What's Good About Children's TV

American television is fair game for its critics, but think twice, says this student of TV, before you disparage The Friendly Giant, Misterogers' Neighborhood, and Captain Kangaroo. The author, father of two small boys, is a writer for CBS News.
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Nearly twelve million young people between the ages of three and five do not attend any form of school. Yet, according to the Nielsen Television Index, the preschoolers look at television 54.1 hours a week. What they perceive few people really know; and it is all the more alarming to realize that no effort has ever been made in this country to find out.

In 1954 the British Broadcasting Corporation suggested that comprehensive impact studies on children be conducted scientifically by the Nuffield Foundation. Three distinguished psychologists, Dr. Hilde T. Himmelweit, Dr. A. N. Oppenheim, and Miss Pamela Vince, carried out the project during a four-year period. The British study had the advantage of having a readily accessible control group. Portions of the island, notably around Norwich, had no television transmitters, so the residents had not been exposed to television programming.

The Nuffield examination of television, as extensive as it was, primarily used as subjects children between the ages of ten and fourteen. The few experiments with preschoolers can point out tendencies, but can hardly be interpreted as conclusive. Still, the BBC-initiated studies, completed in 1958, remain the only yardsticks we have.

Parents have turned more and more to the electronic baby-sitter. The risk is that the practice can easily be carried to extremes at the expense of helping the child develop other human contacts or an interest in reading. Parental responsibility lies not only in guiding the child to acquire healthy appetites regarding television; the parent also should be responsible for what the child selects to view on the television screen.

In the realm of young children's television three men have been the pioneers: Robert Homme, Robert Keesham, and Fred Rogers. Children know Homme as the Friendly Giant, an easygoing, gentle giant who would not recognize a beanstalk if he tripped over one. Friendly stands about five feet, eleven inches tall, but to tiny children, whose eyesight is often superior, he is probably eighty feet tall. Friendly has been playing the recorder and chatting with Jerome the Giraffe and Rusty the Rooster since before most of his audience was born. This is his tenth season on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. For five years prior to his coming to Canada, his fifteen-minute weekday visits originated in Madison, Wisconsin, on the University of Wisconsin's television station WHA. Most of this time, the program has been carried in the United States on National Educational Television.

Robert Keesham is the bewigged and somewhat bumbling Captain Kangaroo, who for the past thirteen years has been rattling around in the Treasure House weekday mornings on CBS-TV. An impatient adult, unfamiliar with the program, may glance at the captain's costume, conclude at once that he is a buffoon, and switch channels. But between three and ten million children remain fixed to the set to find out if Bunny Rabbit will outwit the captain and win a bunch of carrots.

Anything but a buffoon, Keesham is a quiet-spoken man, bursting with energy and a complete sense of dedication to youngsters. Captain Kangaroo's get-together with the children lasts an hour, and the program becomes progressively more simplified as the hour passes. This "gearing clown" takes into account the fact that the older children have left or are about to leave for school, while the number of preschoolers watching is growing. Keesham has recently inaugurated a special segment near the end of the program for disadvantaged three-, four-, and five-year-olds. This segment, which is coordinated with the Banks Street College of Education, is not precisely new on the program, but for the first time the material being presented is offered in a step-by-step, orderly progression. Throughout the hour viewers are likely to encounter any number of regular passersby: a farmer of inestimable imagination named Mr. Green jeans, a schoolteacher by the name of Mr. Baxter, and an assortment of talking or performing animals. One of the high points to children and adults alike is the remarkable animation effects created by Cosmos Allegretti.

When Fred Rogers drops by on weekday afternoons to spend a half hour with his friends, the very young, he wears no costume and plays no role other than the one he plays in real life. His visits on Misterogers' Neighborhood, which is seen across the country on National Educational Television, reveal Rogers' psychological orientation.

One of his primary objectives is helping children deal with their emotions. Sometimes he will discuss anger and love with them. (Discuss is a quite proper word because his talks are so personal that they frequently trigger a byplay in which the child may respond vocally to a question and Rogers, anticipating the reply, may follow through to his next point.) Other times he will deal with fears, real or imagined. Later in the program, a toy trolley appears, and the audience is transported briefly to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. There we meet a group of puppets and people in a fantasy land presided over, by one King Friday The Thirteenth. Often a large segment of this adventure is a musical journey of one kind or another. Rogers is an accomplished musician, and when he has a message to get over, he sits down and composes music and lyrics that are easily remembered to carry the message through. Once when a child wrote in asking for reassurance that he could not go down the drain of his bathtub, Rogers sat down and wrote a song entitled, "You Can Never Go Down—You Can Never Go Down." At the conclusion of Misterogers' Neighborhood, we return from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to the sitting room, where Mister Rogers has a few last remarks to make. "I like you as you are," he finally says to the child. Then to tell good-bye, he sings another of his compositions, entitled "Tomorrow."

