The Way Kids Are: Play that again, Sam, and again, and again

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...
October 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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It’s 4 p.m. in Chicago, and the start of the first focus group of the day. Six boys, from age six to eight, wiggle in their seats beyond the one-way window. As head of children’s programming at National Geographic Television, I’m watching this group for feedback on our newest programming ideas.

The moderator is probing the boys’ reactions to one program when the topic of favorite wild animals comes up. Tony, age six, nearly jumps out of his chair with excitement. ‘Hey, that reminds me of a joke!’ The other boys grin with expectation. ‘What kind of animal don’t you want to play cards with?’ Tony pauses in a perfect stage wait, then triumphantly delivers the punch line. ‘A cheetah!’

Tony and his buddies are ecstatic. Never mind that the answer was totally predictable, and even came up in the context of a discussion on cheetahsÑor that Tony had probably told that joke 20 times in the past few days. Repeating the joke didn’t diminish Tony’s pleasureÑin fact, it enhanced it. Tony knew exactly what was coming, and savored every second of delivering the familiar punch line.

Tony’s joke made me think of what we call the ‘repeat phenomenon’Ñif a child really likes a video, he or she will watch it five, 10, even 20 times. It baffles adults. ‘They’ll just watch it over and over again,’ parents marvel, shaking their heads in wonder. The repeat phenomenon has become the occasional bane of parents (many run from the room when their child slips that favorite video into the VCR), but it’s the Holy Grail for program developers like me.

Over the next few days of our focus groups, as kids and their moms reacted to clips of potential new programming, the issue of repeatability came up again and again. On what criteria do moms judge what’s a good video for their kids? Among other things, a good video is one that their children will watch over and over again. What makes a good video for a kid? As one of our young focus group girls said, ‘if it’s like a movie; something that I’ll watch more than once.’

Why, then, do kids like to watch the same thing over and over again? One reason, say psychologists, is that kids don’t process information as quickly as adults do. That means they get more out of a program each time they see it. Think of when you watch a movie for the second time; you probably notice new lines or scenes. For kids, it’s even more of a differenceÑeven the third or fourth time round.

Even more importantly, kids like the comfort of knowing what’s going to happen. It gives them a sense of mastery over a world that’s often very confusing and unpredictable. Think about itÑyoung children control very few things in their lives. Adults decide what they’re going to eat, when they’re going to bed, what’s assigned for homework. That means that watching TV and videos is one place they can exercise some control. In the case of television, they can decide what program they can watch, for how long and when to switch to another channel.

Videos provide even more control. Kids get to watch what they want to watch, whenever they want to watch it. So what if they’ve seen it before? Knowing what’s going to happen is part of the fun. If they know what’s coming in the story, they feel confident and in control. It’s the same thing with their favorite books. They choose to have them read out loud again and again. The familiarity actually makes them like it more.

Of course, not all videos make for repeatable viewing. And that’s the reason I’m spending hours observing focus groupsÑto help National Geographic make programming, whether it’s about cheetahs, China or cyclones, that’s appealing, informative and repeatable. Watching these kids, I’m reminded of just how smart they are, and what great and merciless critics they can be. Tony and his friends will tell you exactly what elements they want: good story, compelling characters, humor and lots of information.

Still, even the best group of kids or parents can’t tell you how to blend these elements into the perfect mix. For me, watching reactions in focus groups is as close as I can come to controlling the creative process that’s at the heart of an unpredictable business. I’m watching and waiting for the clue in a kid’s expression that signals we’ve created a show that will become a treasured, timeless companion, like a favorite book or a good joke.

Hey Tony, did you hear the one about the elephant?

Cynthia Van Cleef is executive producer of children’s television at National Geographic Television in Washington, D.C.

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