Thursday, November 17, 2011

Word World

Word World is one of the most clever ways I've ever seen to teach reading. It's an adorable animated series where each character and many of the things they encounter in the world are made up of the letters used to make that word. Take a look at the character Duck in the image above (they only have the name of what they are, which helps to make it less confusing for kids)... he is made up of the letters D-U-C-K. Sheep is made of the letters S-H-E-E-P, and so on. There are tons of recurring characters on the show, referred to as "Word Friends": Frog, Duck, Sheep, Pig, Bear, Bug, Ant, Fly, Cat, Robot, Shark... I could go on and on.

The great thing about this program is that it really helps foster the idea that all words are made up of letters. In fact, several times during the program, your child is invited to "build a word" with a cute little song. Then the characters show them how the letters come together, make sounds, and form words. 

There are also fantastic companion toys available, many are stuffed Word Friends, whose letters actually come apart so your child can build the word and make the friend whole again. Endlessly clever I tell you! I have a feeling that I would probably just find disembodied Word Friend parts all over my house, since my son just enjoys the destruction.

Word World currently airs on PBS stations, which are free over the air. There are also lots of DVDs available, as well as the toys I mentioned.

Toddler and preschool children will probably get the most out of this show, although babies may enjoy the bright colors and cute animated friends on screen. Older kids will likely be bored with the show itself, but may still benefit from some of the supplemental materials, like flash cards, for spelling and reading comprehension.

What your child learns:
  •  Reading Readiness: Learning that words are made up of letters, letters make sounds (phonics), spelling, capital and lowercase letter recognition, rhyming, vocabulary.
  • Problem Solving: Choosing the right word or letter, filling in blanks, arranging letters in a certain order.
  • Social and Emotional Development: Cultivating friendships, being helpful, social diversity awareness, knowing when to ask for help.
There is also a great site for parents and educators wishing to use this program in a more instructional manner, Word World for Parents and Teachers. There is also a bar across the top where you can bring your child to play online Word World games with their favorite characters from the program.

As a parent watching, I will admit that hearing the "It's time to build a word" song a few times in a row might be grating. However, I can't really think of any other major flaws. Some parents think Duck's voice is kind of annoying, but I think he sounds like Don Knotts. (Hey, it could be worse... he could be voiced by Gilbert Godfreid. I swear that guy does nothing but voice-over work these days. His voice makes me want to stick a sharpened pencil in my ear.) My son loves shouting out the words as they turn into the object. It actually makes me wonder if he knows more about reading than he lets on at two and a half.

I can still never get over just how clever of an idea this program is. I highly recommend it, especially for parents of pre- or early readers. It's an enjoyable way to teach phonics and other early reading skills. And it's just downright adorable!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Super Why

Here's a super hero team that any parent can get behind... although I'm still partial to Spidey and the X-Men, don't get me wrong! Super Why, also known as Wyatt, is a story book character who comes to the rescue of his story book world friends by using books with characters who are experiencing similar dilemmas.

Now, you're probably thinking, "I don't know of any story with a character named Wyatt in it," and you would be right. However, when I tell you more about Wyatt's family, you might recognize him... or at least his older brother. They reside in a giant beanstalk house, and his older brother's name is Jack. Jack is now a teenager (recently headed off to college, in fact), and Wyatt has taken over the job of being the rambunctious boy of the family.

Wyatt's friends, also known as The Super Readers, are also popular storybook characters. There is Red, who roller skates to and from Grandma's house now. Pig is the smallest of the famous three, and loves to build things. Finaly, there is Princess Pea, who is known for her sensitivity to a particular legume beneath her mattress. All four have special Super Reading powers: Pig turns into Alpha Pig, who is well versed in the alphabet. Red becomes Wonder Red, who loves to rhyme and find similar sounds. Princess Pea becomes Princess Presto, with super spelling powers. Wyatt becomes the titular Super Why, with the power to read using his Why Writer, which highlights words as they are read, and helps him zap the right word to complete a sentence.

In more recent episodes, a new character named Woofster has been added. He's Wyatt's new pet dog, and he has Dictionary Power, to help define words that are new to the Super Readers. What kid doesn't love a cute puppy?

Viewers are also encouraged to watch for "Super Letters", which Wyatt plugs into his Super Computer to give them the answer to their dilemma. The letters tend to pop up throughout the story, and are sparkly and red. My son gets quite excited when he spots them, and loves "yelling to Super Why" to "alert" him to their presence.

Super Why currently airs on PBS, a free over the air channel, and PBS Sprout on certain cable network providers and satellite services.

Suggested ages for this program are toddler to about age 6 or 7. I think older kids may find the reading lessons a bit below them, but may still benefit from spelling and sentence completion lessons. Younger viewers may not enjoy the reading aspect as much, but rhyming and finding the Super Letters will be a lot of fun for the 2-3 set.

What your child learns:
  • Reading Readiness: Identifying letters (both upper and lowercase), completing sentences with the correct word, context, rhyming words, spelling.
  • Social and Emotional development: Helping others, compassion, friendship, following directions, listening to others.
  • Critical Thinking: Identifying and solving problems, using context to answer a question, finding similarities between parallel situations. 
As a parent watching, you might find the pauses to allow your child to answer to be a tad on the long side, and some of the situations may be overly basic. There is a little humor thrown in for the adult crowd, in that some of the story book characters the Super Readers meet are obviously neurotic, but aside from that, there isn't going to be much you'll enjoy other than watching your child respond to questions.

It's a cute little show, without loud and obnoxious characters. That's always a plus in my book. The reading aspect of this show, I find, is almost unparalleled in other programs. Your child will love having a super hero of their own to identify with, and seeing characters they recognize from some of their favorite stories on screen is a special little bonus.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dinosaur Train

So your child loves dinosaurs. They also love trains. But never in a million years could you figure out how to combine the two interests. How about a few HUNDRED million years? Well, the folks at Jim Henson studios have remedied your problem with Dinosaur Train. Yes, it's dinosaurs who ride on a train. How simple!

The show is about the Pteranodon family, and you get the basic synopsis in the opening credits. Mrs. Pteranodon has four eggs in her nest. Three hatch, and she names them (from left to right in the picture above) Tiny, Shiny, and Don. Then the last egg hatches, and surprise! It's a baby T-Rex (who exclaims "what am I doing in a Pteranodon nest?!" in the short retelling). She names him Buddy, and promises they'll take a vacation to travel the world and meet all of the other dinosaur species.

The Dinosaur Train itself has a Troodon for a conductor, aptly named "Mr. Conductor", who calls out before the train enters a "time tunnel", which allows it to travel between the different periods/epochs/eras of the dinosaur ages. He's also a wealth of knowledge about dinosaur species, as he was the one who helped Buddy figure out he was a T-Rex based on his features.

Each segment of the show is divided by a visit from real-life paleontologist, Dr. Scott (Dr. Scott D. Sampson, a current curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History), who gives the children more facts about the dinosaurs they met in the animated segment of the show. He always closes with "get out, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!", encouraging children to explore for themselves to learn more about the world around them.

Dinosaur Train broadcasts on PBS, which is a free over-the-air channel. Check your local listings for times and channel lineups. There are also DVDs, books, and toys available to further your Dinosaur Train experience.  The program is also fairly new, so expect to see new episodes for a while yet. In fact, they just premiered "Dinosaur Train, Dino Big City" this past Monday, an hour long special with Dr. Scott actually appearing in his home museum instead of the usual green screen with dinosaur pictures. I'm sure that will come out on DVD soon, if not already.

Suggested ages for this program, I would figure preschool and up. The dinosaurs are brightly colored and friendly faced, but some youngsters might still be afraid of them. There are a lot of big words and science-y stuff being thrown around too that much younger children may not be interested. There isn't a lot of singing or music either. I think the appeal could extend well into the elementary years, if not even into middle school for budding paleontologists, especially with a real life role model such as Dr. Scott.

