Monday, February 25, 2008

How To Avoid Barney-ization

When it comes to children's TV programming, I say, "Just Say No" to Barney.

The great thing about small children is that if you don't introduce them to crappy kids' TV, they won't know it's out there. Well, except for what they see and hear from other kids at preschool or on playdates.

Now before I go any further, I must acknowledge that my pediatrician, many others, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, are all down on TV for kids. They'll tell you no TV, period, before age 2, and very little after that.

I can also tell you that they don't have twins.

If you need to take a shower, make a meal, or do some other essential task that requires up to half an hour of peace, you may find yourself resorting to turning on the TV and planting your kids on the couch in front of it, like Late Blooming Mom sometimes does. (Within reasonable limits, a parent's gotta do what a parent's gotta do.) The key is to use your Tivo or DVR (god bless this life-changing technology), or your DVD player, and NOT leave the TV on regular programming, to babble at your offspring indiscriminately.

The other key to to spend a little time watching with your kids, interacting with them and the TV show -- and getting to know the stuff you're willing to let them watch.

That's where avoiding Barney-ization comes in. (And if you can avoid having an insipid, cloying purple dinosaur spouting Hallmark platitudes at your kids, shouldn't you?)

Thankfully, making your house a Barney-free zone is easier than ever these days ... because there's kids' programming on cable and PBS that DOESN'T SUCK! There's even stuff I enjoy watching.

Here's a very biased guide to what my kids have sampled and grown to love:

This one's on Noggin', a channel for preschoolers, and it rocks. It may be the funniest and cutest (without being saccharine) show for toddlers around. It features puppets including an energetic mouse (I think he's a mouse, anyway) named Jack, his music clubhouse in the back yard, where he hangs out with his best friend Mary, another mouse (whom he deems "super swell"), and his adorably antic dog Mel. They're in a band together. They play electric guitars and bass, and Mel plays drums with the enthusiasm of Keith Moon (check out his drum solo in the opening song every episode). The show incorporates a simple story each time, like helping a guest character learn a dance ... as well as music videos by regulars like Laurie Berkner. She sings songs for kids but they're not treacly, e.g., she'll sing about how much fun it is to splash in puddles in her rain boots. The musical styles vary -- from rock to country to yodeling -- and different instruments are introduced. Best of all, on a lot of the episodes, the Schwartzman Quartet drops by -- four mouse puppets who sing everything from barbershop to swing to the Beach Boys -- and their songs provide comment, like a Greek Chorus. The show has a sort of old Borscht belt sensibility to its humor, decidedly Jewish without saying so. This is the one I love perhaps even more than my kids.

Hooray for PBS. Okay, this is not one I adore, but it has the power of mesmerizing my son for a full half hour, and boy, that is worth something. Warning: adults mayl find it boring. But my son gets so calm and content watching it, I can sit snuggling him on my lap the whole time and that's delicious. The thing about Caillou is, it replicates much of what toddlers and preschoolers experience in daily life: it's about a four-year-old who learns to do things like make sandwiches, take turns with his younger sister when they play together, have a friend stay for a sleepover, ride a bike, etc. None of it is earthshattering. But it hits the relatability target. The language is simple, the animation and drawing style like that of an early reader book. And the Canadian family it depicts (I'm guessing Canadian by their accents) , while a little too perfect, provides a pretty good blueprint for what you'd like family life to be. This is a good wind-down show, before bath and bedtime. One caveat: the main character is bald -- I mean, we're not talking Charlie Brown, who at least has a wisp of hair. He looks kinda freaky. But my son doesn't seem to notice.

More kudos to PBS. The good folks there saw the CURIOUS GEORGE movie hit its preschool target resoundingly, and recognized it was worthy of a TV franchise. Back in the day when CURIOUS GEORGE was just a series of books, it was popular, but nothing like the phenomenon it is today. The main reason is that the TV show folk have figured out the key to George: he's not really a monkey. He's a three-year-old boy. So they have him do the kinds of things your average three-year-old does, and your average three-year-old will watch him do these things in rapt attention. At least, mine will. George, with his insatiable curiousity, manages to get into trouble a lot, but he also figures out smart ways out of it, and watching him use his brain to solve these problems is fascinating. There are times when I watch my kids and I can almost see the synapses firing when they figure out how to do something they couldn't before. Watching George is kinda like that.

Nick Jr. is the place to find Blues Clues. Small kids loooooove repetition and routine, and few shows make use of these better than Blues' Clues. Blue is an animated dog. She lives in a mostly animated universe, but the host of the show -- Steve in early episodes, Joe later -- is human. Every show involves Blue wanting us -- the audience -- and Steve/Joe to figure out something. Blue leaves 3 clues for us to find, designated by paw prints on various objects. Steve/Joe sings the Blues Clues song whenever it's time to start finding clues. Every time Steve/Joe finds a clue, Steve/Joe writes it down in a "handy dandy notebook" retrieved from the drawer of a talking side table. Once a show, Joe/Steve gets the mail from a talking mailbox and sings a song about it. The mail includes a video "letter" from real kids. My daughter can't wait for the arrival of the mail box and for Steve/Joe to sing the mail song. The show's use of repetition and routine is very comforting to kids, who like predictability and knowing what's coming next. While I find it kinda tedious after awhile, this is the perfect show to put the kids down in front of while I make dinner; I don't have to watch it with them, but I know they're well-occupied for the window I need.

5.Classic SESAME STREET videos
The fun of watching the old school Sesame Street, instead of just the new episodes on PBS, is that you can watch stuff with your kids that you watched too. We not only have the videos, we have the SONGS OF THE STREET CD-collection, featuring 35 years of highlights. So my kids know some of the same songs I sang when I was their age. They delight in the antics of Cookie Monster as he tries to "Beat the Time" and find things that rhyme. They love Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and I can't tell you how many times I've had to play Grover's "Over, Under And Through," which my son refers to as "Around."

We've also introduced our kids to THE SOUND OF MUSIC and, recently, OLIVER, on DVD -- never showing the entire movie, but rather, through the beauty of Scene Selection, showing them select songs. Our kids are obsessed with Maria and the Von Trapp children, and the other morning, my husband informs me, all they wanted to listen to for the entire car ride to school was "Be Back Soon" from OLIVER. For a few weeks, it was THE LONELY GOATHERD from SOUND OF MUSIC, followed by SO LONG, FAREWELL.

If you gotta listen to something again and again, I'll take Rodgers and Hammerstein over Barney anytime.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I completely agree. As a babysitter for years (I was working with children when Barney became big) I not a fan of Barney (or the Teletubbies-which in my opinion do NOT teach children ANYTHING).

I agree that PBS is a fantastic station. When the kids get older may I recommend Animal Planet, Discovery Kids, and Discovery Channel (of course just very specific shows). I'm all about the educational!!!