Media literacy for preschoolers, pt. 4: Tips and resources

This week, I’ve been writing about how parents can help their preschoolers become media literate. [See: Part 1: how media work, Part 2: media content, Part 3: media creation.]

For my wrap-up post in this series, I’d like to share some tips and resources.


Key Tips for Fostering Media Literacy in Your Preschooler

In my opinion, there are five essentials that will help your preschool child become  media literate:

  1. Pre-screen media as much as possible, and choose only the good stuff for your child to view. Talk about these choices with your child; help him or her make good choices, too.
  2. Don’t let young children watch shows and films that really go against your family’s values, or that you do not feel are age-appropriate. It’s okay to set limits.
  3. Watch with your child, but don’t be silent–speak up. Only by talking about what’s on screen will your child develop the critical thinking skills that are central to media literacy. So, point out things you like and don’t like. Convey your values. Ask and answer questions.
  4. Keep television out of your child’s room. If he or she is watching in private, you can’t talk about what’s happening on screen. (Also, studies indicate that watching TV before bedtime can disrupt young children’s sleep, so it’s best to keep TV out of their sleeping spaces.)
  5. Find ways to create media with your child. Help your child see him or herself as not just a consumer, but a creator.

Discussing Media with Preschoolers: Conversation Ideas

Talking about media with your child is really important. Studies show that conversations about television do help to develop children’s media literacy, whereas two other common parenting strategies–watching TV silently together and/or restricting children’s media use–are less effective. It takes active conversation to foster a child’s critical thinking.

So, where to begin? Talking about media if you haven’t often done so can feel awkward or forced. Try using simple declarative statements to share your reactions to what’s on screen. For example:

  • “I like this part because [reason].”
  • “I don’t think he should be lying about that.”
  • “I don’t agree with her decision.”
  • “No one is listening to her! They should listen to their friend.”
  • “He’s being greedy! We shouldn’t be greedy like that.”

Ask questions to solicit your child’s opinion. Yes/no questions are okay, but open-ended questions are even better:

  • “Do you think it’s a good idea for her to do that?”
  • “Why do you think he is keeping that secret?”
  • “Uh-oh–what did her mommy say to her earlier? Can you remember what she’s supposed to be doing?”

Resources to Prompt More Conversation:
Books for Preschoolers about Television

(Also available on my Pinterest!)

If you’d like to talk with your child about media-related issues away from the screen, it can be helpful to read some books together. Here are some age-appropriate books that might be helpful.

On balancing screen time with other interests:

Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair: What happens when people no longer read? A cautionary tale: don’t let TV take over your life!

The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV: The bears go without TV for a week, and find all kinds of other things to do, instead.

Box-Head Boy: Denny learns about the consequences of too watching too much television.

Mama Rex and T Turn Off the TV No power means no TV! Mama proves to T that there are other fun things to do besides watch television all day.

Mouse TV: A mouse family squabbles over what to watch. No one can agree. But when the television breaks, they learn to enjoy all kinds of other activities together.

On other topics:

Arthur’s TV Trouble: Arthur learns that the products on television commercials aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be! A good prompt for conversations about ads.

The Bionic Bunny Show: A behind-the-scenes look at Arthur’s favorite television show, this story describes how an ordinary bunny seems to have superpowers on screen, even though it’s all make-believe. A good prompt for conversations about how media are created.

How a Book Is Made: This book is all about the publishing process. It shows how a book progresses from an author’s idea to a published work. Another good prompt for conversations about how media are created.

Teddy’s TV Troubles: Teddy Bear sees frightening things on television; fortunately, his mommy knows how to help him cope with his fears. Filled with positive ideas for helping children recover from viewing scary media.

When the TV Broke: When the television breaks, Jeffrey is upset and doesn’t know how to occupy himself–but soon he becomes an artist, creating his own media! Good for discussing the idea that we don’t just have to consume; any of us can create.


Creating Media with your Child: A Few Ideas

Marketers love positioning kids as consumers. There are entire books on the topic, written to help people in the industry encourage your children to consume media and merchandise–and to pester you to spend as much money as possible on their behalf.