What your child learns:
  • Dinosaur species: Names of dinosaurs, their features, when they lived, where they were found, how they lived, how big they were.
  • Vocabulary: Words like "carnivore", "herbivore", "mammal", etc. and their meanings.
  • Science: How paleontologists work in the field, how fossils are made and preserved, features of the ancient planet, differences in animals, how to categorize animals based on features.
As a parent watching, you might learn some interesting facts that you never learned in school science classes (I never knew America was once two separate pieces of land! See that map Mr. Conductor is pointing at above? That was the US a few million years ago. Interesting!). The characters aren't too obnoxious. Sometimes when Mr. Conductor's mother rides along, you can see him get all flustered, just as many of us do as adults around our parents, especially when they visit us at work! As I said before, there isn't a lot of singing going on either, so the show doesn't get that obnoxious. Personally, I think Dr. Scott needs some pointers about how to not be so strange on camera and to not have dead-eyes, but that's just me.

I do want to add that this is a great program for families with adopted children, as that topic is often mentioned in reference to Buddy's role in the family. Mrs. Pteranodon often tells him that even though he's not the same species, and that someday he'll be much larger than all of them because he's so different, that they adopted him and love him just the same. No matter what, he's their child and they love him. They also take him to see a T-Rex family often so he can learn about himself and what he will grow up to be. This may be a great way for families to integrate their own adoptions into conversation with their children in a loving manner, and I really do love their treatment of the topic.

It's a cute concept that combines the two often-favored topics of trains and dinosaurs into one adorable little program that is also educational. Can't go wrong with this one!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Little Einsteins

Little Einsteins is a unique concept for a children's show, but one that I think many parents will appreciate more than others. You might be familiar with the Baby Einstein DVD series, which exposes your infant to classical music and art. Little Einsteins takes that concept a little further into childhood. Each episode focuses on one famous piece of music and one famous artist/art style/painting. Then they integrate the music and the art into the episode's story line.

There are five main characters in this program: Leo (red-headed boy), June (brunette girl), Quincy (African-American boy), Annie (blonde girl), and Rocket, their sentient rocket ship. Each child has a special skill they bring to the team. Leo likes to conduct music, and therefore he's also mostly in charge of the group. June likes to dance, and as such she wears a tutu and ballet slippers. Quincy likes to play instruments. Annie likes to sing. According to the Wikipedia Page, each of the characters is named after someone famous in a similar field: Leo after the famous composer Leopold Stokowski, June after famous choreographer June Taylor, Quincy after famous musician and composer Quincy Jones, and Annie after famous Jazz singer Anni Rossi.

The plot of the show is usually the same in that they are given some sort of mission to complete at the beginning (winning a race, saving an animal, helping a friend, etc.). The music piece is integrated in a number of ways, while the art piece(s) generally show up in the background. Children are encouraged to participate by clapping, dancing, patting their laps, singing, and answering questions. They are also introduced to music terms such as piano, pianissimo, allegro, and so on.

This program, while no longer being made new, plays on the Disney Junior block of the Disney Channel. Disney is a subscription channel, so cable or satellite will be required, please check your local listings for times and channels. There are also lots of Little Einstein DVDs and toys on the market to extend your child's experience.

As for age appeal, the characters on the show range in age from 5-8, but I would guess the appeal wouldn't last much past second or third grade for most kids. Since there is nice classical music, younger children would probably like it, especially since they are encouraged to dance and sing along with the characters. Normally, with something with so much music, I would recommend it for even infant exposure, but the characters do tend to shout a bit in this program, so it might startle a baby who is getting into the groove of the calm classical music.

What your child learns:
  • Music: Instruments, classical music, famous composers, music terms, singing, tempo and time, rhythm, reading music notes.
  • Art: Famous artists, famous artwork, colors, shapes.
  • Mathematics: Counting, fractions (counting time and tempo in music), simple addition and subtraction.
As a parent watching, you might get bored with the pauses the characters take to allow your child to answer their questions. The plots are simplistic, for obvious reasons, but it won't give you much to enjoy other than watching your child participate.

Overall, it's a neat concept for a kids show. However, it's simplicity and niche subject were what caused it to be cancelled. Your child may or may not mesh with the program, but it's worth a try to expose them to some culture that they otherwise won't see from children's television.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Yo Gabba Gabba

My first post by reader request! Yo Gabba Gabba... I don't even really know where to start. Parents on Yo Gabba Gabba can be divided into two categories: "Love it" (for whatever reason), and "Hate it because it's a toddler acid trip". Now, for me, I think the 70's "H.R. Pufnstuf" was way worse on the latter claim. This is just the 2000's version of that. Really. People in big costumes singing songs in styles popular in the day. It's that simple. I'll admit, initially, I was in the "this is too weird and it creeps me out" category, but after I gave it a chance (with prodding from an awesome set of parent friends of mine, they know who they are), I learned to love it. I'm a huge fan of DJ Lance now.

If you've never seen this show before, let me introduce you to the cast of characters. First, DJ Lance Rock, the guy in the orange furry hat. He's the emcee of Gabba Land. That boom box he carries also houses the figures of the five other critters, who come to life with his imagination. (Stay with me here, I promise, I'm not smoking anything!) The intro song introduces each characters... Muno, "He's tall and friendly" (who you may recognize from those car commercials where the kid's toys borrow the SUV), Foofa "She's pink and happy", Brobee, "The little green one", Toodee "She likes to have fun" (interjection: she's the blue cat thing... I think she gets the short end of the stick as far as the song goes), Plex "A magic robot". Easy enough. Still with me? Okay, good. Take another sip of coffee.The characters reside in "Gabba Land" and each have their own realm. Well, except for Plex. He has a charging station in between Foofa's and Brobee's realms.

The best part of Yo Gabba Gabba is definitely the guest stars. There are some regulars, and then a list dozens of celebrities long for the "Dancey-Dance" portion. The regulars include Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, who teaches kids to draw random things that then animate themselves to life, Biz Markie, who does "Biz's beat of the day" and teaches kids a fun beat-box noise, and Jack McBrayer who often appears with Paul Scheer to tell the "Knock-knock joke of the day". Jack Black and Weird Al Yankovic have both had entire episodes.  Amy Sedaris (of "Strangers With Candy" fame) was the tooth fairy for Muno in an episode. Other notable guests for "Dancey-Dance" segments have been Andy Sandberg, Rachael Dratch, Melora Hardin (Jan on The Office), Tony Hawk (who cheated and didn't actually dance at all, but skateboarded... a bone of contention for me), and Sarah Silverman, among others. There are also musical guests for the "Super Music Friend Show" portion, where DJ Lance gives the Gabba crew a giant TV to play a song, and they all dance around to it in between snippets of a YGG special music video. Musical guests include (but are not limited to!) The Shins (see the Super Music link above!), The Aquabats, Weezer (dressed as large bugs), The Ting Tings, and The Roots. Needless to say, all of this involvement is more for the parents, and it really does make the show way more awesome.

The show jumps around in small segments, between little stories with the YGG gang learning a lesson about being patient, cleaning up or sharing, musical interludes, segments I've already mentioned, and fun 8-bit animations featuring real kids who "like to dance!" (think original Nintendo or even Atari). There are also segments such as "Cool Tricks", where a real kid shows off a fun hidden talent like playing the piano, doing a hula, or even just balancing a spoon on their nose. The whole thing is wrapped up with DJ Lance reviewing what was done on the show that day, and then dancing to a remix of all the songs they sang.

I can't do this post without some video fun... here is my favorite song from Yo Gabba Gabba, where Muno raps about why he likes bugs so much (sorry for the poor quality, it's the best I could find that was able to be embedded):

Come on, that song is hardcore awesome. Admit it.

Yo Gabba Gabba plays on Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. at various times throughout the day and night. Both channels are only available by subscription to a cable or satellite provider, please check local listings. There are also tons of CDs, DVDs, and toys to expand your YGG experience. And recently, there has been a world wide live tour (attended and very highly spoken of by a friend of mine in Australia at the Sydney Opera House)!

Age appeal is pretty broad ranging, in my opinion. The music is fun for all ages, child and adult alike. The lessons might be best suited to preschool, kindergarten, or elementary school kids, but the coolness factor lasts long beyond those years. There are also fun tunes and bright happy colors for the younger viewers. My son enjoyed it from quite a young age.

