Brain candy

At a recent fifth birthday party, I told Benjamin that he would not be having a piece of candy as a chaser to the giant globs of icing he had just licked off his slice of cake, which were themselves a follow-up to the ice cream he had eaten with his lunch.  Our host, a good friend and a mother of three kids of similar ages to my own, laughed and turned to her mother.  “Oh, God, candy is my savior.  ‘You want some more candy?  Here, take some more candy.’”  She shrugged self-deprecatingly.  “Candy is my babysitter.”

We know each other too well to judge on another at this point and mostly lament our own parenting foibles.  “Of course you need to use candy as a babysitter,” I smiled.  “Your kids don’t watch TV.”

“That’s true.  I’m beginning to think I made the wrong choice.”

I had to concur.  “A TV show lasts a lot longer than a piece of candy.”

In this analogy, then, candy and television are both acknowledged junk, but we indulge our kids because we can only hover over them and prevent their access for so long.  Candy rots the teeth and we all know television rots the brain.

Or does it?

On Monday, I had the privilege of attending a lunch discussion at our local PBS station, one that was conveniently scheduled so I could leave immediately after Lilah’s mid-morning feeding and arrive home ten minutes before her afternoon one.   The nice thing about this event, unlike other things bloggers get invited to, was that it was not about getting me to sell a product but rather about actually discussing how best to help children.

It was a small group of parent bloggers (OK, mothers) and a panel of three women who design children’s programming for PBS.  Joyce Campbell, the VP of Education and Children’s Programming and producer of Sid, the Science Kid, didn’t do a whole lot of talking, as she was clearly there just to hear what we had to say.  The other two women on the panel, however, had some fascinating things to say.

One was Lesli Rotenberg, the Senior VP of Children’s Media and the other was Angela Santomero, the creator and  executive producer of Super Why, which makes her a freakin’ hero in my book.   Super Why is my kids’ new favorite show, and it is the first program they have really loved that I have felt the same way about.  Not that I watch with them, because that would defeat the whole purpose of scheduling TV time right before dinner…  But, I have watched an episode or two, and this show rocks the house.  It is a television show designed to – wait for it – promote reading.  Yes, reading.

Now, here’s a little fun fact about me.  I don’t really watch TV.  I used to watch a little each day, but about a year ago, I realized I was going to have to choose between reading and television, and I decided to stop watching in order to get some reading time.  I went about three months never turning the thing on, but then the presidential conventions turned me into a short-term couch potato.  Nonetheless, my heavy-television weeks involve watching two shows (over the course of the week) and my light ones involve no TV at all.  Come to think of it, other than an episode of Super Why, I haven’t watched TV in at least three weeks, and we never have the TV on during the day.

Yet, I am not against TV.  I am just pro-reading.  So, you can imagine my delight that there is a television program all about these four little kids who, when faced with a problem, go diving into books together to find a solution.

Rock the house.

The subject matter is good, as are the reading skills they teach.  This show happens to be designed to cover Benjamin – who at almost three years old still cannot identify any letter other than “O” and the occasional “S” – and Zachary – who at almost five is sounding out phonics and has probably fifty sight words.  See, there is this pig who is in charge of letters, two girls who are all about reading words, and then a boy who pulls it all together.

OK, you get it – good show, educational, blah, blah, blah.  This is not a review blog and you would probably have stopped reading this post already if you weren’t hoping there would eventually be a point to the whole thing.  There is.

See, apparently, the people over at PBS Kids did not go into their line of work for the fabulous remuneration of public television.  They actually, um, care about providing quality, educational programming to children.  Especially lower-income children.  You know, the kids who may not have Tivo, Cable, and 473 kids’ books.  (I haven’t actually counted, so we may have more.  Those paperbacks are deceptive.)  The kids whose parents may not have the luxury of time to sit down and read with their children every day.  The kids who don’t attend preschools that cost (cough, cough) a year.  They want to reach those children and help them learn to read, love reading, and read well.

