Educational Children’s Television: A Genre Both Entertaining and Educational

By Kevin Vonderheide
From the single, puppet show theater, in 1947’s Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, to the fantastical worlds dreamed up by Sid and Marty Krofft in the 1970s, all the way to the animated adventures of Dora the Explorer, children’s television has been presented in many different ways over the last sixty years. One thing has carried through though, the network’s attempt to entertain, and more importantly, to educate kids. With the introduction of multi-cultural characters and fast paced, visually pleasing shows, children’s educational television continues to reshape itself, to better suit the children of today, and better prepare them for the world of tomorrow.
By applying the genre theory to several children’s shows from years past, it’s easy to see what they have in common when conveying their messages, and what has been lost along the way. Genre theory looks at the make-up of a collection of television shows and discusses what can be expected of the shows in a given category. Once the major categories have been established, it becomes easier to break them down into sub-genres, where similar shows are better compared.
Genre theory dates back to the ancient Greeks, and the word “genre” literally translates into “kind.” Aristotle and Plato were among those who recognized that different poets told different stories. They felt as though “serious poets” told the tales of noble men, while the less exalted poets told the stories of the inferior populous. Not only were works classified by their content, but the manner through which they were expressed, be they satire, hymns or eulogies.  The categories were limited though, and most writers weren’t taken seriously if they strayed from the formats that had been established. Even in Shakespeare’s time, his plays were subjected to three categories: histories, comedies, and tragedies. It wasn’t until the European enlightenment in the eighteenth century, when there began an emergence of the middle class; causing more and more writers to explore the different directions and topics they could cover in a piece of work. No longer were they forced to write in a certain formula, and with this creative freedom developed the genres we are familiar with today. Breaking media down into genres or categories, offers an audience that has not yet viewed the material, an idea of what they can expect. Audiences do not tune into a medical sitcom expecting to be hit by the tragic stories of a Holocaust survivor. Separating these two programs by their content and the ways in which they ‘re presented lets us know what to expect. We are either watching a medical sitcom or a historical news program. Categorizing media also helps the audience criticize it. It would be unproductive to judge a landscape painting against an abstract sculpture, just as it would be a comedy vs. and an action drama. Since each piece is meant to evoke a different emotion, it makes more sense to judge programs in similar categories.
When looking at children’s television, the two major classifications we find are shows created to entertain, and shows created to educate. From there we’re able to break it down into mediums: animations, live action, or a mix of each, as seen in Puppet driven shows. The first kid ‘s show on the air was Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. It began as a local show in Chicago in 1947 and revolved around two puppets and a woman named Fran Allison. The show lasted for nine years and coincided perfectly with the period during which televisions were being installed in two thirds of American homes, becoming the primary source of family entertainment. Kukla, which is actually the Russian word for “doll”, was a clown like puppet who would interact with Oliver J. Dragon, or “Ollie,” a snaggle-toothed dragon puppet. Fran completed the triangle, offering topics of discussion, or being the mediator in the puppet’s disagreements. The set was minimal, but the American public was easily satisfied at the time, enjoying the conversation and the jokes on screen instead of being critical of the set pieces (Kukla 4).
The use of puppets has been a repetitive theme in children’s shows. While they began as a means to entertain, with shows like Kukla, or Howdy Doody, they soon became voices of education. From Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, to the Muppets of Sesame Street, puppets have helped kids escape the world of normalcy and enter a world where virtually anything can have a voice, an opinion, and an educational message. In the late sixties, television executives realized that the preschool children in inner city schools were falling behind the rest of the country and they knew that without a solid foundation in reading, writing , and counting skills, children were doomed to fall further behind as they grew. Joan Ganz Cooney, one of Sesame Street’s original creators, said, “There is a literacy line. Once you’re above that line you can participate in American life; below it, you can’t.” The biggest problem was getting kids to pay attention to their teachers in the classroom. Puppets provided a middleman of sorts, through whom adults could pass an educational message delivered in a stimulating way (Sesame).