What your child learns:
  • Social and Emotional Development: Emotions, patience, sharing, kindness, caring for the earth, empathy, cultivating friendships, eating healthy, jokes, hidden talents.
  • Mathematics: Patterns, counting, colors, shapes.
  • Music and Dance: Different kinds of music, dance moves, fun in movement, singing, different kinds of instruments, beat patterns.
  • Pre-Reading Skills: Story telling, remembering what happened in a story, reading encouragement.
As a parent watching, there are tons of things to get you interested, including your favorite bands and celebrities. If you grew up in the 80's or 90's, there is also a bit nostalgia factor between the 8-bit animation and random references like Plex playing a keytar. The voices might be a little annoying (Muno is kind of high pitched, and Brobee and Toodie are kind of whiny), but there is so much more to like than just the basic five characters. I implore you to give it a chance. Yes, it's weird for a kids show, but remember that kids like weird. Take it for what it's worth and I bet you'll really like it.

In fact, here's the official Yo Gabba Gabba YouTube channel... go and waste some time watching the awesome :) You can tell your co-workers that you're just listening to your iPod. Our little secret.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ni-Hao Kai Lan

Today we're going to check out "Ni-Hao, Kai Lan!", or as I like to call it, Chinese Dora. Kai Lan is another animated young girl, this time of Asian decent, who has anthropomorphic animal friends: Rintoo the tiger, Hoho the little white monkey, Tolee the panda-obsessed koala, and Lulu the rhino who flies around by a balloon tied to her horn (not pictured). Kai Lan lives with her grandfather, Yeye (which I'm guessing means Grandpa in Chinese). There is no mention of her parents. Kai Lan's format is similar to that of Dora the Explorer in that it has the character pause and ask your child for a response several times throughout the program, as well as repetitive catchy songs.

Kai Lan has a focus on Chinese language lessons. I'm not a huge fan of how they teach the Chinese. As an adult, it's hard for me to figure out what they're actually even trying to say. Dora at least says "(Spanish word) means (English equivalent)" or "the Spanish word for (thing) is (word)", so you at least have a chance to figure out some equivalencies. Kai Lan doesn't offer quite the same courtesy. There are sometimes whole sentences spoken in Chinese, and we the viewer are left to guess what was said. I've learned quite a bit of Spanish from the likes of Dora and Handy Manny, but as far as Chinese goes from Kai Lan, all I've picked up really is how to say hi ("ni-hao", it's in the title), the color red (sounds like "hong-suh"), how to say thank you (sounds like "shay shay"), how to say listen ("ting"), and numbers 1-3 ("Ee", "are", "sun"). If that's all a college-educated adult can pick up, I can only imagine how confusing the show is to someone who is still trying to get his head around saying words that start with S in his own native language.

There is also a big focus on emotions in this program. Kai Lan's friends tend to have problems dealing with their emotions, and usually it's a lesson from either Yeye or their little ant friends that helps them figure out (clap clap clap) what to do. (It's a song in the show, in case you were wondering.) Now this part, I like. Toddlers and preschoolers, heck, even adults, all have hard times realizing what their emotions are and how to deal with them. Sadness, anger, jealousy, etc. are all dealt with in easy to understand ways. They also focus on teaching about helping, sharing, and cleaning up after yourself.

Ni-Hao Kai Lan is shown on Nick and Nick Jr. channels, which are cable and satellite subscription channels only. Check your local listings for times and channels. There are also lots of Kai Lan DVDs, toys, and books available for purchase.

Kai Lan's appeal may be rather limited to toddlers and preschoolers. The animation is bright and happy, so easy for the younger crowd to be interested in, and there are catchy tunes to sing and clap along with. I think Kindergarteners may enjoy the program for the Chinese lessons, but only minimally for the actual story lines.

What your child learns:
  • Cultural Education: Chinese language and culture, including festivals and celebrations.
  • Social and Emotional Development: Caring for friends, dealing with emotions, empathy, taking care of your planet and toys, sharing, helping.
  • Mathematics: Counting in both English and Chinese, putting things in order, patterns, shapes, colors.
  • Music: Singing, clapping, rhythm games.
  • Pre-Reading Skills: Rhyming, remembering story details. 
As a parent watching, there's not going to be much that is enjoyable for you. The characters are kind of shrill and "yell-y", similar to Dora. The Chinese is hard to catch on to. There is no parental role model other than Yeye, and even he is only present sparingly. The language is simplistic, and the stories are clearly aimed at the youngest viewers. You're going to be bored and probably annoyed with this program. I know I am. Of course, that usually means my son adores the program, and Kai Lan is no exception to this rule. He loves shouting answers at the television when they're requested of him, and clapping along to the songs. Plus, I think he's starting to develop a thing for foreign chicks. At least it has some educational value, otherwise I'd probably not let him watch it. It's up there on the "hokey, fake" scale. Good luck.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Another old stand-by, Barney the big purple dinosaur. Barney is one of those shows you either love or hate. (And by hate, I mean WOW do people hate this show. I had no idea a show for children could be so vehemently disliked in my LIFE. Barney is apparently quite polarizing!) Believe it or not, next year Barney's show turns 20 years old, although the Barney character is even older than that, as initially Barney was a straight-to-VHS program. After the success of the video series, the show was produced for television and aired in 1992. 

The original format of the program was focused around a group of kids at school, whose stuffed dinosaur friend magically came to life to play with them. The ages of the children ranged from kindergarten to around fifth grade, and even an 8th grader came in from time to time (one of the younger girls' sister). Usually the kids were playing together after school, albeit without any adult supervision until Barney shows up. Then songs would be sung, lessons about bugs, homes, friends, and family would be learned, and Barney would become a stuffed toy once again when it was time for them to all go home. Some latch-key program, huh? The show is always closed with a singing of the "I love you, you love me, we're a happy family...." song we all know.

Later on in the series, the location shifts from the school itself to a tree house, which is supposedly outside of the school, and then to a local park and rec center shaped like a train caboose. In more recent episodes (although according to online sources, the show has not been produced new since 2009), the kids are even mostly phased out and Barney's dino friends take center stage. 

Barney's friends have been added slowly over the years. Baby Bop, the green dino, is a three year old girl, and has been around mostly since the start of the series. She also had some appearances on the original video series. She is known for having a yellow blanket that she adores and sings about, and wearing ballet shoes all the time. BJ the yellow dino is added about 6 years into the series. He is the seven year old brother of Baby Bop, which is interesting because he's obviously a different breed of dinosaur. (I know, minor detail, gotta suspend disbelief, yadda yadda yadda...) BJ is noted for pretending to be a superhero called Captain Pickle. Finally, towards the end of the series, Riff the orange dino is added. He is apparently a 5-6 year old cousin of BJ and Baby Bop, and loves to play music (I'm assuming the reason for his name). Towards the end of the series, the three friends of Barney become the focus of the series, with only occasional interaction with real children, and as a parent, I am not a fan. Originally, it was the imaginations of the children who brought Barney to life, and without them it's just another cheesy show with people in costumes.

Many of the songs from the Barney catalog have remained throughout the series. Baby Bop's "My Yellow Blanket" song, BJ's "I'm Captain Pickle", the "A Home is a Place to Live In" song, and of course the "I Love You" song are all standards that you will recognize from early on. 

The show is more of an educational program as well. It focuses on various topics, such as shapes, bugs, art, music, reading, and so forth. Sometimes, due to the fact that there are kid actors, the lessons come off a little preachy, and your child may get bored with those parts of the program. However, the characters break into song, and attention is once again grabbed.

Barney also still tours live, most recently with Sprout's Sunny Side Up Show mall tour, which we got to see come through Cincinnati late last summer. 

I think I was more excited than my son was, although he did shake Barney's hand (second picture). By the way, just for the record, I have lost 15 pounds since then. Thankfully.

