The Idiot Box Becomes a Tool

Depending on your perception of it, television has changed a lot over the years or hasn’t changed at all. There is always an active discussion about screen time when it comes to children; with tablets, phones and computers piling on the ever-present television. Yet, it is still TV they are watching on their tablets and phones, in some form. For younger kids, their choices of visual entertainment can be instrumental in shaping and nurturing their young, spongy minds. When it comes to television, how does it go from simply an idiot box to a helpful, supportive, and educational tool?


Too often kids spend way too much time watching irreverent cartoons and too little time watching something educational and interesting. Something that doesn’t just entertain them with seizure-inducing flash movement and ridiculous cartoon scenarios. The quality of content being consumed by kids is important. As parents, there’s a responsibility to children’s mental development to change their habits from brain melting cartoons to something more meaningful.


That’s the hard part. When kids hear History Channel or Discovery Channel they tend to tune out their parents. At first. The key is the resolve of the parent. Many kids don’t want to have anything to do with anything educational until parents literally make them. Ban devices and other forms of entertainment, sit them down in front of the TV, turn on the Discovery Channel, and make them watch. Shows like Mythbusters are a great introduction to educational television that is just as entertaining as any cartoon. The experiments on that show should be enough to capture the imagination and brain waves of even the most cartoon-hardened child. Things explode! What child doesn’t enjoy watching things explode?


Maybe kids can’t exactly re-create an experiment they saw on Mythbusters, or learn all the physics and science behind it, but they will pick up something more than just catch phrases from smart-alecky creatures running around. Shows like Build It Bigger and How It’s Made on the Science Channel are fantastic tools for learning, and they’re entertainment that is rooted in engineering and science.


Within the last few decades there has been a shift in educational and information television. The shift has been to a format that supports reality television and mindless semi-biographical glimpses into the oft-scripted and terribly realistic lives of people that kids probably shouldn’t look up to. Many formerly educational channels like TLC have embraced this degradation of intelligence, while some channels have instead chosen to remain thoughtful, still bringing new programming that borders the reality line. National Geographic Channel has stayed true to their educational form while still shifting to programming that delivers education with the assistance of real people. One such program is Brain Games.


On Brain Games the premise is quite simple. This is your brain, this is your brain on things you didn’t know about your brain. Kids can look forward to their view of the world being challenged with slightly mind-blowing looks at color, ageism, trust, competition, brain betrayal and much more. Where this show really benefits children is taking something about our brains that we take for granted and explores how the brains reacts. Hosted by the super smart, child-friendly, and affable Jason Silva, Brain Games is a welcome addition to the educational television that’s left out there.


Discovery Channel used to be one of few channels one could watch a show on wildlife in Africa. While interesting, there was no real-world application. It’s nice to learn about the mating cycle of the lion, but how is that knowledge going to be applied in real life?


When it comes to nature, we now have Shark Week. Everyone knows Shark Week. Probably the best idea Discovery had was to devote a whole week of prime-time summer programming to nothing but sharks. That was freaking awesome. Most kids look forward to Shark Week like they’d look forward to going to Disney World. As far as nature programs go, it really can’t get any better. Mixing the science and physiology of sharks with real-life encounters and near-death experiences, it’s hard not to watch.


Back in 2006, viewers were introduced to the Earth as never seen before with Planet Earth. The BBC Documentary presented the world around us at a macro level, and kids were rapt. Now BBC is bringing another look at our world with Planet Earth II. This is the kind of programming that children don’t know they crave. Children want to see the beauty in the world, they just have to be sat down in front of the 4K UHD TV in order to do so.


Cartoons aren’t the bane of society; they are a great distraction from the real world, but then, so is the real world. Seeing another part of the world, or the universe, or looking back in time is as much of a distraction from the current stress in life (for parents, work – for kids, school) as are cartoons and other mindless programming. A healthy balance in their television watching is important. For every half-hour of an episodic cartoon, have kids check out some of the more focused educational programming.


Many of the shows on the Discovery Channel, History Channel, or BBC are available on Netflix in case the cable cord has been cut. Netflix also offers a great slate of entertainment for kids programming like 72 Cutest Animals and similar shows. These short programs pander directly to children and add a level of competition and excitement to discovering nature.
Television doesn’t have to be some electronic babysitter, it can be just as much of an educational tool as any book. Not to mention with portable devices, it’s easier than ever for kids to take their educational programming with them on the go. If kids are going to be in front of the television as much as they are, parents might as well make it as worthwhile as possible.


Photo credit: theloushe via / CC BY-NC-ND


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