The general notion that there’s nothing good on television for kids has been a debate ever since the radio family hour yielded to the lure of the at-home moving image. And today, 71 years since the advent of commercial television, the debate continues: is TV programming generally bad for developing brains? The jury is still out, but with a crop of modern, educational children’s programs that feature environmental messaging, TV-haters are finding it more challenging to make their ‘bad TV’ blanket statement stick. Here are a few programs my son and I enjoy that I recommend for all green-minded parents and budding environmentalists.
SESAME STREET on PBS
Television programming geared towards families (and specifically children) has been a staple in American households since Carroll Spinney donned that giant yellow-plumed suit in 1969 and became a household name. Since those early days, Sesame Street has changed the concept of family entertainment. In its many international iterations the program has broached difficult social subjects including homosexuality, AIDS, Jewish/Palestinian conflict, and war orphans all while teaching ABCs and engaging kids in silly onomatopoeic fun.
The last season of Sesame Street explored green living and was “designed to nurture young children’s appreciation and love for nature” as part of a two-year initiative “My World is Green & Growing.” This season expect lots of science as Muppet Wiki notes “one of the main curricular goals is to encourage children to think scientifically and to model the scientific process.”
As my son got a bit older Sesame Street was upstaged by a Yo Gabba, Gabba!, a fledgling TV series for the pre-school set that promised to be the perfect balance of educational programming, pop culture curiosities, and environmental awareness. Taking creative cues from Japanese TV, YGG features Muno, Foofa, Brobee, Toodee and Plex (characters that resemble mild Day-Glo versions of Godzilla monsters) alongside a celebrity guest list (MGMT, The Flaming Lips, Mos Def, Devo) that reads like a who’s who of indie culture. So far this season kids have seen Sarah Silverman do the Dancey Dance, Chris Rock act as a dentist, and the band Weezer sing the song ‘All my Friends Are Insects’ in the Super Music Friends Segment of the show.
Since it’s official launch YGG has spawned many eco-aware sing-a-longs including ‘Be Nice to Animals’, ‘Sea Friends’ and ‘Love Every Living Thing’, plus the not-so-eco but super catchy ska clean-up helper ‘Pick it Up’.
Now a first-grader whose day is full of fart jokes and wedgie worries, my son is, thankfully, also interested in more mature subject matter such as much of the non-fiction programming found on the Discovery Channel. Man vs. Wild is a fave which features wildman Bear Grylls running around in various wilderness settings going about the important business of ‘surviving’.
There’s certainly more than enough gross-out goodness on Man vs. Wild to enthrall curious older kids (evidenced in a favorite episode where a hungry Grylls consumes berries picked from bear poop – link intentionally not included). Now a self-proclaimed botanist that can identify wild onions and edible berries (hopefully not plucked from fresh dung), my son eats up every bit of Grylls’ adventures that have naturally peaked his interest in outdoor exploration, wildlife preservation and environmental conservation.
Kids, especially boys, love dinosaurs, and my son is no exception. During Shark Week, the Discovery Channel goes all out airing programming dedicated to the largest specie of living dinosaur. Sharks big and small, adventures risky and tame, close encounters and long distance tracking, it’s all included during Discovery’s week long chomp fest.
Besides simply chumming it up with the many-toothed mega-beasts, there are various shows that educate viewers about the environmental effects humans have on sharks such as human encroachment, over-fishing and the visually gruesome act of ‘finning’. And this season Discovery is backing a campaign to promote saving certain shark species from extinction. Shark Week is generally not for younger kids, but for those 6 going on 16, Shark Week packs enough bite to keep them coming back for more.
For kids too young to digest the toothy footage during Shark Week, Discovery’s 11-part series, Planet Earth, offers a wide range of programming that focuses a long distance lens on animals in their natural setting. A bit like ‘March of the Penguins‘ but with a wider range of included animals, each show focuses on a particular ecosystem existing in a predetermined environment and invites the viewer to witness, first hand, what makes it work.
Planet Earth episode titles include Caves, Forests, Jungles and Ice Worlds. But weary parents should be warmed that it’s not all warm and fuzzy on Planet Earth. Nature does follow its natural course, and though the camera crews and film editors do take care to leave gruesome footage on the cutting room floor, sensitive subject matter does get aired from time to time.
A few recurring Discovery Channel favorites this season include Shark Week, Planet Earth, Whale Wars on Animal Planet (which I sometimes need to censor), River Monsters and, of course, Man vs. Wild. Also, for the pre-school aged set, there’s a lot of cute and cuddly daytime programming on Discovery’s Animal Planet.
As a medium that has acquired a bit of ill repute, even though there’s quite a bit of ‘good’ on television, it’s admittedly not for everyone. And for parents seeking to sample quality programming without intrusive advertising messages, Hulu’s Green channel and Netflix’s Kids TV selections provide great alternatives.