Teach your child that he or she can break out of that box and be a creator, too. Some ideas:

  • Give your child an inexpensive camera or camcorder. Teach him or her to document his world. Ask him or her to direct your actions. How should you pose for a photo? What should you say or do on video?
  • If your child enjoys telling stories and drawing, have him or her tell you a story and write it down. Then, help your child draw pictures to illustrate it. Now, you have a homemade book!
  • Take the homemade book one step further: help your child take a photo of each image. Upload the images together to your computer. Put them together in a software package you’re comfortable with–it doesn’t matter if it’s PowerPoint or iMovie. Now your child’s story is on screen!
  • If you’re good with video editing, or want an excuse to learn, you can help your child make videos featuring his or her toys. You could take inspiration from a favorite program; for example, a lot of families have created video remakes of the “Accidents Happen” song from Thomas and Friends. Or, you can help your child use dolls or stuffed animals act out a story that you videotape. Technology is so ubiquitous nowadays, and so affordable, that there’s lot of potential for making cute, creative stuff!
  • Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth also recommends the web site Storybird for creating stories and, for those who have iPads, a variety of storytelling apps. I don’t have an iPad myself, but I’m eager to check out Storybird–it looks promising.

Readers: Do you know of any other good books for young children about TV and related topics? Or, are you familiar any other resources that parents can use to help young children create their own media? If so, please post them here–I’d love to add them to this post!

Turn off your television! Screen-Free Week starts Monday.

Have you heard of “screen time”? It’s a term describing the time we spend in front of screens, large and small, consuming media on a daily basis.

Television.
Computers.
Video games.
iPhones.
iPads.

Many screens compete for our attention, and we’re spending more time with them than ever.

Because of concerns about this trend, experts encourage parents to keep their children’s time with all these screens to a minimum. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of two, and a maximum of two hours daily for preschool children.

But it’s easy to make screen time a family habit. In the typical U.S. home, T.V. is a focal point for relaxation and entertainment–constantly on, as long as someone is at home and awake.

Unfortunately, for our kids, too much screen time can harm their development. Too much media and too little time on other developmentally important tasks can lead to poor school performance, childhood obesity, and other problems. New research suggests that even background television–when the T.V. is on without really being watched–can harm younger children by interrupting their mental tasks.

Too much screen time hurts older children, too. For example, adolescents who watch three or more hours of television each day often have more trouble completing their homework and risk long-term academic problems, according to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Overuse of internet, including social media, has been implicated in similar problems.

Screen-Free Week logoMedia habits are hard to break. That’s why the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) sponsors Screen-Free Week annually. This year, Screen-Free Week runs from from April 30 to May 6. Thousands of families will participate, putting aside their screens for other fun activities.

The CCFC explains:

Screen-Free Week is a fun and innovative way to improve children’s well-being by reducing dependence on entertainment screen media, including television, video games, computers, and hand-held devices.  It’s a time for children to play outside, read, daydream, create, explore, and spend more time having fun with family and friends.

It’s also a chance to reset media habits. After taking a break for a week, many families find it easier to enjoy other activities besides screen time on a routine basis.

Play, not screens (CCFC image)So, what will families do with all their “extra time” during Screen-Free Week? The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations. The CCFC suggests these ideas:

  • Play with art supplies
  • Play with words
  • Play with music
  • Make up songs
  • Play with blocks
  • Play with nothing
  • Play cards and board games
  • Play indoors
  • Play outdoors
  • Play tag
  • Play sports
  • Play together
  • Play alone

Want more detailed possibilities? Here’s a list of 101 great screen-free activities, courtesy of the CCFC:

101 Screen-Free Activities, Part 1101 Screen-Free Activities, Part 2

My family will join Screen-Free Week. Won’t you?

Parents: Is Screen-Free Week a good option for your family? What kinds of fun things could you do in a week without screen time?

Also, if you’ve participated in a previous Screen-Free Week and have any suggestions or memories to share, please post them below!

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Pretty Princess Problems: The Case of Princess Celestia

My family and I were shopping for a child’s birthday present this weekend when we came upon the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic section at a local Target store. As I’ve discussed previously, MLP:FIM is an unusually good children’s cartoon. My three-year-old son loves it, and he was excited to see these toys.

My son searched for his favorite character, Rainbow Dash, but there were none to be found. Then, the largest MLP toy in the aisle caught his attention: the talking My Little Pony Princess Celestia.

My son pressed the bright yellow button on Princess Celestia’s cutie mark, and her wings lit up. He was entranced. But as the toy began speaking, my husband and I exchanged annoyed glances. This toy repositioned Princess Celestia as a conceited, girly-girl princess stereotype—not the wise, powerful leader and mentor portrayed on screen.

