By Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — All over-the-air TV stations are required to carry at least three hours each week of educational children’s programming — a requirement that’s under threat of being dissolved by the Federal Communications Commission.
But before the FCC puts a relaxing of children’s TV rules on its agenda, it is worthwhile to pay attention to a study conducted by Sandra Calvert, a professor in the psychology department of Georgetown University in Washington.
Actually, it was three studies to account for variables in how the well-known children’s cartoon character Dora the Explorer — which, by the way, is featured on Nickelodeon, a cable channel — and how her audience identifies with her and regards her as their friend.
Calvert, in two of the three studies, had Dora appear on a TV screen in front of a child, asking a math question along the lines of, “I have three apples. If I add one more, how many does that make?” (In the third study, Dora was heard asking the questions, but not seen.)
The children, whose average age was 4.86 years old, are expected to answer Dora. Their average age indicates they have likely not started kindergarten, but may have been in a pre-K or day care setting where they might — or might not — have learned some basic addition or subtraction.
Sometimes, in video images extracted from the study and shown at an American Psychological Association conference in April in Washington, the children use their fingers to count, or scrunch their faces, or scratch their heads in hopes of coming up with the right answer.
But there is a time limit for them to come up with an answer. Otherwise, Swiper, the closest thing to a nemesis in the “Dora” cartoons, will take those apples, leaving nothing to be seen on the screen. “If Swiper takes anything you’ve got to start again,” Calvert said, but it gives an inducement to the youngsters to come up with an answer more quickly, lest Swiper return to his swiping ways.
Notice that it’s “an answer,” not necessarily “the right answer.” Children “get credit for a wrong answer if it was a math answer, but not for an irrelevant answer like ‘purple,'” Calvert said.
With the “add-one” exercise, Calvert added, “the quicker they respond with the right answer the new brain space they free up to more advanced cognitive skills.”
But the videos shown during the presentation indicated enough children figured out the right answer, and often on the first try.
When one girl gave the correct answer, and Dora congratulated her, the girl declared with wonder, “She’s talking to me!”
That kind of success can be replicated, Calvert asserted. “How can we make cartoon characters more salient to children?” she asked, adding there may some characters already on TV that are “ripe for exploration.”
It is an important point, because not every child will respond to Dora. “If you don’t like Dora, you’re not going to do as well” responding to her questions, Calvert said.
At this young age, children “kids have STEM skill deficiencies,” Calvert noted; STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. “Media characters are kids’ friends and playmates,” she added. “How do TV characters become teachers?”
Children respond positively to some kinds of animation, but less well to others, such as what Calvert called the “uncanny valley” model of animation such as that featured by the many characters played by Tom Hanks in the movie “The Polar Express.” Frankly, she said, those characters “look a little creepy.”
Calvert pointed to Fred Rogers — the subject of a graduate school paper she wrote that never got published– as a model. The creator and star of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran 31 seasons on public television, “looked into the camera directly and talked to children,” she said.
It may come as little surprise that Rogers is the subject of two upcoming movies. One “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, is a documentary of Rogers’ life and times that premieres in June. The other, “You Are My Friend,” is a fictionalized treatment of Rogers with the same Tom Hanks playing Fred Rogers, due in theaters in October 2019.