Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I'm sitting on the couch, halfway watching television with the boys. We actually don't watch much television, and what we do watch is German television, recorded over the internet, played back through a computer. At some point, we decided that if the kids were going to watch television, they should at least be "improving" their German. This is a controversial position to take. Most people would say you can't improve your language abilities with television watching. I'm not really going to argue this point, because I'm not sure I disagree. The only thing I can say is that it can't hurt their German, can it? Oh, I guess that depends on what they watch.

The boys watch a smattering of German public television shows selected by Fritz for their content. (Sendung mit dem Elefanten, Sendung mit der Maus, Paula und die Wilden Tiere, Checker Can.) They also occasionally watch Oktonauten, which is an animated and translated Disney export. The peculiar thing about most of what they watch, is that it is NOT animated; and it's a lot of documentary and investigative shows. There's very little drama and very little emotional upheaval. It's facts, it's real people, it's processes and systems.

For Mattais (3 years old), watching this type of program might mean watching while a 6 year old narrates all the things her 18 month old sister can do. He's fascinated by these particular type of clips, probably because the narrator is just a little more sophisticated than him, but the topic is all stuff he's "conquered." Or Mattias might watch Tanja and Andre demonstrate a basic physical principal, such as here where they stand a glass of water on a piece of folded paper. Noah has recently been fascinated by Checker Can's investigation of how ski lift cabins slow down at the entry and exit points. (Even Fritz seems to get excited about this one, "Do you know this simple invention REVOLUTIONIZED the ski resorts?" he asks me.)

Beyond that, these German shows follow the basic format of classic composition: they tell you what they're going to tell you, then they tell you, then they tell you what they told you. Some shows spend time introducing the "characters" or "setting," even when they are, say, exploring how to operate a dog sled.

Now that Noah is in first grade, I'm especially tuned into these details. Noah's teacher (she's excellent at communicating pedagogical goals with us), regularly sends home lists of questions to discuss with Noah about what he reads and how he writes. It's difficult not to see the similarities between the way the German programs are structured and the pedagogical goals of Noah's teacher.

This seems like an amazing break-through (but maybe it's just me): television shows that are employing the same logical structure that my kid is learning in school for reading and writing! WOW!

Last weekend, I was at a get together with a mix of German/American families. Because I'd had this break-through epiphany about the television the boys are watching, I made the over-reaching assertion that German kids television is better than American kids television. Even in this "friendly" setting, Fritz gave me a look like, What are you doing?! Don't say that! Be quiet! Sure enough, somebody who doesn't watch German television, looked at me doubtfully and wondered if German television could possibly be better than American PBS Kids?

Well, I think it could be. But then, I hardly ever watch American television these days. So, really, what do I know? The last time I was at my parent's house, I eagerly cozied up to their television, all ready to introduce my children to the wonderful world of PBS Kids. For some reason, Wild Kratts was on a lot. At first I thought, "Oh, good, a show about animals, perfect! Maybe it'll be like Paula und die Wilden Tiere. But it was horrible! The perfectly interesting real people are made into cartoon characters. (Why? What's wrong with the Kratts brothers as they are?) There's a whole fiction storyline of good versus evil interwoven with information about animals. (Why? Why do already-interesting animals have to be mixed with an epic struggle of good versus evil?)

It made me angry because I thought to myself, here is an opportunity to teach children about something! To teach them about something they are already interested in (animals). Also, this is an opportunity to teach them in an organized, useful, real-world way. BUT someone (Hollywood?) went and made it into something silly and fake and illogical in its structure. Essentially: someone dumbed it down so much that there's barely anything educational about it.

I don't know. Maybe PBS's Dinosaur Train really is wonderful. (This is what I was told. You might know better than me.) Maybe it's more wonderful than the German age equivalent show Sendung mit dem Elefant. The truth is, I haven't seen Dinosaur Train. I looked it up on the internet, saw that it was predominantly (all?) animated characters and sighed to myself. Really, does everything HAVE to be animated? What does that say to our children?