Barney can be seen on your local PBS channel as well as on PBS Sprout. PBS itself is a free over-the-air channel while Sprout is a channel that is only available through a cable or satellite provider. As always, be sure to check your local listings for times and channels. There are hundreds of Barney videos and DVDs available as well, and I'm sure CDs. In fact, the Barney merchandising was quite feverish in the 90's for those who may have been too young to notice/remember/care. There are toys and accessories galore available for purchase by parents.

What your child learns:
  • Mathematics: Shapes, counting, simple addition and subtraction.
  • Art: Colors, how to use various art materials, how to make costumes and toys out of household materials.
  • Social and Emotional Development: How to be a good friend, empathy, feelings and emotions, how families are different and the same.
  • Reading: Alphabet, small sight words, Mother Goose rhymes, rhyming words, spelling.
  • Science: Bugs and their life cycles, animals, various simple experiements.
  • Music: Different instruments and their sounds, songs to sing along with.
  • Movement: Exercise ideas, dance.
  • Cultural Education: Spanish language and culture (more in earlier episodes when two of the girls were Mexican), countries around the world and their languages, cultures, and traditions (more in the later episodes).
Barney is a diverse show, and they make a point to make sure that many different cultures, ethnicities, and family styles are represented. It's a show that also teaches children to love one another and treat each other the way they want to be treated. Even if Barney bugs the crap out of you, that's a lesson I'm sure we all want our kids to learn.

Children of many ages will likely enjoy Barney as well. He is brightly colored and an upbeat, happy dinosaur, as are his other dino friends, so even the youngest children will be attracted to him. There is also a lot of music, which is fun for the little ones as well. However, even though older children are often depicted on the show, I don't see it being of much interest beyond the first years of grade school, if even that old. Barney has a somewhat childish reputation, so your older child may feel like it's more "for babies".

As a parent watching, I'll admit, there isn't much for us to like. The kid actors are remedial at best for most of the series, and there's very little if any adult supervision shown for us to relate to or interact with. The premise of the show is one of the more fanciful ones as well, so it might be tough for parents to get on board. You either have to have grown up with Barney, or have a very high tolerance for mundane children's songs and situations. If you fall into neither category, then I suggest you skip it, although it is one of the more educational programs. I, for one, like the older versions of the show much better than the more recent ones, but I can tolerate it for the most part if I tune it out. As you can see from the pictures above, I'm also not above giving a hug to a happy six and a half foot purple dinosaur either.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Olivia is about a young girl... er, pig... and her life. She is a high energy girl who loves the color red and is very annoyed by her "little bother" of a little brother, Ian. She has a baby brother, William, as well, and they all live with their two parents. The mother is a party planner, who apparently works from home, which makes for great parent-child interactions, and provides an outlet for some more parental-aimed humor.

Olivia seems quite worldly for a child, and at least once an episode, she spouts a "rule of life, number...", such as "headbands make you feel faster." (For more Olivia Rules of Life, visit the unofficial Facebook page.) Olivia has a best friend, Julian, who is a dark skinned, heavy set boy pig, and a friend/foe (she fluctuates between the two), Francine. Olivia prides herself on being a life expert, and often imagines herself in various situations... a fashion designer, a ballerina, a famous singer, a magician, a doctor, etc. depending on what is going on in the episode.

I'm unsure what age Olivia is "supposed" to be, but she at least attends school with a teacher, Mrs. Hoggenmuller. I'm guessing it's either kindergarten or first grade. Her brother Ian appears to be only a year or so younger. Her appeal ranges from older infants to probably kindergarten or first graders. And, while the show is about a girl pig, she does have appeal for boys too (as evidenced by my son's infatuation with her). I think having the range of characters helps.

The series is based on a series of books by Ian Falconer, who describes her as "Eloise, if she were a pig." There are also books based on the TV series available. I like when series' come from books, because then you have a separate medium of entertainment for your child with characters they already know and love.

This show airs on Nick Jr. at various times during the day and night. Nick Jr. is a channel available only through cable or satellite providers, so please check your local listings for times and channels. There are also DVDs available for purchase, as well as on Netflix on-demand.

What your child learns:
  • Social and Emotional Development: Caring for friends, neighbors, and belongings, being a good friend, empathy.
  • Imaginative Play: Pretending to be someone else, dress up (there are Olivia dress up toys available for purchase)
Needless to say, it isn't the most educational show. Your child probably won't learn much from it directly, in fact. They will probably, however, find it quite enjoyable and hilarious.

As a parent watching, you may notice that the parents on the show are some of the least aloof kids television parents out there, and that they speak quite frankly with their children. That's something I, personally, really enjoy. The voices aren't too obnoxious either, another oddity in children's programming. Olivia, as a character, is pretty even keeled and doesn't yell much, if at all. Olivia's Rules of Life may even remind you of something adorable and off-the-wall your own child has said. Basically, you're not going to be too annoyed with the show, or how the characters act. Even the "annoying" little brother is pretty tolerable.

If you're looking for highly educational television, this sure isn't it. If you're looking for something calm that may keep your kid entertained long enough for you to shower or get dinner started, Olivia may just be perfect. Additionally, if you want a show that has lots of real-world accessories, this is a great show as well. The library of books along with the Olivia Dress Up Chest that is available (although only for girls, unless you're cool with your son sporting jewelry and red skirts), this is a great program for you as well.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Blue's Clues

Today we will look at Blue's Clues. I'm actually a little ashamed of myself that I don't have this in my header. What was I thinking? Blue's Clues is another one of those children's television staples. It's been around for 15 years. Yeah, you read that number right. FIFTEEN. Feel old yet? No? The first preschoolers introduced to Blue's Clues are in college now... yeah, time to apply for your AARP card now, huh?

Blue's Clues is a cute little green-screen animated show about a puppy named Blue and her live-action friend Steve Joe. Blue will usually want her friend to figure something out, so she leaves paw print clues around the house to help him decipher what she wants. Then, Steve Joe will sit down in the "thinking chair" and consider the clues in various combinations until he gets the right one. Along the way, there are puzzles and problems galore to solve, and Steve Joe urges children to answer for themselves by asking questions and giving long pauses to give the children a chance to shout their answer at the television. The creators of the show said they were hoping for a game show sort of feel, but directed towards a preschool audience.

If you're not familiar with the program, you may be wondering why I seem to have a sort of Blue's Clues Turrets going on in this post. About halfway through the series, Steve (the character pictured at the start of the post with Blue the dog), played by Steven Burns, leaves the show. They did a nice transition from Steve to Joe (played by Donovan Patton and pictured just above in the orange shirt) for the kids, where Steve goes off to college and leaves his brother Joe to take care of Blue and his house. But us parents, we didn't want to let go nearly as easily. Some parents I know now actually were one of the Blue's Clues kids who grew up with the program. Blue will forever be Steve's dog to US.

Which team are YOU on?

Aside from the Steve/Joe issue, there are various other recurring characters on the show. Mr. Salt and Mrs. Pepper live in the kitchen, with children Paprika and Cinnamon (who were both added after Mrs. Pepper had a pregnancy, first Paprika and then Cinnamon, who remained a baby). There's Tickety the alarm clock, Side Table Drawer, who holds the "handy dandy notebook", Slippery the soap, Shovel and Pail who live outside in the backyard, and Mailbox who delivers the mail by stretching in on a scissor lift through the window after an awesome fanfare and a song from Steve/Joe. Periwinkle is a cat who lives next door to Blue, who used to live in the city. Blue also has friends from school, including Magenta (a pink dog), Green Puppy (take a guess), Purple Kangaroo, and Orange Kitten. I guess at some point in the naming process, they got tired of being creative.

Blue's Clues airs on Nick Jr. at various times throughout the day. Nick Jr. (formerly Noggin) is a cable/satellite channel, so check local listings for times and channels. There are also tons of DVD's (and VHS if anyone still has a functioning VCR and/or remembers what one is) available to rent or purchase, including a few full-length features. According to online sources, the show was officially ended in 2006, so all the episodes you see on television now are reruns. A spin off called "Blue's Room", where Blue is a puppet who actually talks instead of sing-song barks, was made briefly, but is also no longer being produced. (Thankfully, because as a Blue's Clues purist myself, talking Blue creeped me out.)