Perforce, the folks at PBS Kids have designed a Super Why camp for underprivileged kids, utilizing established camps but bringing in their own curriculum for a week.  They administer a simple “pretest,” and then they use one episode of the show and build five days of reading skills activities around the episode, with each day focusing on the “power” of one of the characters.  At the end of the program, they administered a “post-test”, and saw an 18% increase in letter sounds skills, a 29% increase in reading words, an 84% increase in encoding skills, and a whopping 139% increase in word decoding.

Praise the lord and pass the television.  The fact is, not everyone can afford childcare help.  Some people are working two and three jobs, if they can get them, just to get by.  And, in those families, TV is going to be a cheap alternative to having Super Nanny living in the guest wing.  Those are the kids who most need someone who can spare the time to teach them reading skills.  This show tries to fill the gap.  Is it as good as a parent sitting down for an hour working on reading every afternoon?  No, of course not.  But, that cannot always happen.  And even when it does, there is no earthly reason that media like television can’t be seen as a part of multifaceted approach to getting kids excited about reading.

It turns out there is a do-it-yourself version of this camp.  We were all given a nifty little backpack with activities to do with our kids.  Now, I’ve already screwed up because, although I did the pretest, there was no time to do the next day’s activities and of course the kids wanted to watch the same episode again the next night, in part because Zach was afraid of a different episode called “Thumbelina” for fear the mole might make an appearance.

I am going to be doing all these cool little activities with the kids, similar to some of what the trained professionals do at the camp, although I must say this flies in the face of my “television as a babysitter” technique.  I’ll report back on my family experiment and let you know how it goes, and the good people of PBS Kids will be checking our blogs for feedback.  You can get in on the action, too, because there is a huge trove of activities on the PBS Kids website that can help you use the show to augment your kids’ learning.  They’ll be reading comments and would be happy to hear what people have to say.

Well, slap my thigh and call me “Matilda.”  Who knew television might just have more in common with carrots than with candy?

19 responses to “Brain candy

  1. I think at some point I determined that TV itself isn’t the problem – it’s COMMERCIALS that are truly evil.

    As I sit here reading this with my first cup of coffee, my son is upstairs watching WordWorld. He tends to be a visual learner, and is a touch of a perfectionist, so while he’s known his letters for ages & we read to him LOTS, he really didn’t try to spell much outside of his name from memory until he started watching the show a few weeks ago.

    I also love SuperWhy, Sid the Science Kid (which seriously converted his thinking about tooth brushing) and Martha Speaks. I’ll definitely check out the site activities.

  2. Great choice you made. I totally agree on the fact that commercials are the huge problem here and not everyone can afford childcare help. If you ever get sometime to read a book, check out my lastest one, it seems you will enjoy a parenting and childcare book for sure.

    Michael Rosen

  3. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a SuperWhy fan myself. My children also love the PBS kids site, so I’m sure we’ll find the activity link soon.

    I have to disagree about commercials. My oldest has figured out (with some help from her father) that she can watch pretty much every show ever televised through the magic of the internet, and generally without commercial interruption. No, some of it is truly evil, even without commercials.

    I’d like to say I use the television as a babysitter, but I don’t. The little ones need adult company or they start wandering. I’ve been pestering my husband for years about less tv (not including PBS, of course) and he finally picked up the baton. The little ones are learning to- wait for it- play by themselves. Yes, there is some danger involved- a curtain rod broke a few weeks ago- but I think the strategy has some long-term potential.

  4. Thanks for this post. I work full-time, so my time to y’know, cook, and make sure my kid isn’t wearing yesterday’s booger-coated shirt AGAIN, is limited as it is. Sometimes, I need half an hour to get something done. I wish we could be a TV-less or TV-less-than-we-watch-now family, but we just aren’t. I’m going to set the DVR for Super Why!

