Television as a Learning Tool

My kids love this – it’s one of the funnest tunnel systems you’ll ever see, and it’s critical to an understanding of World War II. It’s the Maginot Line, on France’s border with Germany, and we’ll be watching a History Channel documentary video on it next week.

These days, it’s difficult to find an expert who thinks television is good for children.

And yet, it’s pretty obvious, even to the biggest TV critics among us, that television can provide information in a far more memorable way than any other medium.

The problem of television for children does not lie in the technology itself. Instead, it lies in both how television is used by children, as well as the specific TV content that they view.

I’ve found a way to make television very educational for my children, and to virtually eliminate the downside that comes from spending many hours a day passively watching. In other words, television in our house is a huge learning asset, not a necessary evil.

Here’s how I do this:

  • Don’t offer live TV: With live television, someone else outside your home is in charge. Thus, the viewer can’t pause the program, and he/she must watch all advertisements. Instead of live TV like cable (we have no cable service!), we exclusively watch “asynchronous” programming – DVDs or videos purchased or rented from services like iTunes or Netflix.
  • Be there, always: Our television is never a babysitter. I watch everything my kids watch, sitting right next to them. In fact, because I pause it so much to explain things (see below), I don’t leave it running even if I run to the bathroom for a minute.
  • One hour a day, maximum: Because I’m always in front of the television with my kids, in total control of the remote (see below), we can’t possibly watch for that long. Besides, television is a relatively low priority in our house, with outdoor play being the unquestioned top priority. We don’t even think about turning on the TV in the months when the sun goes down at bedtime or later (oh, how I miss those days right now!!!).
  • Pause the program frequently to explain: I do this, on average, once every minute or two. About half the time, I hit “pause” on my own, and the other half the time, my kids bark out questions that cause me to pause the program. From start to end, we spend about two to three times as long in front of the television as the length of a program. A half hour program, then, takes us one to one and a half hours to get through. Thus, television actually acts as a catalyst to conversation in our family. Imagine that!
  • Only choose content that supports our passions: I often have my boys in what I call a “deep dive,” a learning journey in which we learn as much as we possibly can with no end in sight. We only watch videos that supports our deep dives. So, these days, we’re watching videos about World War II, including The World at War (30th Anniversary Edition) documentary series and the movie, The Great Escape. Also, my oldest son Marco (8) and I are talking a lot these days about moral dilemmas of growing up, so we catch an appropriate episode of The Wonder Years now and then. It’s important to note that focusing on deep dives means that we never turn on the television merely to kill time. We always know exactly what we’re going to watch and why before we turn it on.

Does the way we watch television in our family seem weird to you? Eccentric?

Well, yes, it’s quite different than the way most families do it. That’s good, because television is a huge problem for most families. They watch wayyy too much in wayyy too passive a manner. Rather than stimulating thinking, television done this way stifles it.

What do you think? Are we too radical? Actually, for many years, we had zero TV in our house, which is even more radical. I think zero TV is better than the way most families do it, but I really like where we are now.

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