The lessons taught in this show are broad-ranging. Your child will likely never get bored with this program because there's a lot going on during each episode. As far as age ranges though, kindergarten is probably as far as this show will be interesting. Parents watching will likely either be bored out of their minds, or if you're like my husband or me, will be up doing the silly dances that Steve/Joe does and annoying your children.

What your child learns:
  • Mathematics: Shapes, counting, addition and subtraction, fractions, sorting, matching.
  • Social and Emotional Development: Caring for friends and neighbors, empathy, feelings, sharing, helping.
  • Art: How to draw specific objects, colors.
  • Critical Thinking: Problem solving, puzzles, finding clues and using them to figure something out.
  • Music: Fun songs, writing music (in the "Blue's Musical" episode), singing along.
Overall, it's a fun little educational show for preschoolers and kindergarteners. Parents may find their own reasons to love it, maybe they even grew up with it themselves, or they may just be glad it only has a 22 minute running time. If you need help loving it, here's a fun video of what Steven Burns is up to now (with Stephen Drozd of the Flaming Lips, from another Nick Jr. show "Jack's Big Music Show"), a song entitled "I Hog the Ground" about groundhogs.

Edited to add: I finally found an embed code again for Steve Burns' song! Score!

Steve Burns: I Hog the Ground

michelle | Myspace Video

(There was also a fun 19 minute podcast at The Moth back in October 2010 with Burns talking about being "fameish", which is like famous but not really... but apparently they don't archive more than seven months back, so it seems to have been erased from the internet. If anyone finds it, or has it downloaded somewhere, please feel free to share. It was epic.)

Edited to add: I FOUND THE MOTH INTERVIEW!!! (Insert Kermit The Frog flailing YAYYYY! here.)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sid the Science Kid

My first post of a show not in my header... come on, you know you're impressed!

Today we're looking at Sid the Science Kid. This show is a Jim Henson production. Yes, the very same Jim Henson who came up with the Muppets on Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, etc. However, this is a very different animal than your run-of-the-mill Muppet show. Sid the Science Kid is 100% CGI, or Computer Generated Images. (And now you know what CGI means if you didn't already!) The other thing this show is... motion capture. This is initially what creeped me out about the show, and why I didn't start watching it until recently. MoCap rubs me the wrong way sometimes. But, after watching it for some weeks now, my son has fallen in love. It still took me watching the "making of" video before I could stand to watch it.

See, now you feel better about it too. Science is fun. Or you may be more freaked out than before seeing Sid as a skeletal machine around a tiny woman, I don't know.

The story follows Sid, "the kid who wanted to know everything about everything", as he goes through his day. We start out usually in Sid's home with his parents and younger brother. Sid stumbles upon a scientific problem and asks his parents about it. They start his lessons by giving basic information, like a parent usually does, but then it's time for Sid to go to school and con his teacher Susie into making her lesson plans all about what he wants. I will interject here that one of the things that still bugs me is that apparently Susie never has her own lessons planned and lets the kids do whatever they want. As a former teacher myself, I know child-led learning is important, but so is having lesson plans. I guess it works for her though.

Sid rides to school with his mom, and finds his friends Gerald (pink skin), Gabriella (curly red hair), and Mae (glasses). He then introduces his idea of the day to them, and they follow along in wanting to learn all about it. Susie calls everyone in for "rug time" with a song, and they share what they want to learn about. Susie then leads them in a scientific experiment, encouraging the kids to observe, compare, contrast, and write in their science journals. The show usually interjects film of real kids performing the same experiments and writing in their journals here. That's a feature I really like, because it shows your child that they can do these very same things at home on their own. After this, the kids invite her to sing a song for them about their daily topic, she invites them to play with their new ideas outside, and then Sid's grandma picks him up from school. Sid's grandma usually shares a story on their ride home of some time in her past that she had experience with the topic which Sid is learning about. They get home, play with his family for a little while, and then Sid gets ready for bed and reminisces about his day and what he has learned.

This show is aimed at kids in high levels of preschool all the way through elementary school. The appeal is obviously there for younger kids too, as my two year old enjoys the singing, dancing, and fun voices of the characters. Kids older than elementary may find this show a little on the slow side though.

The program airs on PBS channels, which is available with any basic over-the-air television. Check your local listings for times and channels. There are also plenty of DVDs available for travel and non-air time watching.

The educational value of this show is pretty obvious. It teaches your child about the scientific method, and about how our world works. Your child will also likely walk away with some big "science" words like "estimation", "hypothesis", "experiment", and so on.

What your child learns:
  • Science: How to follow the scientific method, testing, experimenting, journaling their experiences, making guesses, how the world works, nature, astronomy, inventions, testing, compare/contrast, asking questions, and science terminology.
  • Social and Emotional Development: Family bonds, being a good friend, listening to a teacher, caring for the world around them, feelings and empathy.
 As a parent, really the only thing that draws me to this show is knowing the science behind it (see video above). Other than that, I do enjoy that they show real children doing the things the animated characters are, so that it makes the program easy to relate to. It also gives me great ideas for things to do with my future homeschooling. As a child watching, the bright colors, happy animation, and fun personalities of the characters are attractive, and for the most part, younger kids won't be able to detect that they're actually learning something by watching. It's worth a watch or two. As long as it doesn't make your skin crawl.

Monday, June 27, 2011


Caillou (pronounced "kai-you" for you newbies... don't feel bad, I called him "kally-oh" at first) is one of those shows that you either love it, or you hate it. I will openly admit, initially I was in the "hate it" camp. However, what I like and what my two year old likes are sometimes two different things. And so, I watch Caillou. He's not as bad as I once thought.

Caillou is a four year old boy who experiences things in life. Caillou has a family consisting of a mom and dad (whose names are not expressly mentioned, however upon digging I found out they are technically named Doris and Boris... I don't blame them for not sharing) and a two year old little sister named Rosie. We also meet Caillou's grandma and grandpa, who I have deduced to be his dad's parents. He also has a pet cat named Gilbert. Depending on which season you watch, you may or may not encounter puppet characters based on his pet and favorite toys (Gilbert and toys Rexxie and Teddy). Caillou attends "play school" aka preschool, and has several friends, including Clementine, twins Jason and Jeffrey, and Leo. He also plays with his older neighbor Sarah on occasion.

For the most part, the show's design follows the original books' layouts in terms of look. Borders of the screen are blurred in a way to mimic illustrations in the books, and the colors are almost a watercolor effect. The show is narrated by an older woman, as if she were reading a story. In the newer versions, the stories themselves are broken up by songs about siblings, friends, and helping... that sort of thing. However, in older versions there are generally two or three stories that are interconnected by topic.

The show itself isn't deeply educational. Caillou learns things about his world in much the same way your child does. He goes places with his parents, he learns things in school, and he just lives life. Most of the lessons your child will take away are those dealing with friendships and the way the world works. He also encounters different people doing different jobs around the city: police officers, postal workers, firefighters, construction workers, etc. Caillou often imagines himself in these roles as well.

One thing I hear a LOT of my parent friends complain about when it comes to Caillou is his voice. During the newer seasons, the voice actor changed, and with that change came a change in the character of Caillou himself. The newer voice actor makes Caillou a lot more whiny of a child than in older years. Along with this, his parents seem to dote on his whines a lot more than they used to, which as a parent watching, can really make you want to reach through the screen and remind them that they are indeed the parents and therefore the parties in charge. They really don't need to cave into what their four year old is demanding of them.

Another often-heard complaint I hear about Caillou is that he is bald. I did some digging on my own (back when I was dying to know what his parents' names were), and found out that the reason behind Caillou's lack of follicles is because that the series is based on a series of books in which Caillou is actually younger than his television counterpart. Younger children tend to have less hair, and therefore, in keeping with the book style, TV Caillou has no hair either. While it's a valid explanation, I still think they could have given him at least a tiny hint of hair, like Charlie Brown, who at least has those strange bangs.

The show does a great job of showing tight family bonds, something I'll admit I don't see a lot of in kids television. The family genuinely likes spending time with one another, and Caillou loves playing with his little sister. Is it realistic? Not a chance. But, as we often tell our children, it's fun to pretend.