The truth about television is that I don't know if the German television programming that we are watching is actually better than what's currently available on American television. Just like I don't really know if my kids are learning a lick of German from their television watching. What I DO KNOW, is that the stuff my kids are watching on German television now is way better than the shit I watched on American television as a child. AND maybe if I had watched more organized and meaningful television, I'd be better at communicating exactly what the problem is. Let me try to sum it up anyway:

Since there seems to be a lot of interest in improving our educational system, why not try to align what kids watch with what's expected of them in schools? Why can't programming be more educationally beneficial, both in term of its content and structure? Why can't it create role models and goals and aspirations for children that are real, not imaginary? Sounds kind of obvious, right? Maybe we should hold the television industry a little more accountable for education.

And maybe I'm totally wrong. Tell me.

Updated for clip links, per request:
Paula und die Wilden Tiere: Paula looks for wildcats here.
Checker Can: all about bikes here.
Sendung mit dem Elefanten: Tanja and Andre make potato prints here.
Sendung mit der Maus: podcast of how bicycle helmets are made here.


Amanda Meyer said...

We've pretty much decided 90% of the television programs offered are for entertainment purposes only, and we don't ask any more than that of them. Our kids only get 30 minutes a day of screen time (ANY screen), because entertainment is good, in small doses. (By the way, they always choose playing a game like Minecraft over TV for their screen time.) I think once we start expecting TV to teach our children, we are sending them a message about the passivity of learning.

Ann Wyse said...

I agree that having television exclusively teach our children would be horribly passive and wrong in so many ways! I guess I said that badly.

At the same time, I think if we (meaning the educated, skeptical crowd of parents) dismiss it entirely, we risk the ongoing slide of it's potential beneficial aspects. What if television programming was 50% informational and 50% entertainment? Would your kids be more likely to watch it? Would you feel better about them watching it? What if it reinforced what they were learning, instead of being disorganized and fanciful?

One thing is clear: as long as we don't demand or expect better of television programming, we're not going to get it.

life's a bear said...

Some PBS shows follow the format you mention. I can't stand them, but they are structured just as kids are supposed to learn. I love Super Why and Sesame Street is always a good, old standard.

I've taught a bit about the effects of media on children. All of the research shows (this is so obvious, it's ridiculous), that media CAN BE beneficial when parents are engaged in watching it with children and engage them in learning. I think that's how the best learning takes place anyway (again, so obvious).

We've been letting our kids play some games on our phones (rather guiltily). One is called Endless Alphabet. I love it because it includes new words for my 1st grader and helps my 3 year old get better at letters. But, I always try to engage while they're playing.

No point to this. But I do agree that we should demand better programming by not watching the crappy stuff (Disney Channel is THE WORST!).

And, we don't have a TV, so we can really control what the kids watch, which I love.

idena said...

My oldest watched the older Kratt brothers show. It was educational and no villains! So when my youngest saw the new show I let him watch it, thinking it was the same thing but in a cartoon version. I hate it. Hate. There really isn't that much on PBS I can count on like I used to when my older kids were young. Super Why was good for my youngest for a while, but it didn't take long for both of us to want to move on to something else.

I think it's great that your children watch German shows. I have zero research to back this up, but I think it's a wonderful way to continue their knowledge of the language.

Anonymous said...

Very wise post, thank you. Once more I am glad we are not exposed to American TV. With four kids, I would probably not have the power to win all the little daily battles over TV time. They are still happy with 'Wissen macht Ah', Sendung mit der Maus, Terra X - and some DVDs we carefully select.
BUT - what do you do when your kids watch that 'crap' at somebody elses home? For some reason, other moms find it totally normal that my eight year old joins theis son watching Star Wars - in full lenght, without even asking me before hand. My husband and I feel that we would like to have the responsibility over what our children watch - how do you explain this in a diplomatic way? To make it more difficult, we have recently moved and there are not too many other friends out there yet....so the influence from that family is pretty strong, yet I can't take away the only friend he has so far.
How have others handled such situations?

Pregnantly Plump said...

There is a storyline with Super Why!, but I really like it. It's Baby Plum's favorite right now, and I read one comment where the show is beneficial if the parent engages the child while they watch it. I do try to watch with Baby Plum, and he loves calling out the letters and trying to read the words for me. It's tied in to stories and nursery rhymes we heard as kids. It's animated, and it has some conflict. Like I can't tie my shoe, what should I do? Then they read a book and find out that they should practice tying their shoes to get better. Little Elvis likes documentaries, and learning about the history of things. Baby Plum is only interested if they're about animals.