That's Edutainment

Atlantic authors address talking bears, Sesame Street, and the obsession with making kids smarter

In “Extreme Parenting,” her article in the July/August Atlantic, Alissa Quart describes a new obsession with what she refers to as “edutainment”—a sort of vainglorious scramble by parents to seize upon anything that might bolster their child's chances of “making it” later on. The more panic-stricken may scoop up expensive toys professing to make kids smarter; others plunk their children in front of allegedly mind-enriching television programs. “Whose purpose does all of this aggressive early learning serve?” asks a skeptical Quart. Does it really give children a leg up? Or does it serve primarily to enrich the pocketbooks of those purveying these products and services?

Though the edutainment frenzy has escalated of late, the concept is not new, and as the assortment of articles collected here makes clear, the implications have been debated for decades. In “What’s Good About Children’s TV” (August 1969), Norman S. Morris, a writer for CBS News and the father of two small boys, waxed enthusiastic about the then-novel edutainment concept as applied to television. He championed a few televised babysitters of choice:

In the realm of young children’s television three men have been the pioneers: Robert Homme, Robert Keesham, and Fred Rogers…. [They] 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 meet that end.

The qualities Morris seemed to favor in children's TV included “a complete sense of dedication to youngsters,” sensitivity for their emotions, comedy, and a marked flair for balancing simple instruction with imagination and play. Homme’s performance as The Friendly Giant won raves for his “quiet-spoken” demeanor and “special segment for disadvantaged three-, four-, and five-year-olds.” (Lasting a full hour, the program was longer than most children’s fare of its era. Homme compensated by gearing the first half toward older kids, who left early for school, and the second half toward his younger viewers and what Morris described as the Giant’s “ghetto” devotees.) Both Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Keesham’s Captain Kangaroo scored high for their compassion and indulgence of fantasy.

Changing tone, the author reserved his criticism for one of the year’s most popular shows:

Discussions on children’s television frequently cite a program entitled Romper Room as exemplary…. This program in fact violates every principle I have so far outlined as being standard equipment for a successful show. The philosophy seems to be that kids are little creatures who must be taught their ABC’s. Everything takes place in a formal classroom setting, and creativity is hiding somewhere under the teacher’s desk or perhaps in a broom closet. The prevailing attitude is one of condescension, and humor is hiding somewhere, too, perhaps keeping creativity company.

A better use of the medium, Morris argued, would be for exposing children to educational opportunities outside the classroom—something of particular importance when programming for the underprivileged.

His wish would be granted yet. Morris had caught wind, from a burgeoning nonprofit known as The Children’s Television Workshop, of its designs for a new program that would do just that—traverse class barriers while scrapping the stilted teacher-student rhetoric of its predecessors. He offered an enthusiastic preview of its forthcoming show: a street populated by fuzzy monsters and gentle humans, a place whose main objective would be to “promote the intellectual and cultural growth of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged preschoolers.”

Sesame Street debuted in November 1969, under the auspices of National Educational Television. It was largely praised; its wit and screwball creativity appealed to critics; kids liked it, too. Not everyone was quite so easily satisfied, however: in his May 1971 article, “Big Bird, Meet Dick and Jane,” author and educational theorist-at-large John Holt voiced his concerns. “I feel very strongly that Sesame Street has aimed too low,” he wrote, “and will be a disappointment in the long run.” Holt's reservations derived not from any qualms about the show’s values or aesthetic—which he thought were fine—but from its failure to motivate:

Learning on Sesame Street, as in school, means learning Right Answers, and as in school, Right Answers come from grown-ups. We rarely see children figuring things out. As in school, we hear children responding, without much animation or imagination, to leading questions put by adults. But we rarely see them figuring things out; in fact, we rarely see children doing anything.

Providing specific examples of its missteps, Holt went on to appraise the show’s teaching methods, reviewing specific lessons he found inadequately taught and explaining the detrimental effects of their pedantry:

Nothing makes school more mysterious, meaningless, baffling, and terrifying to a child than constantly hearing adults tell him things as if they were simple, self-evident, natural, and logical, when in fact they are quite the reverse—arbitrary, contradictory, obscure, and often absurd, flying directly in the face of a child’s common sense.

Holt’s approach contradicted what has become one of the edutainment industry’s most insistent claims—that “having it all drilled in” at those crucial stages in early development can fix a baby for adult brilliance as effectively as any more active approach. Proponents of this theory often cite research dating from the early 1980s.