Caillou is shown on both PBS and Sprout channels. PBS is available on basic television, while Sprout is only available through cable or satellite providers. Check your local listings for times and channels. I know for a fact that currently Sprout shows an hour of Caillou daily at noon (including weekends) EST, followed by Sesame Street. There are also lots of Caillou DVDs, many of which are available on Netflix instant play. 

What your child learns:
  • Social and Emotional Development: Empathy, caring for friends, neighbors, and family, learning about emotions, valuing family.
  • Learning about Society: Different jobs, places to go, how to stay safe in public, school life.
  • Fostering Imagination: Pretend play, dress up, picturing the future, etc.
There isn't much else I can say about Caillou except that my son is utterly and inexplicably drawn to this program. Recently, putting Caillou on my Netflix instant was the only way to derail a massive "Daddy left without me" tantrum. I'm not sure if it's the soft watercolors, the soothing grandma-esque narrator, or what, but it worked. As a parent, it's not my favorite show, but I'm getting to the point of tolerance after a year and a half of watching it. You may not be so lucky, so consider yourself warned. Your child may just fall in love with it to spite you. Good luck.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Imagination Movers

Ah, the Imagination Movers. Four of the coolest guys in children's television, hands down (sorry Wiggles). We had the privilege of seeing them in concert and having floor seats. They definitely understand that just because it's a kids TV show, that doesn't mean you can't be fun for the grown-ups watching too. In concert, they played snippets of songs by Aerosmith and Kiss. Enough said. If you want to see what a concert of theirs is like, I'm linking to my personal photo album for your enjoyment (yes, they even let you bring in cameras!). Now, on to the show itself.

Imagination Movers is a live-action program about four guys, Dave, Rich, Smitty, and Scott, who have a business in which they solve problems for others. They also have a neighbor Nina, who originally worked down the hall for her Uncle Knit Knots (who was later phased out of the program) but now works as a photographer for the local newspaper. There is also a puppet, Warehouse Mouse, who is only understood by Smitty, and sometimes helps solve problems... and also causes a few of his own. Along the way, the Movers sing songs about various subjects, including how to "Brainstorm"... "Reach high, think big, work hard, have fun!" Their music is more of an Alternative Rock style than your plain old kids music, so more fun for the adults to listen to. I have four of their CDs, and not just for my son.

Each of the four Movers has their own special tool to help them solve problems. Rich, the drummer, has magical "scribble" drumsticks, with which he can draw his ideas or make notes in mid-air. Scott, who plays keyboards and mandolin, has "Wobble Goggles", which he uses to see through walls, doors, and other various objects to help him get a better focus on the problem at hand. Dave, the bassist, has a magical hat that holds endless items and his own inventions to help with problem solving. Smitty, the guitarist in the cowboy hat, has a magical journal that acts as a sort of Wiki for any topic they might need more information about during their quest to solve a problem. Nina isn't usually armed with any particular tool (although sometimes she comes equipped with her camera), but she helps solve problems using just her own common sense. In fact, for all the work she does, it's a wonder she's not "Mover Nina" by now. They really ought to have her on payroll at this point.

There are also a slew of guest stars on this program, who portray characters in need of the Movers' assistance. My favorite was "Baker Ben", played by TLC's Ace of Cakes himself, Duff Goldman, who needed help remembering the recipe for his "best muffins ever". Duff even got to rock out with the Movers on a couple songs. Tony Fatone was also seen last season as a baseball player who had a game at the same time as his own son's birthday party.

Their music, as I've mentioned, is more in the style of Alternative Rock. However, they do have songs in other styles, spanning from rap, Irish folk music, country, and ballad. The topics of the songs include days of the week, animals on the farm, how to not be afraid of the dark, mixing colors, loving your mommy, and being a good friend. The lyrics are fun, upbeat, and catchy. In fact, I'd guarantee that you will be humming them long after the show is over.

Imagination Movers is exclusively on the Disney Channel, usually during the Disney Junior lineup. Disney is a channel that is only available through cable or satellite providers, so please check local listings. As far as I'm aware, they don't have many DVD's (I'm only finding two on Amazon), but they have six CDs dating as far back as the days before they were discovered by Disney.

Part of the appeal of Imagination Movers, for me, is their past. The foursome is from New Orleans, Louisiana. Dave Poche, Rich Collins, Scott Durbin, and Scott "Smitty" Smith all have cool pasts that they share openly with their fans. They are all survivors of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, Smitty was a firefighter who helped rescue people during the floods. Scott is a former elementary teacher. Dave was an architect, who has designs all over the Louisiana skyline, including ones for the rebuilding effort. Rich was previously a journalist. The group originally came together to write songs for their own children (Smitty is the only non-parent of the group), and to "brainstorm" a new kind of kids program for local television. They were so popular locally, that they popped up on Disney's radar. However, even now that they are a Disney product, they still made a point to film exclusively in their hometown of New Orleans. They were even given the honor of singing the National Anthem at several of the Saints football games.

They definitely take the time to thank their fans, and acknowledge that they wouldn't be where they are without them. Their Facebook page is always packed full of behind the scenes pictures and videos for the fans. During the concert, each of them took the time to come out to the audience and give kids high fives and head pats (my son got both from Scott!). They also have a website with information on upcoming tours, merchandise, band info, pictures, a fan club, and more. I think it's neat that they behave more like a band than kids television stars, as it gives kids their own rock idols without parents having to worry about what messages they take away from the music they're listening to.

What your child learns:
  • Problem solving: How to think a problem through, coming up with solutions, and implementing ideas.
  • Music education: Singing along, different musical styles, dancing.
  • Social and Emotional Development: Being a good friend and neighbor, caring for animals and the environment, feelings and emotions.
  • Health: Eating healthy foods, exercising, going outside to play, using your body.
This show has a much more broad demographic than other kids shows. With the musical overlay, it appeals to even young infants. In fact, for a few months of initial teething, Imagination Movers was the only thing that would calm my son down as a fussy baby. The problem solving aspect can range from early preschool years all the way into the elementary years. The music itself is perfect for any age (as even I rock out to it on occasion). 

While education isn't the main focus of the program, there are lessons hidden in the fun antics of the Movers and their music. I think this delivery makes learning more fun for kids, because as the Movers remind us, having fun is part of learning, and you learn more when you're having a blast doing it. As a parent, the Movers know from personal experience just how annoying some kids music is, and they work hard to make their music fun and enjoyable for us too. I adore them (and have a little bit of a mom-crush on Scott and Smitty, haha) and my son loves dancing to their songs. What more could a parent ask for? Rock on!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Handy Manny

Handy Manny is another show that will teach your child Spanish. The format is slightly different than Dora, in that Manny uses his Spanish in conversation, and then repeats exactly what what was said in English. Manny is also far less loud, demanding, and annoying than Dora too, so far more tolerable for parents.

We actually started watching Handy Manny while I was still in the hospital after having my son. At 36 hours old, my son wasn't super interested. But, having limited channels to choose from in the hospital, Disney seemed the most entertaining, and so Manny became a part of our family. As my son got older, Manny became a staple character. We have several of the toys already, and he squeals "It's Manny!" with joy when it comes on our TV. However, viewings of Handy Manny have become fewer and further between because of the reformatting of Playhouse Disney into Disney Junior. Disney Junior will soon be its own channel (slated for a 2012 introduction), so hopefully having a 24 hour lineup, Manny will reappear in our house more often.

Handy Manny is about a handy man, named Manny (obviously) who lives in a town called Sheetrock Hills (which I can only guess is somewhere on the West coast, since he can drive to the ocean and the desert). He is voiced by Wilmer Valderrama, aka Fez from That 70's Show, which is one of the things that drew me to him in the first place. Manny has a box of talking tools: Pat the hammer, Dusty the saw, Squeeze the pliers, Rusty the monkey wrench, Turner the flat head screwdriver, Phillipe the Philip's head screwdriver, Stretch the tape measure, and more recently Flicker the flashlight. Manny makes a point that while each tool has a special job to do, they must work together in order to get the job done "todos juntos". He is usually called up to fix something for someone in town, and the tools end up learning a lesson about themselves or working together while doing the repair.