Homme, Keesham, and Rogers approach television for the very young from somewhat different directions, but all three believe it is essential for them to establish a relationship with the child at home. And every move they make is calculated to achieve that end. Viewers rarely, if ever, see a child in the studio when they watch The Friendly Giant, Captain Kangaroo, or Misterogers' Neighborhood. The reason is that all three men agree that a child in the studio serves to set up a possible sibling rivalry situation for the child at home. The preference among all three is for puppets that aid rather than undermine the desired relationship. Rogers points out that the small children are almost obsessed with their smallness. He says they readily identify with puppets because they are even smaller. The child is free to put on a hand puppet, have it feel a part of him, and know this is at least one thing he can control.

All three men assiduously avoid condescension. The level of language is straightforward, and if unfamiliar words crop up on the program, the child is generally able to extract the correct meanings of the new words from the context and from repetition of thought. Homme, Keesham, and Rogers want to be regarded as reasonable, nonthreatening adults by the child at home. They believe that no television personality can serve as a parent sub-stitute, but they would like to think of themselves as extensions of the parent, offering additional warmth, understanding, knowledge, and guidance.

Nevertheless, Fred Rogers thinks that television in general could contribute a good deal more to the emotional development of the young. Growing is so important to children, Rogers says, and that is one of the themes he constantly leans hard on. "Playing is important," he tells his small friends. "It makes you grow." When he meets a child, he is likely to remark, "Why, I think you've grown!" And the child may proudly say, "I thought you'd notice that, Mister Rogers. And I only wear diapers at night, too!" Rogers also turns a negative to a positive and reminds children of all the advantages of being small. They can crawl under tables, he says, and do things with their tiny hands that adults could never manage to do without the use of tools.

Rogers works closely with Dr. Margaret McFarland, the administrative director of Pittsburgh's Arsenal Family and Children Center, a division of the University of Pittsburgh's medical school. Before a script is taped, it is carefully discussed by them in a kind of "creative interchange" of thought. From Rogers' standpoint, the result is a refinement of the work which he considers essential and regards as inspirational.

Keesham believes that what Fred Rogers is doing is tremendously important, and he is equally enthusiastic about the part television can play in child development. We have got to keep in mind, Captain Kangaroo reminds us, that children are intelligent human beings with potentially good taste. It's a fact many of us often forget. And, he continues, it is incumbent on television performers to educate as well as to entertain. Keesham thinks psychologists and educators too often try to distinguish between education and entertainment. "Information," he says, "can be presented in a fascinating, entertaining way to rival any kind of conventional material and still produce an educational result." To those who consider Captain Kangaroo almost pure entertainment, Keesham responds, "Look more carefully at the material. A good portion of it is educational matter."

Robert Homme and Robert Keesham were entertainers in broadcasting with little interest initially in children's programming. After each had had his first child, he turned the corner professionally. Homme speaks frankly when he says that "though I knew something about children, I still conceived of myself as an entertainer, not an educator." But after his entrance into radio as a children's entertainer, he began to have second thoughts. He suddenly realized that, like it or not, he was in the position of a teacher. "Those children out there," he says, "were listening to everything I had to say, and I began to think that what I had to say had better be good." His philosophy—that it is important to say and do worthwhile things for children—is clearly reflected in the Friendly Giant. The amiable tall man lives in a castle somewhere near a farm and begins each show with words familiar in many homes: "Once upon a time, not long ago and not far away ..." Then suddenly we are thrust into a theme that runs the length of the program. The theme is explored through a book or through music, sometimes through both. When it concludes, we are left with a feeling of finality, a feeling, Homme believes, that is important for tiny people.

Friendly is, of course, the central figure of the program. But much of its sparkle comes from Rusty the Rooster, a bookish little fellow, and from Jerome the Giraffe. Friendly's easy-natured banter with Rusty and Jerome often allows even an adult to forget that the latter two are hand puppets. Rusty, who by the way resides in a book bag hanging in the castle, represents a very small child, and his primary source of knowledge about the world comes from the books he reads and the discussions with Friendly. Jerome, on the other hand, represents the somewhat older, slightly brash, and more worldly child, who spends a good deal of time wandering about the farmlands. Homme says if a child at home knows something discussed on the program, he is likely to identify with Jerome. If not, he will identify with Rusty. Friendly may take up subjects ranging all the way from poetry to beavers. He does not expect preschoolers to come away with specific ideas on any subject. "What is important," he says, "is for them to see that we adults enjoy knowledge, that we keep our eyes and ears open because the world is filled with things that can make life a little happier."

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