PBS Kids vs. Nick Jr.

The best PBS shows for children are better than Disney Jr. and Nick Jr., writes Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in In praise of PBS Kids. He thinks the government subsidy makes the difference.

The best PBS shows in my view—and my elder son’s!—actually teach something. Not something vague like “reasoning skills” but something concrete like science! Yes, his favorite shows are Sid the Science Kid and Wild Kratts, a very clever program about wildlife. At four and a half, he can’t read yet, but he can learn a ton about our world—and with his curiosity on overdrive, he’s eager to learn and learn and learn.

Other PBS shows are strong on content knowledge too, especially Dinosaur Trains and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That. Others focus on teaching decoding and comprehension strategies—these stem from the early 2000s and reflect the Bush administration’s obsession with early reading — namely Word World, Super Why, and Word Girl. And the line-up is rounded out with several pleasant if content-free offerings that aim to teach character and the like (Arthur, Caillou, Clifford, and so forth).

Nick Jr. offers The Backyardigans, which is “brilliant.” He’s heard Disney’s Gaspard and Lisa is great for vocabulary. But he blames Nick for “the poisonous Sponge Bob Square Pants and the hugely annoying Dora the Explorer — the crack cocaine of children’s television.”

PBS shows are more educationally sound because “the Department of Education’s Ready to Learn program provides upwards of $30 million a year to develop high-quality programs” and related web sites and games, Petrilli writes.

In an e-mail discussion thread, parents and grandparents agreed that Caillou is loathesome.

As a good libertarian, Neal McCluskey thinks government should stay out of the TV business and questions whether “at-risk” kids watch PBS shows.

MATCH founder Michael Goldstein, the father of a four-year-old, doesn’t think PBS shows are “more educationally sound.”

1. Nick Jr shouldn’t be accountable for the fact that its sister channel, Nick, has SpongeBob.

That’s like holding Disney Channel accountable for John Carter. Or dinging Curious George because PBS has pledge drives. No relationship.

2. I’m not that impressed with PBS Dinosaur Train on dino content. Nick Jr. Dino Dan is at least its equal.

3. PBS Cat In The Hat has a lot of knowledge? What are you smoking there in Northern Virginia? It has Martin Short. Case closed.

4. I agree that Nick Jr Backyardigans is amazing — if that ran on PBS would you argue that it’s only possible b/c of the subsidy?

5. I agree PBS Kids has good science shows for kids. But

a. Since they do, Nick Jr presumably looks for the niche PBS doesn’t fill. One is multicultural characters that 3 and 4 year olds seem to like — Ni Hao Kai Lan, Little Bill, Dora, Diego.

b. If PBS didn’t produce the science shows, what makes you think that Nick Jr wouldn’t?

Nick Jr runs Team Umizoomi. It’s all about math. “Geo” and “Mili” are the lead characters, and most of the show is finding patterns. Why wouldn’t they do the same if PBS weren’t already on the scene?

It’s been many years since I watched Sesame Street with my preschooler in the pre-Dora era, so I have no dog in this hunt.

My three-year-old granddaughter has abandoned Elmo for Disney’s Peppa Pig. She now refers to herself as “Julia Pig” and calls her little sister “George Pig” after Peppa’s little brother. She’s picking up Peppa’s British accent, especially when she says, “Let’s give it a go!” or answers the phone, “Julia Pig speaking.”

Girls can be doctors, but what about boys?

Disney’s ‘Doc McStuffins’ is a “cure for the common stereotype,” according to  the New York Times, which praises the cartoon for featuring a six-year-old black girl who aspires to be a doctor.

Her mother is a doctor (Dad stays home and tends the garden), and the girl emulates her by opening a clinic for dolls and stuffed animals. “I haven’t lost a toy yet,” she says sweetly to a sick dinosaur in one episode.

The series is a ratings hit with preschoolers and much appreciated by black parents, reports the Times. But where’s the role model for black boys? They couldn’t give little Doc McStuffins’ father a job? Black girls are far more likely to go to college, earn degrees and become doctors than their brothers.

What would Disney learn in school today?

Would we give (Disney) an outlet to express his creativity or, better yet, foster it? What would his school day consist of? Would he draw a sketch of Mickey Mouse, only to be ridiculed by his teacher because he should have been practicing his times tables?

I am sure that in today’s high-stakes testing environment, Disney’s creativity would be stifled by countless hours of basic reading instruction. He might not even have an art class due to funding shortfalls and a resulting budget that clearly places the arts at the bottom of the priority list.

Short-sighted administrators reject “critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving” as “fluff,” writes Colucci, who teaches gifted elementary students. Teachers are forced to spend time on mindless test prep instead.

Teaching reading and math basics to students who’ve already mastered the basics is a  waste of time, even if the only goal is boosting test scores. But I don’t think schools of any era have been set up to nurture geniuses.

Walt Disney developed his artistic talent by taking private art classes on Saturdays and in night school. He dropped out of high school to serve as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I.

Thomas Edison attended school only for a few months.

He was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but was always a very curious child and taught himself much by reading on his own.

. . . At thirteen he took a job as a newsboy, selling newspapers and candy on the local railroad that ran through Port Huron to Detroit.

As a 10-year-old boy, Albert Einstein read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Euclid’s Elements with a family friend. Einstein left high school early, complaining “the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning.” (Depending in which account you believe, he ran away or used a doctor’s note.) Unlike Disney and Edison, Einstein went on to study at a university.

It’s very hard for any conventional school to cater to the needs of a 10-year-old who is  turned on by Kant and Euclid. Geniuses have to make their own way.

Second-guessing Disney’s black princess

Disney’s first black princess, Tiana, is not PC enough for some critics. Princess Tiana, the star of an upcoming Disney movie, turns into a frog when she kisses the wrong frog and has to seek a voodoo queen to get the  curse lifted.  

Disney has already changed the profession of the princess (an aspiring restaurant entrepreneur instead of a chambermaid) and name (Tiana instead of Maddy, which critics thought was too similar to “Mammy”, a once-common term for black female slaves in white households). Tiana will be played by Anika Noni Rose, who starred in Dreamgirls, while Tiana’s mother will be played by the talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.

The controversy has intensified after it was revealed that the film would be set in New Orleans and that Tiana would find love with a white prince — well, almost. His skin has been described as olive-toned and he will be voiced by Bruno Campos, a Brazilian actor.

When you think about it, the classic princesses — Cinderella and Snow White — worked as maids.