When television execs first aimed to educate, they did so by telling stories with important morals, but as the content changed to more of a classroom based education in the early 70s, it became an industry trend to seek input from educators and psychologists when coming up with the show’s content. Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, the creators of Sesame Street, hired a Harvard University professor of education and developmental psychology named Gerald Lesser to help convey the message to kids in a way that would stay with them after the television set had been turned off. One such way was through the use of songs.
Songs or jingles have been getting stuck in American’s heads since the radio was first brought into the homes of the masses. Aside from the songs made famous on Sesame Street, a new brand of educational music hit television screens in 1972 with the introduction of School House Rock. David McCall, the creator of the animated shorts, came up with the idea when he noticed that though his son was having trouble memorizing the multiplication tables, he was able to memorize the lyrics and solos of Jimi Hendrix songs with ease. McCall set out with a team of songwriters to come up with catchy rhythms and melodies to teach multiplication, grammar, science, and U.S. history. The segments aired in between shows on Saturday Morning, and were designed to educate through the use of music and bright, almost psychedelic, animations (Calvert 326).
Since the mass distribution of color television sets in the late 1960s, bright, aesthetically pleasing visuals have been apparent throughout children’s programming, to both, stimulate and to hold the kids’ interest. For several years in the 70s, Saturday mornings were filled with the works of Sid and Marty Krofft, two television writers, famous for shows like H.R. Pufnstuf, Sigmund and the Sea Monster, and Land of the Lost. Known for their skills as puppeteers, they created larger scale puppets, some actually more like costumes, to be worn and operated by actors. The set designs were colorful and psychedelic, and held kids’ attention. So much so, that it begged the question from some critics as to whether or not their shows were perhaps influenced by drug use. With a show like H.R. Pufnstuf, about a magical dragon whose theme song clearly states, “He can’t do a little, ‘ cause he can ‘t do enough, ” it’s easy to see how critics could see these as drug references. The Krofft brothers have always denied these claims explaining that you can’t make good television on drugs. Marty Krofft said in an interview in 2004, “The shows were very bright and spacey looking. They may have lent themselves to that culture at the time, but we didn’t ascribe that meaning to them” (Harris-Fain).
In 1974 the FCC examined the types of shows taking up the majority of broadcast time, and because the entertainment to education ratio was so one sided, they declared that all major broadcasters had to include educational shows. They were rather lenient on these rules then, but the Children’s Television Act of 1990 reinforced them. The FCC found that certain stations were complying with the request by showing a half hour “educational” program at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. Broadcasters would also claim shows like The Jetsons to be educational, because it “Taught kids what life would be like in the future” (Jordan 106). Broadcasters claimed they felt as if kids wouldn’t watch the shows if they were educational. The Center for Media Education, the CME, explained that it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, saying if the broadcasters promoted the shows more and put them on during times when kids were actually watching, the kids would not only watch, but learn from them (Jordan 109).
PBS began developing science-based programs like Bill Nye the Science Guy, for preteen audiences, and The Magic School Bus, for elementary aged kids. These shows spent a half-hour on one topic instead of jumping from lesson to lesson; the way Sesame Street had done for years. This allowed older kids to get more involved in the lesson and take away a better understanding of a textbook chapter’s worth of material. Bill Nye based each episode on a scientific parody of a popular song at the time. The pilot episode was called “Smells Like Air Pressure” based off Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Including popular artists and pop culture in the lesson was something Sesame Street started years before, but it helped kids to better relate to the information being discussed.
Many of these same aesthetics can be seen in contemporary children’s television, with a modem twist to acknowledge important lessons for kids growing up today. When Nickelodeon introduced Dora the Explorer in 1999, they reinstated their aim as a children’s network to not only educate kids, but to prepare them for the future. Dora the Explorer is a show starring an animated seven year old Latina girl who invites the audience to participate in her daily adventures (Sigler 42). Throughout each episode, Dora uses several words in Spanish and English and children at home are encouraged to repeat them out loud, to help them remember (Sigler 43). Spanish is the second most spoken language in America today and by introducing it to kids at an early age, Nickelodeon has created a generation that will grow up without perceiving the language as “foreign”. Having a Latina heroine as the star of the show gives Hispanic children someone to relate to, but also makes kids of other races more culturally aware. Herb Scannell, the president of Nickelodeon, said the idea was to make the television screen look more like who’s sitting in front of it (Sigler 42). Since the success of Dora, Nickelodeon has created a Hispanic character for boys to relate to, in a show called Go Diego, Go. Other networks have begun to introduce shows with similar aims, like Disney’s Handy Manny, or PBS’ Maya and Miguel (Fernandez 68). These shows, and the shows they will inspire, will help to break down the cultural barriers between kids of different races, and teach them to be more accepting of children with different backgrounds.