So, I grabbed my phone and took this video:

What’s going on here?

We captured 12 different sayings, which I think is all of them. I later transcribed them* and categorized each saying according to topic, in a miniature content analysis. Here are my findings:

APPEARANCE (5)
I love when you comb my hair!
Oh, my hair looks beautiful.
My wings are so pretty!
My barrettes look so pretty!
You’re beautiful!

FRIENDSHIP (2)
I love to make new friends!
You’re my best friend!

PRINCESS (2)
I am Princess Celestia.
I’m a princess! Are you a princess too?

ACTIVITY (2)
Let’s fly to the castle.
I will light the way.

EXCLAMATION (1)
Spectacular!

In short, 5 out of 12 of this toy’s sayings are appearance-centric—possibly more, depending on your interpretation of the phrases “Spectacular!” and “I’m a princess! Are you a princess, too?” So if a child plays with this Princess Celestia toy, about half of the time, he or she will be subjected to pretty princess rhetoric—the kind of vanity discourse that the show, happily, is free of. For parents who appreciate the show’s generally informed approach to girly-girl stuff, this toy would present an unpleasant surprise.

In relation to this, it’s important to consider this toy’s appearance. Although Princess Celestia is portrayed on screen as a white pony, this toy is pink as can be. (In the video, listen to my son’s surprise: “She’s Princess Celestia?” and “She supposed to be white!” Yup. Sorry, sweetie.)

So, why is this pink Princess Celestia toy obsessed with stereotypical pretty princess interests?

Princess Celestia’s pre-production history offers some insight on the issue. Lauren Faust, MLP:FIM‘s creator, originally planned for Celestia to be a Queen. At Hasbro’s insistence, however, she was made a princess. Faust has explained:

I was told [by Hasbro] that because of Disney movies, girls assume that Queens are evil (although I only remember 1 evil queen) and Princesses are good. I was also told that the perceived youth of a Princess is preferable to consumers.

She does not have parents that outrank her. I brought the weirdness of that situation to my bosses, but it did not seem to be a continuity concern to them, so I’m letting it alone. I always wanted her to be the highest authority, and so she remains so. And I certainly don’t want marriage to be what would escalate her. (Bad messages to girls and what not.)

[...]  I put up a bit of a fight when her title changed, but you win some, you loose some.

In short, Hasbro wasn’t interested in fighting stereotypes in this instance. Their execs just wanted to cash in on stereotypes about pretty princesses. They apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a princess instead of a queen.

Toy manufacturers are content to market stereotypes to consumers who, unfortunately, they see as little more than stereotypes: “Girls love princesses! Princesses are girly and pretty and pink! Let’s give girls what they want.”

Yeah, right.

As critics such as Peggy Orenstein have argued, this is a huge problem in our culture–for girls, for their imaginations, and their visions for their own futures. And it’s the antithesis of girl power.

Consider Lego’s recent and controversial decision to create a separate girly-girl line of Legos for girls, instead defying the stereotype that girls will ONLY play with pink toys and inviting them to build with regular legos. It’s the same kind of logic.

Toy manufacturers need to stop pretending that what’s good for their bottom line is what’s good for girls.

So, Hasbro: I have some ideas for future iterations of the Princess Celestia toy. She could say:

I’m a princess! I rule my country with wisdom.
I love teaching my students. Do you love school?
You’re so smart!
You remind me of Twilight Sparkle, my best student.
Can you tell me what you learned today?
Together, we can do anything!

There. Now, that wasn’t so difficult, was it?

Parents: Have you had similar issues with toys in the past? Do any of your children own this Princess Celestia toy, and if so, what are your thoughts on it? (Bronies, what do you think?)


Update (1/17/12): I’ve set up a petition at Change.org, urging Hasbro to reprogram the talking Princess Celestia toy. Please sign itif you agree.

Also, if anyone has other ideas about what the talking Princess Celestia toy should be saying, I’m all ears. Post your ideas below, and I’ll consider adding them to the petition.

Thanks!


* A full transcript of the video, including what my son and I are saying, is available on the YouTube page.

Note [added 1/20/12]: In my list of suggestions, I originally offered, “You’re beautiful, outside *and* in,” meant as a corrective to the emphasis on external beauty in princess toys. But some moms have persuaded me that, really, we don’t need any additional beauty rhetoric! (Smart moms, you rock.) So I’ve replaced it with, “Can you tell me what you learned today?” which is very much in line with the character on the show.