Manny also has several neighbors whom he fixes things for and interacts with. Mr. Leonard Lopart has a candy shop next to Manny's repair shop on the town's main street. Some parents thing Mr. Lopart is a "little light in the loafers", as he is not married, dotes on his cat Fluffy like a child, and has a strange connection to his mother. I just think he's an overgrown momma's boy. Mr. Lopart refuses Manny's help most of the time, even when he's obviously in need of assistance from someone with opposable thumbs (i.e., not Fluffy).

Then there's Kelly, the owner of the local hardware store that, while in a tiny storefront, seemingly has everything you could possibly want from even a Walmart. Her endless stock even impresses the tools (and upsets Turner, as well it should!). As a parent, I'm hoping for the day Manny and Kelly get to go on a date. Neither is married and they obviously have a lot in common. Besides, they could have the biggest conglomerate in Sheetrock Hills in their wedlock. However, I don't think the makers of the show are on the same wavelength as us parents. Sigh.

We also see Manny's grandfather "Abuelito" a lot of the time. Abuelito has stories of Manny's childhood, as well as that of his sister Lola (who we also see a lot of, Manny is quite the awesome uncle to her two children). We don't know why Manny doesn't have a mother or father, as they are never mentioned even in discussions of Manny's upbringing. We see a photo of Manny's mother once, but that's it. He never talks about her.

Other characters include the town's Mayor Rosa (yes, a WOMAN in charge, people!), Jackie the city worker, Mr. Kumar the china shop owner, Sheldon the shoe salesman, Carmella the town artist, and countless others.

This show is animated and is shown on the Disney Channel during their Disney Junior segment in the mornings. Disney is a channel that is only available through cable or satellite providers, please check your local listings for times and channels. However, there are several full-length Manny features available on DVD and BluRay, so even if you don't get him on TV, you can still easily enjoy Manny at your family's leisure.

While the show is intended for younger audiences, I think it will have broader appeal up into the early elementary school years because Manny isn't a child himself, and the situations he gets into aren't childish either. Also, I don't think you'll have to worry if you only have daughters, because there are plenty of female characters in prominent roles to provide good models for girls as well.

What your child learns:

  • Cultural Education: Spanish language, Hispanic holidays and festivals, festivals and holidays celebrated by other cultures, Hispanic culture.
  • Problem solving: How to work together to complete a task, which tool to use for what job.
  • Social and Emotional Development: Caring for friends and neighbors, empathy, feelings, caring for the planet by saving energy and caring for nature.
  • Mathematics: Measuring and counting, quantity differences.
  • Tool education: What each tool is called and what it does, when to use a tool, and how to take care of them. This is also more extended in the Disney shorts "Handy Manny's School for Tools", in which more tools are introduced but are not present in the main program. 
While this isn't the most supremely educational program out there, I do like the simple lessons it teaches as far as caring about the world and people around you, as well as the delivery of the Spanish language throughout the show. There is very little "the Spanish word for... is..." and more conversational Spanish while repeating the same in English. I think that makes it easier for younger audiences who are still working on their primary language. Manny is calm and level-headed, so I think that sets a good example for children to not be as excitable during times when they must use their brains to solve a problem. Such a lesson was even the focus of an episode where Manny is stuck in an elevator without his tools, and he reminds them that in an emergency, being calm is the first and most important step.

As a parent watching, you're not going to be annoyed out of your wits (except perhaps by the whining of Rusty the wrench, who is voiced by the guy who played Ray Romano's whiny cousin on Everybody Loves Raymond, as well as countless other whiny roles across television that you'd recognize him from). For the most part, the characters speak at normal levels and are even-keeled.

Overall, I enjoy Manny, as well as his growing list of special full-length episodes. My son likes playing with the talking tool box and his Manny doll (yes, my son has a doll), and when we manage to catch the program, he watches intently. It's a win in our house. Now if only it wasn't on at ungodly hours of the morning so we could watch it...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dora the Explorer

Dora the Explorer... where do I start on this one? Well, first I will tell you that before I had a child and just had nieces and nephews, I swore up and down that my child would not watch this show. Dora was (is) annoying. However, that went out the window rather quickly, and not by choice. My son FORCED me to watch this show. He loves playing along with Dora's endless questions. I still think she's shrill.

Let's start with the basics of the program. Dora the Explorer is about a 5 year old Spanish-speaking girl named Dora who likes to explore the world around her. She has many animal friends. Boots the monkey (seen perched on her shoulder) tags along with her everywhere. There is also Benny the cow, Tico the squirrel (who only speaks Spanish), Isa the iguana, The Big Red Chicken, and a most-of-the-time foe, a fox named Swiper. I'll talk more about him in a moment. Other characters in the show are an anthropomorphic backpack and map, each with their own theme song when they are mentioned, and in newer episodes, smiling stars who have different talents and can be caught and added to Backpack's star pocket.

As far as family appearances, we only see Dora's on rare occasions. Dora's parents have only made a couple brief appearances, but her twin baby siblings have made a few (including an episode where they are born, interestingly enough at home!) and even have had a couple of their own dedicated episodes. We have also seen Dora's grandmother at least once, when she bestows the star pocket unto Dora and her backpack. We have also met a few cousins, including Diego who later gets his own spin-off. This is one of my little peeves with the show, because Dora goes on her adventures with no supervision. I know, I should chill because it's just a kids show, but it bugs me. There. I said it.

Dora is an animated series on Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. in several different and ever-changing time slots. Both channels are only available through cable or satellite providers, please check local listings for times and channels.

The format of the show is basically Dora encounters some sort of problem or obstacle, and must follow her map to get to a destination where the problem will be solved, while solving puzzles and completing tasks along the way.  Dora encourages children to play along with her, asking questions and pausing to give children time to answer for themselves. She usually has to read her map to figure out where to go (and to give the map a chance to sing its song "I'm the map, I'm the map, I'm the map..."), and she has to find an object in her backpack (and its song is "Backpack, backpack..."). The newer episodes she must also catch stars to put in the star pocket, one of which usually has a special skill that helps her out later in the episode. Also there is usually a chance to foil Swiper the fox from "swiping" something important on their journey by chanting "Swiper no swiping!" three times. 

Ah, Swiper. He deserves his own paragraph. Most of the time, he's just a plain old jerk. When he succeeds at swiping something, he doesn't keep it. He throws it away somewhere inconvenient for Dora and her pals to get to and laughs maniacally as he dashes off into the background. However, occasionally he has a heart and Dora helps him on her adventures. Usually these are the episodes where Swiper is the star and is charged with learning some heartfelt lesson. I think Swiper gets the short end of the stick. I mean, obviously he has a kleptomania problem, and the only help he gets is stern reminders not to do something he apparently enjoys? How fair is that? Swiper, I'm in your court buddy! You take whatever you need to take! Just don't be a jerk and throw it somewhere only the Spanish speaking squirrel can get to, okay?

This show is geared towards preschool aged children, but the bright colored animation appeals to a wider audience, both younger and older. I don't see it being much of a hit for kids older than kindergarten age though (whereas the spinoff show "Go Diego, Go!" might because Diego is older and the lessons are slightly more focused, but more on that in another post).

So, what does your kid learn?
  • Cultural Education: Spanish language and culture, including holidays and festivals.
  • Mathematics: Counting, patterns, colors, shapes, sorting, memory skills.
  • Problem solving: Making choices, answering questions, critical thinking, map reading.
  • Social and Emotional Development: Caring for friends, learning about feelings, taking care of our world, being a good neighbor.
As a parent watching, it's an easy show to get your child to interact with. Dora pauses to allow for the child to shout out their answer, and she (loudly) encourages your child to play along and even help by doing something themselves (flap your arms to help the chicken fly!). And yes, in case you missed that, I pointed out that Dora is LOUD. She seems to yell everything. I know it's just to keep a child's attention, but as a bystander, you're going to be reaching for the volume down button when this show comes on. My husband and I joke that she's an awfully demanding little child for being allowed to travel long distances unsupervised. That's my biggest peeve with the show, the volume. Other than that, I see the benefits of the program when my two year old shouts answers to Dora's questions. It's definitely one of the more interactive programs out there. It's still not my favorite, but I'm not the key demographic on this one.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sesame Street

My first evaluation is going to be of the old standby: Sesame Street.