Outside of the classic lessons that seem to be addressed in every generation of children’s television, like, the importance of looking both ways when crossing the street, or, how to tie a shoe, programs have reshaped themselves and the ways they deliver their information to keep up with the times. In 2005, when statistics were published about the childhood obesity epidemic in America, Sesame Street was one of the first to take action in the aim to better kids’ eating habits. Sesame Street’s writers decided that the beloved Cookie Monster, would no long live on a strict diet of chocolate-chip cookies, but instead, would highly approve of fruits and vegetables as a way to satisfy one’s hunger. Cookie’s classic “C is for Cookie” song was also rewritten to spread the message that “Cookies are a Sometimes Food”.
Other shows, like Nickelodeon’s Yo Gabba Gabba, emphasized the importance of a healthy diet, with the song “There’s a Party in My Tummy”. A party, as was stressed, that even the vegetables should be allowed to attend. Yo Gabba Gabba also encourages kids to be active, by asking the children at home to participate in a “Dancey-darice”, a dance taught slowly onscreen, and then performed to music (Dollar 69).
It is important when discussing Yo Gabba Gabba and its aim to educate, to mention the show’s use of repetition and its psychedelic aesthetic. With an “animation come-to-life” set design, similar to that of the 1970’s H.R. Pufnstuf, the creators are able to hold the viewers attention as they repeat simple phrases in a singsong fashion, like “Don’t bite your friends” (Dollar 72). While these repeated messages often sound robotic, as if they’re on the verge of brain-washing the viewers, studies have shown that repetition is a key factor in helping people learn. The show also uses quick cuts to hold kid’s attention. Sometimes there is even more than one message being delivered at a time, as the puppet-costumed actors sing a song about crossing the street, an animated face appears on the screen to remind us that “sharing is cool”. It seems as though the “crawl” at the bottom of the screen, that we have become so accustomed to seeing on news programs and CNN, has now made its way to children’s television. In this way, producers are able to convey as many messages as the screen allows, and steps are taken to ensure kids are getting these messages.
Many educational television shows have developed a format for how their information will be delivered in each episode. In Dora the Explorer, for instance, each episode is written to include all eight learn methods of Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences” theory. Gardner, a psychologist from Harvard, and a professor in education, says that children can learn in any of eight ways. These include: linguistic intelligence, or “word smarts”; spatial intelligence, or “picture smarts”; musical intelligence, or “musical smarts”, “people smarts”, “self smarts”, etc. These are all taken into account when the Dora writers begin writing the script and each one is given attention to ensure the message is conveyed (Sigler 43).
Some skeptics like Dr. Aric Sigman, a British psychologist, say that no television show is beneficial to children at any age. He believes educational television to be an oxymoron, but the improved test scores of Sesame Street fans alone, prove him wrong. Before Sesame Street, kindergartens hardly covered any material important for preparing the student for their academic career. The show planned to spend $770,000 in 2009 in the department of research and education to better teach the next generation (Guernsey 54). Over the years, children’s television has proven to both entertain and educate kids from diapers to high school. By looking at the aesthetics that carried through, i.e. bright colors, puppets, psychological advising, and music, one can easily see children’s television as a genre in itself. As America continues to grow more diverse, it is the job of the producers to instill in children the importance of accepting different cultures, and adapt them further as our own, and with shows like Dora the Explorer, Handy Manny, and Go Diego, Go, it’s obvious they have already begun.

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