In “The Competence of Babies” (January 1982), Susan Quinn reported on a few breakthroughs the year had brought to child studies. Charting the field’s shifting stance on the “innate intelligence” debate as it pertained to newborns, Quinn contrasted the assumptions of late nineteenth-century “specialists” with the latest findings out of Cornell University Medical Center. While the former tended to discount the intellectual capacity of babies altogether (one 1895 study had even described the infant as “little more than a vegetable”), the contemporary view gave them quite a bit more credit:

In the past twenty years, and dramatically in the past ten, the “can’t-do” baby…has been eclipsed by a “can-do” baby—a baby so attuned and responsive to his environment that, even in the uterus, he is reacting to voices, to light, and, perhaps, to his mother’s moods…. The operative word, in descriptions of this baby, is “competence.”

From here, Quinn tracked the progress of several key investigations, all of which traced competence to an earlier age than previously thought possible. Psychologist Daniel Stern, whose extensive research at Cornell she featured prominently, traded in the detached hypothesizing of his predecessors for a more observational approach, or

…an exploration not just of what babies can do but of what they may perceive and feel. Along with other such groups around the country, [Stern is] attempting to look at more than just isolated infant reactions to various stimuli—at the whole range of infant behaviors, in a variety of settings.

In step with this new approach, researchers now perceived a rich inner life, revealed through an infant’s subtle movements and expressions. But what Quinn found most fascinating was Stern’s conviction that long-lasting character traits could be deduced from these gestures.  As he argued,

I don’t really believe … that there is such a thing as development at all, in the way that we’ve been using the word. Perhaps the major issues in life…are there from the beginning. And the only thing that grows or develops are the skills with which to play out these ubiquitous battles.

Some theorized that it is through undirected play that these skills can be developed. In “The Importance of Play” (March 1987), Austrian-born psychologist Bruno Bettelheim defended a youngster’s need for—and right to—active recreation. “Play is the child’s most useful tool for preparing himself for the future and its tasks,” he wrote,

Play teaches the child, without his being aware of it, the habits most needed for intellectual growth, such as stick-to-itiveness, which is so important in all learning.

As Bettelheim saw it, providing kids with creative outlets to explore their anxieties or “act out” recurring fantasies and daydreams could also make for a more emotionally stable adult life. And with its implied interpersonal trappings, he argued, play “socializes” children, enhancing their conflict resolution skills and teaching teamwork.

And as for educational toys, Bettelheim argued that they “become absolutely deadly when the child is expected to learn what they are designed to teach” rather than what he or she wants to learn from them. Though the author never rejected such products outright, he frowned upon their didacticism:

Many adults, whether parents or teachers, tend to play with children for purposes outside the play; they may wish to distract, entertain, educate, diagnose, or guide them. But this is not what a child desires. Unless the play itself is the thing, it loses much of its meaning to the child.

David Owen took a more in-depth look at the toy industry—a business he characterized as “one of the least predictable pursuits in all of capitalism”—in his October 1986 article, “Where Toys Come From.”  Chronicling the rise to eminence of most of the industry’s major players, from Fisher-Price to Tonka, the article catalogued the hottest playthings of the era.  And what an era!—the author’s fertile description of an American International Toy Fair he attended, replete with such then-popular wares as Teddy Ruxpin, Popples, and Strawberry Shortcake, affords the 1980s nostalgic a wealth of must-read material.

But some of the themes he addressed are timeless. Reporting from the Fair, Owen narrowed in on a sloth of talking bears, the season’s biggest draw. He stopped to browse, and, after a few minutes’ immersion in ursine animatronics with names like Smarty Bear, Gabby Bear, and Heart-To-Heart Bear, he crowned one of them his favorite.  Unlike the others, A. G. Bear did not talk; he grumbled, echoing and distorting sounds from the outside world.  Owen noted other commendable qualities as well:

It responds well to a child, but not with canned pronouncements. And it leaves room for the imagination, a child’s most important plaything. When I was in grade school, a classmate took an electric barber’s razor and shaved some little rectangles on his head—parking spaces for his Matchbox cars. His mother was apoplectic, but the parking lot was his to keep until his hair grew back…

Perhaps, then, the best amusements—whether selected by parents or child, for growth of intellect or pure recreation—are easy to peg: they’re the ones that a child truly makes his own.

—Joel Rozen