PBS’ Super Why! Things My Kid Loves to Watch–With My Approval

Recently I attended a little PR event held by PBS at our local public tv station, KCET. (It used to be a film studio in the early days of Hollywood, back when DW Griffith filmed in Griffith Park and was based in Silver Lake.)

SuperWhy characters L-R: Alpha Pig, Wonder Red, Super Why, Princess Presto
SuperWhy characters L-R: Alpha Pig, Wonder Red, Super Why, Princess Presto

The purpose was to let blogging moms know that PBSKids has a number of shows that are educational, commercial-free, and vetted by numerous children’s math, science, and literacy consultants so when your kids 2-5 years old watch them, the experience isn’t brain rot. Instead, kids often learn quite a bit from the programs.

Now even though I fit the profile of a parent who’d be pleased to have my child watch PBS programs, it took my kid to turn 5.5 years old before he seriously watched any PBS shows on broadcast tv.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 2 3 avoid all screen time–whether it’s tv, computer (less likely), or video games. In addition, I also read a controversial Cornell study that found that tv watching in infants and very young toddlers before the age of 3 was strongly correlated to increased rates of autism. (Granted, the author of the study is an economist who teaches at a business school doing research in social science/early childhood development. A possible reason to discount the findings.)

I was one of those people who didn’t take any chances with my child. Only well after the age of three did my son watched Thomas the Tank, Bob the Builder, and Elmo dvds, but never any broadcast tv. (Bob the Builder, I love you and your solar sunflower drying sheds! So prosocial! No weaponry of any kind! Yes We Can!) In keeping with my Free Range Mama leanings, I believed my toddler should have lots of time to play outdoors and plenty of time for restful naps.

Mostly, my son’s daily routine as a toddler didn’t really allow for much tv watching anyway, as he was busy digging in dirt or playing with other kids at preschool. If he was at home with me we were reading, singing, learning ABCs, at the playground, or playing in some other way with blocks or trains. Or, you know, just hanging out and shooting the breeze.

So I came very late to the “sit down and watch broadcast tv programs for kids” bandwagon. And I’ll return to this later as it’s a crucial bit of information on PBS’ potential audience members and their parents, and the onset of what I’ll call StarWars-itis in little boys.

But what I learned about PBS Kids’ programming, specifically Super Why and Sid the Science Kid, was reassuring.

PBS TV Show executives & Super Why creators
PBS TV Show executives & Super Why creators

Each Super Why program is written and tested by PhDs in early childhood development and literacy acquisition. It’s further tested in preschool classrooms in real-life situations to measure how actual children respond to the programs. Are they engaged, attentive, eager to answer back to the questions Whyatt/Super Why asks? Do they jump up in excitement to name letters or shout out words they can read onscreen?

(I think the real-life testing is interesting–necessary, but also questionable in the sense that if teachers at my child’s preschool were showing children tv shows, even PBS tv shows, during schooltime, I’d take my kid out of there so fast their heads would spin. I just wouldn’t be happy with a preschool that included tv watching as part of the curriculum. And I say this as someone who sent her kid to a private preschool, for what that’s worth. So this is may be an ethical question or one relating to transparency: if, as I suspect, preschools where the shows are tested–on low-income kids? often but not always kids of color–agree to show PBS kids’ shows-in-progress as part of their school day, are they right to trade the children’s class time for allowing the children to be “guinea pigs” and have the shows tested on them? What agreement is there between the parents and PBS with regard to program testing? What arrangement is there between the preschools and PBS? Are shows debuted to children outside of class hours? It’d be good to know if the preschools received extra educational materials from PBS for the kids by way of compensating them for their time and input. And I’m also cognizant that children from low-income/low-educational attainment backgrounds are at a disadvantage because studies show they tend to have heard quantifiably fewer words than children from middle/upper class and highly-educated parent backgrounds. So if SuperWhy helps fill a literacy/vocabulary gap for low-income or non-English-speaking kids, then the research done is necessary because it’s done on the population it’s meant to serve. Though I am still wary of the possible opportunity to glean research at the expense of the kid’s time to play in other, possibly more productive ways.)

We were given an episode of Super Why on dvd and some instructional materials to go along with the show, and asked to see how both went over with our kids at home.

My son TOTALLY ATE UP Super Why.

