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.