  5. Very cool! I’ll be interested to hear how the activities work out for you.

  6. I was thrilled when SuperWhy came out, it was great for The Snake last year at 4-5 yrs-old. I loved the reading stuff, but I think what I loved most was it was really geared to his age and abilities. Most other programs at the time were wonderful for 3 year-olds and even 4, but the older 4s to 5 year olds really didn’t have anything. There was a gap, only violent cartoonish, obnoxious things that were really rated for Y7 were available. And no kid can keep learning from Dora and Diego after about 100x of that format, it just gets old.

    I’m glad that PBS has filled the niche with things like SuperWhy and Sid. Bravo.

  7. Seriously, I use the T.V. a lot more than I ever thought I would, but I monitor it carefully. Sometimes Badger just needs to watch a show and chill. It actually really calms him down when he’s overstimulated.

    Badger loves Curious George on PBSkids to distraction. We couple it with their excellent (and all free!) CG games on the PC and it’s actually a really good learning tool for him.

    We’ll have to check out SuperWhy.

  8. Tania Reuben

    We really are kindred spirits!
    Aside from the reading myself thing… when given a choice between a good book and The Bachelorette….
    We put SuperWhy on last night, and my Ben sat clinging to me the entire 20 minutes.

  9. I was very anti-TV….um…..*before* Monkey was born. lol. I’m very careful about WHAT she watches (yes, commercials are the devil in my book, so NO Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, etc – just PBS and DVDs) but she watches a lot more than I would have ever expected I would allow. Turns out, it saves my sanity often. And maybe that makes me a lazy mother but, hey, I stopped beating myself up over it. At least she’s watching quality stuff that is actually, um, teaching her something. And if it allows me the space to be more present and patient with her later on, well, it’s a good thing I think.

  10. At this point, some days, it’s all that keeps me from tearing my hair out. Because, like your husband, The Daver isn’t home much. And three? A LOT OF KIDS.

  11. I also let my kids watch more TV than I thought I would (although I also chose reading over tv for myself). A lot of kids’ television shows are both fun and educational, which kind of surprises me. Even commercials have been pretty good for teachable moments (we call it ‘brainwashing’ in our house, and my son very carefully explains to my daughter how the people that make the toy are just trying to make it look good because they want to make money). I’m perfectly capable of telling them to go play with one of their million toys in their room or make a craft, but every so often I like to stretch out and fry my brain in the idiot box — I figure they’re the same.

  12. Ahh, PBS, how I miss thee. Here there is nothing like that– just cartoons and Disney fare (with commercials.) I do let them watch for part of the, oh, TWO HOURS of time they have to kill before school starts (I am just not up for a rousing game of Candy Land at 7am, or much of anything else until I’ve had my coffee) and at least they are learning some English vocabulary that way, but I would kill for some Super Why.

    They do watch the daily episode (online, ten minutes) of Peep and the Big Wide World, which is great.

  13. I remember talking to my sister-in-law when we were both living in Germany and she said one of the things she noticed was that, without commercial television, her children didn’t know what they wanted for birthdays and things. At that point my kids weren’t watching much of anything, and even that was PBS, but as soon as they were allowed commercial tv we started a house rule that all ads are muted (we call it the happiness button in our house!). I also began teaching them to analyze ads for the target audience and we had a game where they would try to guess what the ad was trying to get you to do and how they were doing it.

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with television – it’s often fantastic (Planet Earth anyone?), it’s just what is watched and often how.

  14. You should check out Word World too.

  15. Let me know if they come up with a show that makes an eight-year old boy think that learning is kinda, sorta important in life and can be fun. If it was on TV, he might pay attention.

    Come to think of it, though, the thing about our house is that the TV is on and no one is really watching. We’re always outside.

  16. I like the flexible approach to TV, and that show sounds super cool. Nice post, Em.

  17. I have been amazed at how much Jack Jack has learned from some of the PBS shows. One of his current favorites is Word Girl. I was trying to figure out why and how he learned to define big words for me and then I watched this show with him. I have been a huge fan of the new PBS shows.

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