My Little Pony: Even better than The Powerpuff Girls

A children’s television cartoon that appeals to boys and girls, men and women, is a rarity.

The Powerpuff GirlsThe Powerpuff Girls exemplified this. In 1998, it stunned the television industry by crossing demographic barriers. The combination of extreme cuteness and extreme strength in well-written characters proved a point: Boys (and men) will indeed watch a show about girls, IF the characters have … well … character.

(Writers, take note: To be successful, girl characters need to be defined by more than their sex. “Girl” is not a character.)

Because of The Powerpuff Girls‘ success, the networks greenlighted a bunch of other girl hero cartoons. After years of being depicted in passive secondary roles or insipid leading roles, girls were everywhere.

Milky Way by Lauren FaustNear the end of the decade, cool cartoon girls were no longer on-trend. But while working on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Powerpuff animator and writer Lauren Faust was developing a new concept: Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls. Despite her best efforts (chronicled on her blog), these great characters never got a television show (though they did enter production as some really nice plush dolls).

Enter the Ponies

When Faust pitched the Milky Way show to Hasbro execs, her approach resonated with them. They didn’t have a place for Milky Way, but they wondered: would she re-imagine the My Little Pony brand with them?

Applejack & Rainbow DashAt first, Faust felt “skeptical”; as she explained in Ms. Magazine, “Shows based on girls’ toys always left a bad taste in my mouth, even when I was a child. They did not reflect the way I played with my toys.” But she realized that if she took the lead on the new My Little Pony, she could rebut “the perception that ‘girly’ equals ‘lame’ or ‘for girls’ equals ‘crappy'”. So, she developed the characters and the show, and she led the production of season one of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.*

MLP: Friendship is Magic vs. The Powerpuff Girls

I love putting current media texts in the context of their predecessors. So, let’s consider: how does MLP stack up against those pioneers, the PPGs?

  1. Both feature a range of female characters who are individuals in their own rights.
  2. Both feature lead characters who are active, smart, and have agency–arguably making them good role models for children.
  3. They appeal to boys and girls alike, thanks in large part to their non-stereotypical characters. (I recall one mom telling me that her five-year-old son “insisted Buttercup is a boy”; similarly, my three-year-old son seems to believe that the pony Rainbow Dash is a boy, calling her a “he.”)
  4. They appeal to adults as well as children; MLP has a devoted following of male teenagers and adults called “bronies,” who are such dedicated fans they even have their own MLP convention.

Furthermore:

  • MLP is produced specifically as a children’s show (rather than for Cartoon Network), so the producers had to adhere to Educational and Informational standards. This means there’s less chance of the characters modeling bad behaviors.
  • The PPGs featured a lot of fighting, and many parents objected to the frenetic violence. In contrast, the ponies exist in a more peaceful realm. For example, when the ponies attempt to drive a dangerous dragon away, only gentle Fluttershy succeeds: after giving the dragon a stern talking-to about bullying, he agrees to leave.

Finally, while the PPGs offered three character “types” — Blossom, a smart girl; Bubbles, a cute girl; and Buttercup, a tough girl — MLP’s six leads have more range, individually and collectively. Perhaps my favorite quote from Faust’s piece in Ms. is this, on what she really wants viewers to take away from the show:

the six leads from MLP: Friendship is MagicThere are lots of different ways to be a girl. You can be sweet and shy, or bold and physical. You can be silly and friendly, or reserved and studious. You can be strong and hard working, or artistic and beautiful. This show is wonderfully free of “token girl” syndrome, so there is no pressure to shove all the ideals of what we want our daughters to be into one package. There is a diversity of personalities, ambitions, talents, strengths and even flaws in our characters–it’s not an army of cookie-cutter nice-girls or cookie-cutter beauty queens like you see in most shows for girls.

::nodding:: Yes. That’s really important.

Parents: Have you seen My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic yet? What do you and your children like best about it? Are there any elements that give you pause?

Interested in reading more about girl heroes and girls’ television cartoons? Check out my new book, Growing Up With Girl Power.

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* I was sorry to learn that Faust left her position as MLP’s producer after its first season was complete. I wonder what the second season has in store, with Faust in only a consulting role. But I’m definitely looking forward seeing whatever she moves on to!