Way back in 1959, television made its entry into Indian homes on an experimental basis for just two hours a week. 53 years later, the Indian television industry has grown from asingle channel, Doordarshan, to more than 400 channels. Over 119 million households own a television and, in urban India, this means that almost every household has a television. A lot of air time and ink has been devoted to the negative impact of television on children; pester power stemming from persuasive advertisements, hyperactivity and obesity due to long, sedentary hours, propensity to bullying from undue exposure to violence….the list is long. But, is there a flip side? Read on.
The classic double-edged sword
“Television is not just violence. Often, far less attention has been paid to the positive effects that educational television programmes can hold. Yet, if we believe that children can learn negative lessons from television, then it stands to reason that they can learn positive lessons too,” says Shalom M. Fisch, author of ‘Children’s Learning from Educational Television: Sesame Street and Beyond’. And she is bang on target.
Since children are, no doubt, easily influenced, it is the parent’s role to sift the wheat from the chaff and make sure they are exposed to television viewing that is enriching and entertaining.
Television for education and learning
As Nicholas Johnson, author of ‘How to Talk Back to your Television Set,’ says, “All television is educational television. The question is: What is it teaching us?”
Yes, it is not as if only programmes on wildlife or science are educational. According to Sajju Joseph, General Manager a leading IT organisation and father of two, “Any television programme that teaches children about the world around them is educational. It need not be just science or geography.” Through music, movement, colour and dialogue, several shows manage to engage with children and impart learning in an innovative way. The sheer variety of options available on television, along with the winning combination of audio and video, means that there is a show out there waiting to make an impression on your child – whatever the concept he needs to learn may be!
“Television is a great supplementary medium for learning. When one cannot visit a mine and learn about the mining process, and reading about the process does not suffice, television, through video and audio, can make it easier for the child to learn and absorb,” says Meena Sivaraman, an early childhood development specialist and a member of ParentEdge’s Panel of Experts.
Some television shows for children are interactive. The characters ask questions to the audience, wait a while, and then provide the answers. The creators of Blue’s Clues say they try to involve their young viewers by simulating conversations that are realistic and child-centered. Jayashree Nagaraj, mother of two, notes, “Even though this interaction is merely perceived, I have observed my sons answering the questions asked by the characters on screen. By answering these questions, not only are they learning about what the character is talking about but they are also answering simple questions and figuring out how to respond to a situation.” How does interaction make for better learning? It holds the child’s attention. Another added benefit is that answering (usually simple and straightforward) questions boosts the child’s confidence.
What television can teach
The world outside the home
Young children are often immersed in their immediate environment – their home, their school, the city they live in. Television can open up a window to the world – literally! Channels like Animal Planet and Discovery explore a range of themes and concepts – from wildlife and forests to monuments and countries.
Indian mythology and culture
In today’s nuclear families, children do not always have grandparents who narrate myths and legends on a daily basis. Television has brought mythology and culture packaged attractively to our living rooms, capturing the attention of young children. Ganesha, Krishna, Ghatotkach, Little Krishna, Amar Chitra Katha, Ramayana – these are some examples of the many mythology-based programmes on television, which can be found both in an animated format and with real people playing the legendary roles. Such programmes teach children about our multihued culture and the stories are a great way to impart moral values.
Many television programmes for children try to inculcate humane and ethical values.
“Shows like Bob the Builder, Make Way for Noddy, Oswald, Barney and Friends and Clifford teach children about teamwork, sharing, friendship, obedience and respect,” adds Ramya Srinivasan, mother of two.
Jayashree Nagaraj’s experience with her two sons is that “foundational concepts lend themselves to the medium of television.” Programmes tailored to young children tend to focus on one simple concept (body parts, shapes, colours) at a time to ensure that the viewer is not overwhelmed by an overdose of information. Thus the child registers what is being explained better.
Pranoti Kothari, a working mother of two says, “My daughters developed a great vocabulary by watching vocabularyenhancing programmes like Martha Speaks on television.” When a new word is explained with the help of pictures, videos and sounds, it is ingrained in the child’s brain. Jayashree Nagaraj explains, “The new words taught in such shows are used repeatedly in sentences and in different contexts throughout the episode just to reinforce the meaning of those words.”
A new language
Many of today’s parents in South India have learnt or polished their Hindi by watching Doordarshan serials in the 80s! Television is a great way to learn a new language, apart from improving your command over languages you already know but maybe do not speak well. Pranoti says that her daughters learnt Hindi while watching Gali Gali Sim Sim, the Hindi version of Sesame Street.
Arts and crafts
Several programmes shows show children how to draw or make something interesting. Rekha Menon, a mother of two says, “My daughter loves creative shows, especially the arts and crafts ones. If you look at it, these shows are educational as well, as they help the child find an outlet for creativity.” Art Attack on Disney Channel and M.A.D on POGO are examples of arts and crafts programmes that are popular among children.
How to pick the right educational content on television
Needless to say, educational television programmes for children will be rejected by this picky and discerning young audience unless they are presented well. So, it is important to identify what makes some educational programmes more successful than others. Here are some factors:
- The show should be engaging – with humour, music and ageappropriate topics that are relevant to children’s daily lives.
- The content should be simple, direct and explicit. If the concept is too complicated, there is a chance your child is not going to absorb what is being said.
- The show should have a character or anchor whom your child will identify with or look up to. Such shows are sure to resonate better with your child. For example, if your daughter is curious by nature, she will identify with Dora the explorer.
- A show that encourages active participation is usually a big draw – quiz and game shows, for example.
- Programmes that encourage hands-on learning and those that motivate children to follow-up on the learning received (trying out the activities later, doing research online) are likely to be more effective in the long run.
A word of caution
“When a child is watching television, he is mostly just receiving information. This puts certain centres of the brain to sleep and hence the commonly used term for television – ‘idiot box,’” cautions Meena Sivaraman. Most educationists believe that television restricts children to just an audio visual learning experience which is not complete, since active learning can potentially engage all the senses.
Shreya Divekar, seven years old and an avid reader, does not like educational television for an interesting reason. “I prefer classroom learning. This is because I understand things better when my teacher in school explains it to me instead of when I see something on television. I usually have a lot of questions to ask when I learn something new and I can’t ask the television questions! My teachers can answer my doubts immediately.”
Also, animation, as well as techniques like enlarging and videography, may distort reality for a young child. One parent narrated how her young child fearlessly saw National Geographic videos of lions hunting, yet trembled when she saw one caged in a zoo! Also, one cannot be sure that the child has understood the content clearly because, unlike a good teacher, at the end of teaching a new concept, a television cannot solicit questions or clarifications. Further, all television channels carry numerous advertisements. If there are interruptions every few minutes, children are bound to be distracted, and the focus will shift away from learning to the new goody being advertised.