a certain way to spell ‘happy birthday’ and, when she needed that information, she figured out that the words on the pages of her books had specific and constant meaning.

Her problem-solving skills and ability to transfer information across contexts sent her to a familiar story, confident of finding what she sought.

What’s best, this was her own idea. There had been no didactic lecture ‘Emily, you’re five, and it’s time you learned to spell properly,’ nor a commercial for learning ‘Words: every cool kid needs them (books sold separately).’ This was simply the glorious power of the child mind that loves to learn and observes, explores, experiments with and extends every experience.

Further, Emily is of the wondrous multi-media generation of kids who draw no boundaries between resources. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d used the computer to find ‘happy birthday’ in the part of Bailey’s Book House where you make your own greeting cards.

Call it an occupational hazard, but this encounter led me to wonder what this means for children’s television. In the United States, the new three-hour-per-week mandate for educational programming has producers and broadcasters panicky about how to create TV that fosters learning and that young people will select from their array of media options.

Three hours per week, per station, should engender a wide range of programs, varied in style and substance. There should be room to engage children’s love of facts and figures, to strengthen their emotional and social foundations, to foster creative expression, and to sow the seeds of citizenship. There should be offerings for all ages, from the preschooler trying to put order to the world, to the adolescent trying to chart a safe course to independence.

My observation of Emily convinced me that the most successful educational programs, whatever their topic, genre or target audience, will be those that shout ‘you’re smart and your questions are important,’ rather than ‘you’re learning and here’s what you should know.’ The best shows will introduce possibilities, provide tools and model strategies needed to make age-appropriate breakthroughs such as Emily’s. They won’t necessarily give answers, but will encourage children to take initiative, develop solutions, and celebrate their own unique abilities.

Fortifying children’s pro-learning attitude need not be the province only of educational television. Emily’s sister Caroline, now nine, drew important inspiration from Nickelodeon’s Global GUTS, not a show designed primarily for learning. At age seven, when she was striving to become more physically confident, Caroline was motivated to challenge herself at the playground after watching girls compete equally with boys on Global GUTS. The producers had carefully crafted athletic events that rewarded those like Caroline skilled in balance, forethought or perseverance, not just those with the most strength or speed.

Producing popular television that truly educates won’t be easy, and the entertainment industry can’t do it alone. Every teacher and parent knows that it is no casual affair to establish a rich, child-centered environment and use it effectively and comfortably for learning. It’s no coincidence that Emily lives surrounded by books, software and other resources, including television, that her family loves to play with words and uses a variety of media and methods to solve problems; and that she attends an exceptional school where children are given tools, strong direction and support to make their own discoveries.

Global GUTS provides an apt metaphor for educational television. The winners won’t necessarily be the biggest or fastest, but those who display balance, forethought and perseverance, plus the added skill of teamwork asking for, and truly listening to, the best advice of educators and child development specialists, who know how children grow and learn.

David Kleeman is executive director of the American Center for Children’s Television. The Center’s goals are to strengthen the capabilities, insights and motivation of children’s programming professionals and to facilitate collaboration among TV, new media, education, research and child development experts.

About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.


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