I am absolutely firmly convinced of the power of television for serving positive developmental ends,” says psychology professor Daniel Anderson. “Well-made television that’s designed to benefit children really does benefit them.”
Ideas like that, Anderson has found, can get you mixed up with a cartoon dog who leaves big blue paw prints all over the TV screen.
An internationally known expert on television and early childhood development, a scholar whose testimony before Congress helped to pass the landmark Children’s Television Act of 1990, Anderson is a longtime adviser to the makers of Sesame Street and other children’s TV fare. He’s currently consulting with Jim Henson Studios on the development of several new programs, and if your household includes any preschoolers, you’re probably familiar with the three shows Anderson helped the Nickelodeon network create for its popular new Nick Jr. lineup — Allegra’s Window, Gullah Gullah Island, and Blue’s Clues. (That last one, of course, is the paw print show in which a human host and his cartoon dog teach basic thinking skills to their preschool audience by giving the kids clues to figure out and mysteries to solve.)
Anderson started out studying how children watch TV; today he’s showing producers how to make the most of their medium and do the best for their preschool audience. His research into children and television began with attempts to investigate some of the conventional wisdom about TV’s reputed harmful effects. The psychologist smiles, “There was and still is a lot of criticism of the sort that ‘educational television is inherently an oxymoron.’ It can’t be educational because kids are passive when they watch TV, it shortens their attention span, it reduces interest in reading, and so on and so forth.”
By observing children in front of the TV set, Anderson found that the image of the zoned-out couch potato was a myth. The kids were anything but passive viewers. They moved around, they looked away from the TV set, they played with toys, they talked about what they were seeing and hearing. Their minds appeared to be active as well — processing the images on the screen, figuring out the characters and the action and the camera’s changing point of view. This was lively, useful cognitive activity, and there was no evidence that any of it led to shortened attention spans or diminished reading skills. His research led Anderson to conclude that even though a lot of TV for young children was “a waste of time at best” as far as its content was concerned, the television medium itself was ripe with untapped potential for quality educational programming. His consulting work with leading children’s TV producers is his way of putting his research insights to work to help the medium deliver on that potential.
Psychology professor Daniel Anderson puts his research insights to work to help the medium deliver on its potential for quality educational programming.
To illustrate how research into child psychology can help producers, writers, and actors create better TV shows, Anderson points to some distinguishing features of Blue’s Clues. First of all, the program is what they call in the trade a single-premise show. Double-premise shows, such as Sesame Street, operate on two levels as once. They aim primarily to entertain and educate young children, but they also reach out to parents with bits of wordplay and other jokes that skim over the heads of most kids. Single-premise shows, on the other hand, don’t make any concessions to adult viewers; they address children and nobody else. Anderson offers Barney and Mister Rogers as examples TV personalities who are enormously popular with chil dren even though adults love to hate them. “Their shows make absolutely no effort to talk to adults. We made the decision early on that Blue’s Clues was going to be single-premise, that every bit of it would be designed to reach preschoolers and nobody else.”
The goal of making a show that communicates effectively with preschoolers is not a simple one to achieve. Most adults, researchers have found, remember little or nothing from the first five years of their lives. Maybe a few disconnected images here and there, but no firm, coherent memory picture of what it’s like to be that age, to think in that way, to see the world through those eyes. Move ahead a few years into elementary school and the memories start to pile up. “Good writers can access their memories of those years, remember what they were interested in, and creatively work from there,” Anderson says. “But for the preschool years it’s a totally different story. You simply cannot use your intuitions about what it’s like to be a kid. If you don’t regularly work with kids, if you haven’t really studied early childhood, your intuitions are probably going to be wrong. What you’re remembering is when you were seven or eight or nine. Your thinking, the level of sophistication of the way you function, everything is just extraordinarily different at those ages than in the preschool years. That’s one reason why child development advisers are particularly important for preschool shows.”
One early piece of advice Anderson offered the Blue’s Clues producers was that they should run each episode for a full week, five consecutive days, and they should make a special point of publicizing this schedule and educating parents about the concept behind it. Young children dote on repetition, Anderson explains. “Pre-schoolers are very persistent about wanting the same story over and over again.” He calculates that his own daughter must have watched her Lion King video 30 times between her third and fifth birthdays. Research indicates that repetition is more than just something children enjoy; it’s a valuable tool for helping them achieve mastery over certain thinking and problem-solving skills.