We all know who lives on Sesame Street. The program has been around for more than forty years. 4-0. That's a long time. Kids who grew up on Sesame Street are now parents, and maybe even very young grandparents by this point. That's a great run for any program, let alone a children's show. I personally remember learning to read the words "Cat Food" from an episode of Sesame Street, as well as the "Longest Word" song for my alphabet. So for me, it's neat that my son gets to share in some of the same characters I loved while growing up.

Sesame Street is aimed at preschoolers. There are lessons on letters, numbers, counting, and caring for your friends and neighbors. Characters are both human actors, puppets (Muppets!), and animated.

The latest format of Sesame Street has segments that are more akin to short episodes of other shows. Such segments include "Murray Has a Little Lamb" (where Murray monster and his little lamb Ovejita (pronounced Oh-va-hee-ta) go to various specialty schools to learn about art, music, sports, etc.), "Abby's Flying Fairy School" (an animated segment, that has jokes such as "Zsa Zsa Gabor" being a magic spell word), "Super Grover 2.0" (it's Super Grover we all know and love, with a fancy new outfit and car, as well as the tagline that I find hilarious "Super Grover 2.0: He shows up!"), and "Elmo's World" (real Elmo in an animated crayon drawing of his imagination, which generally focuses on one subject), among other less frequent ones like "Bert and Ernie's Great Adventures" (which is claymation). These episode segments are intertwined with segments highlighting the Letter of the Day and the Number of the Day, as well as a portion focusing on some characters actually on the street.

Running time is about 48 minutes on average. While that seems long, the various breaks in the show help to keep a child's attention for the good majority of the show.

PBS stations generally show the newest episodes around lunchtime (12pm EST). Sprout also has instituted an hour of Sesame Street 7 days a week at 1pm EST, however Sprout is not a channel that is in all lineups, and does require a cable or satellite subscription. Check your local listings to find out exact times and channels.

One good thing about the Sprout version of the show is that Sprout has the older episodes. Some from as far back as the late 90's have been shown in the time I've had the channel. The cool thing about that is that the older episodes have little cartoons from even OLDER episodes, i.e. the ones I remember as a kid. The pinball counting to 12, the fireworks that spell out the alphabet, "It's Hip to be a Square", and Cookie Monster's rap about "Healthy Food"...all classics in my book. Even the old "Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco" shows up from time to time... which may lead to some interesting conversations about what a Disco was.

Some of the old human actors still remain on the program and there are new faces as well. The characters Bob, Gordon, Maria, Geena, and Luis are all still "on the street", with occasional appearances by Gordon's wife and the deaf Linda. Gordon's son and Maria's daughter are both almost grown up (am I the ONLY one who remembers when Maria was expecting? I feel old!). Geena is now a veterinarian for all the animals on the street. New faces include Chris, who works at Hooper's store, Alan, who runs the local sandwich counter next to Hooper's, and Leela, who runs the local laundromat. My favorite human character is actually one of the newcomers, Chris. He's hilarious, and his acting is so fluid.

The Muppets have remained pretty much the same. Big Bird, Telly, the Count, Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert, Ernie, Elmo, Oscar, etc. All still there. My son tends to gravitate towards Elmo, as well as newcomer Murray of "Murray Has a Little Lamb", and who also acts as a host of sorts between show segments. The newer Muppets to the gang are Baby Bear, Rosita, Zoe, and Abby Cadabby, a fairy (although Baby Bear, Rosita, and Zoe have all been around a while now). The great thing about Sesame Street is that there is a character for everyone to love, and most likely your child will find one (or many) that they adore. Unlucky for you, the parent, is that fact that if the character your child loves happens not to be Big Bird, Ernie, Elmo, or Cookie Monster, your chances of finding anything with your child's buddy on it are slim to nil.

As a parent watching, it's easy to interact with my son when this show is on. It's easy to ask him questions about what he has seen, ask him what letter is on the screen, or count to the number of the day. Sesame Street has lately taken up having guests on the show. Some guests play characters... an example of which has to be one of my favorites, Neil Patrick Harris as The Shoe Fairy. Others just go over "The Word on the Street" (a segment that helps build vocabulary), and that list is already almost as impressive as Saturday Night Live's hosts... LL Cool J, Amy Poehler, Jennifer Garner, and Ty Burrell (TV dad Phil from Modern Family), just to name a few. Your kid may not care about these famous figures, so I'm guessing the guest stars are purely for Mom and Dad's enjoyment here. (Confession: I DVR'ed the NPH episode, and still watch it with joy several times a month.)

Now, the good stuff: what is your child actually LEARNING from this show?
  • Mathematics: Numbers, counting, shapes and colors, categorizing, and simple math functions such as addition, subtraction, and fractions.
  • Reading: Letters, the alphabet, spelling, and phonics.
  • Problem Solving: What should the characters do in a situation, seek and find, using clues to solve a mystery, answering questions, etc.
  • Social and Emotional Development: Caring for friend and cultivating friendships, learning about feelings and empathy, helping out, etc.
  • Cultural Education: Spanish words and numbers, learning about different heritages, races, backgrounds, and various holidays.
  • Music: Instruments and their sounds, songs, musical styles, and dance.
Overall, Sesame Street is a pretty all-encompassing standard in children's television programming. There's a little something for everyone, as well as a broad spectrum of educational redeeming value. As a parent, you'll probably find some parts annoying, and other parts highly entertaining. Your child will likely enjoy at least some of this show, no matter what age or stage of development they fall into. You also won't have to worry that your child will fall in love with it and have the show be canceled on them, so bonus points for longevity.

For fun behind the scenes looks at Sesame, check out the Sesame Street blog. (I wouldn't show that to the kiddos though, it might ruin their childhoods forever seeing that their favorite character is actually two grown dudes.)

Welcome to Confessions of a TV Mom

At age two, my son has done lots of things many might not think are "appropriate" for a toddler. He has attended two live concerts: Ben Folds and The Imagination Movers. He has gone camping in a tent. He has eaten peanut butter and honey. He has pets. He's had soda pop (although, to be fair, that was not my doing initially). He has been to the movies (and seen things rated PG13). He eats pizza and candy and chocolate, and loves every bite.

My worst parenting transgression of all? Television. He has watched almost every program that is out there for preschoolers. Nick Jr., PBS, Sprout, Hub, Playhouse Disney (now Disney Junior)... you name it, he's seen it. And just like any other human, he has preferences. Preferences that change almost monthly, but preferences nonetheless.

This blog is going to be a different kind of "mommy blog". I'm not here to judge parents for their choices, and I hope you feel the same way. Everyone does what is best for their own family. Period. However, for those parents that are looking for guidance on children's programming from the point of view of one of their own, I intend to provide that insight. I've seen a LOT of kids programming in the last two years. Some of it I didn't even know existed until we left the television on a certain channel longer than we usually did. Some shows are better than others, some more educational than others, and some achieve their lessons in more entertaining ways than others. I'm here to break it down for you. I will tell you how I enjoy the shows as a hapless bystander. I will tell you how my son enjoys the shows as a member of the demographic.

I will also admit that there are some shows out there that I like better than my son does. Sad though that is. There are some he adores that I would rather dig my eyes out with a rusty spoon rather than watch with him.

As I build the library of various kids shows out there, I will do my best to organize them by channel provider (as it stands here in the US, from where I am writing) and recommended age level. Some shows are shown on multiple channels and different time slots, and I will do my best to indicate that wherever necessary.

I'm also not a doctor, psychiatrist, or early childhood expert of any kind. I can't tell you which shows will make your kid smarter, nicer, or a more productive member of society. I also can't tell you which shows will make your kids fatter, lazier, dumber, or more obnoxious. So, take what I say with those grains of salt in your pocket, and we'll all be happier for it.

Thanks for reading and I hope feel that my posts are both entertaining and informative.