1) he’s on a superhero kick. He invented his own superhero with self-defined superpowers.

2) he’s been reading here and there, off and on, for well over 18 months now.

3) he likes the call-and-response parts of the show

4) he loves the problem-solving aspect of the show and that by changing a part of the story, you can change the outcome.

That was very satisfying. He adored the Sid the Science Kid blue plastic microphone that came in the goodie bag containing all the instructional materials.

But. The instructional materials themselves? He couldn’t be bothered.

This I found puzzling. Having suffered through workbooks and my immigrant Chinese parents’ version of “summer school” as a child myself, I swore I wasn’t going to be a flashcard-wielding, practically home-schooling, almost veering on grade-grubbing “achievement”-obsessed typical Chinese parent with my toddler. We did a little of that, but I wasn’t going to push my son to do alphabet flashcards if we could learn it some other, more fun way.

What’s puzzling is that my son was the one who drove me to buy Kumon workbooks so he could work out whatever cognitive ya-yas he was going through. Having a stage where he dashed around the playground with a piece of chalk marking X’s everywhere like a small, slightly few-letters-off Zorro? Grabbing a pencil and making straight lines on every piece of paper? Kumon books have exercises where kids do mazes and draw lines and zigzags in preparation for writing letters. I didn’t pick that particular philosophy over another, I just looked for a workbook that had exercises for things he was already doing.

So my son’ll rip through much of these Kumon workbooks on his own. But when I sat down with him to go through the PBS-provided instructional materials–no dice. Not the least bit interested. (I didn’t present them as “work,” I presented them as enticing “extra toys from the goodie bag.”)

Oh, well.

But then again, he sat with me and read me “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” mostly by himself, so I guess something’s brewing in his brain.

As for Sid the Science Kid? Ever since we went to a birthday party where the hosts replicated the famous Mentos Geyser in a 2-Litre Diet Coke Bottle experiment, he’s all about hands-on learning. He eats it up. I’m convinced we’ll have to reconstruct the Egyptian pyramids using heavy stone blocks, pulleys, and inclined planes in our back yard soon.

So the upshot is that this summer, he’s been watching the occasional 1-hour block of Super Why and Sid the Science Kid shows on PBS. I’m delighted that he’s found them. I’m pleased there’s a commercial-free alternative.

And most of all, I’m glad Whyatt and Sid have taken some of the shine off  StarsWars-itis.

The lunchbox, the Jedi Symbol
The lunchbox, the Jedi Symbol

Here’s the thing: by age 4 and definitely age 5, exposure to Star Wars seems like a forgeone conclusion. Especially for boys. Now since I unleashed this meme on my own son, I have only myself to blame. But now I have something to leaven that obsession. Star Wars might present interesting moral questions which are themselves educational, but as my son’s interest intensified, I wasn’t really thrilled with the militarism and fascist undertones in the movies. But given that Star Wars is now thoroughly embedded in boy culture and a rite of boyhood (like Pokemon), I knew that to take away an imaginative world my son uses to connect with other boys of all ages (that should read, MY HUSBAND), would be to hold him back. Because according to my son, Thomas the Tank is for “babies,” even though the kiddoo still sneaks an occasional peek.

So PBSKids really walks a fine line, promoting their preschooler-appropriate shows to moms who may feel reluctant to get aboard the couch potato train with their infants due to autism or other fears, but not waiting so late that they miss cultivating 5 and 6 year olds who are venturing into the noisy, commercialized world of Star Wars, Ben10, Pokemon, and, just shoot me now, Transformers. They really have a narrow window of opportunity with Free Range Mamas like me, who aren’t so keen to hook up our kids to the tv in the first place.

I for one feel glad to have an ally in the overstimulated world of kids’ popular culture. I remember my own days with Sesame Street, Electric Company, Zoom, and The Muppet Show all very fondly. I’m looking forward to filling in the odd hour here and there by watching these shows with my kid.

So I’m genuinely glad to be reintroduced to PBSKids and their offerings. But I’d be even happier if I could view the complete shows online. alongside the fun computer games on PBSKids. (The Sid the Science Kid game with the birds and caterpillars you use to balance the levered birdhouses on a fulcrum? Hiro Protagonist would’ve played FOR HOURS had I let him.)

Find out why I prefer to watch Robot Astronomy Talk Shows, or just about anything, online–here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>