Each episode of Blue’s Clues follows what Anderson describes as “a classic story design.” Along with Steve, the show’s human host, the viewers solve a mystery by going on a journey in search of clues. The mystery is a simple one — what does Blue, Steve’s animated canine friend, want this week? — and the dog marks the clues clearly with his blue paw prints. The viewers exercise their observational skills by spotting the telltale prints, then practice inferential skills by piecing the clues together to decipher Blue’s message. For example, if the clues are a horn, a basket, and a wheel, Blue wants to try riding a bike. A cup, a straw, and a cow indicate that Blue wants to drink some milk.
Whenever he finds a clue (assisted in the search by viewers who are encouraged to talk back to the screen and to sing and dance along with the characters), Steve pulls out a notebook and jots down a simple drawing of the object. Young children do not spontaneously think of creating a written record to serve as a memory aid, but once they see the notebook in action, they quickly come to understand the benefits. “One of the goals of the show is to teach memory skills,” Anderson says. “The concept of an external aid like a notebook doesn’t come naturally, yet preschoolers are quite capable of learning these skills.”
As Steve and the viewers hunt for clues, they encounter a variety of other characters and interrupt the search from time to time to challenge themselves with games and puzzles. For example, if sea creatures need help swimming through a reef, Steve might ask the viewers to match the shapes of the creatures to the shapes of holes in the reef. If baby critters need to be reunited with adults of the same species — a newborn spider with a full-grown spider, a caterpillar with a butterfly, a tadpole with a frog — Steve might ask viewers to make the connections.
In every game, Anderson says, the Blue’s Clues writers build in three different levels of difficulty. “Each game in principle starts out with a level that is challenging for three-year-olds but easy for four- and five-year-olds. The next level is supposed to be challenging to four-year-olds but still pretty easy for most five-year-olds. Then the highest level are the games challenging to five-year-olds.” As the show repeats from day to day throughout the week, Anderson adds, children are able to master games that were at first beyond their grasp.
Sometimes, of course, kids will just remember the right answer from one day’s show to the next. But Blue’s Clues places great emphasis on teaching the intellectual techniques and procedures involved in each game. For example, when trying to match a shape to a hole, very young children might not realize that they can rotate the shape to change its orientation and make it fit. By teaching them to perform mental manipulations of objects in space, a game can provide intellectual exercise that furthers preschoolers’ cognitive development.
Steve is the only human character on Blue’s Clues; everybody else is a cartoon, like Blue. But the young humans watch ing at home are encouraged to join in and see themselves as part of the show. “The idea is to get the audience involved in actively thinking,” Anderson says. “The whole concept of the show stemmed originally from the papers that I wrote in the early ’80s about the preschool audience being mentally active when they’re watching TV. The producer of the show, Angela Santomero, read my papers when she was a graduate student at Columbia and wanted to develop a show around actively thinking children who could interact with the program.”
To set the interactive mood, off-screen children’s voices call to Steve at various points in the show — pointing out clues he might be missing, reminding him to write down each clue in his notebook, and offering other advice. Trial screenings have shown that regular viewers soon catch on that their voices are also welcome. Too often, Anderson says, television teaches children “that they’re simply observers. We have the kid voice-overs to help let the audience know that they can participate, too. It works over time. A lot of kids don’t get it even after two or three exposures to the show, but after they see it about four or five times, they really start picking up on it. I can tell when my daughter is watching Blue’s Clues now, if she’s watching in another room from me, because suddenly she starts yelling at the TV set.”
As he has become deeply involved in making children’s TV, Anderson has continued studying the medium’s effects. With research funding provided by Nickelodeon, he and his students have been looking at how children watch Blue’s Clues and how well they learn the thinking skills the show strives to teach. “We’re doing research to try to determine whether kids are improving cognitive skills as a consequence of watching the show,” he says. Studies that Anderson did 15 or 20 years ago led to the creation of Blue’s Clues and other new children’s shows that are enlivening the world of educational TV. The research he’s conducting today could help another generation of innovators to design the shows that will be hitting the television screen by the time today’s preschoolers have children of their own.