By Sarah Vander Schaaff

The most troubling thing about the story in last week’s New York Times, “New Disney Characters Make it Big in TV’s Preschool Playground“, was not that Disney Jr.’s “Sofia the First” is leaving Nick Jr.’s “Dora the Explorer” in the ratings dust. That contest, between the down-to-earth explorer in a pair of shorts with a talking backpack, and a newly dubbed princess in a floor-length dress with a crown, is another blog post entirely.

No, the troubling thing for parents might be the explanation Disney Jr. reportedly has for its successful new formula of preschool programming. According to The New York Times, Disney said, “its research indicated that mothers were less interested than they used to be in programs that promote academic goals. What matters more now, Disney said, is emotion-based storytelling that captures attention long enough to teach social value and good behavior.”

We’ve heard about prosocial messages before. Nick Jr., and especially Dora, is full of them. But this statement seems to suggest that Disney has found that parents don’t care as much about the other possibilities in programming, too. Look no further than the old standbys on PBS Kids (or Sprout) and many programs on Nick Jr. and even a few on Disney and you find shows that introduce letters and sounds, basic reading, math, and science, or a foreign language.

More important, perhaps, is that you see characters who care about learning. Are these traits no longer valued?

Let’s say the goal really has been reduced to entertainment. What’s so wrong with that? It is television, after all, and many parents, myself included, will admit that we turn it on for our young kids when we need to catch our breaths. The more it engages the better.

But consider this: according to the article in The New York Times, preschoolers spend an average of 32 hours a week watching TV. If the shows they watch are trending towards entertainment as opposed to education, one might compare them to a treat, like ice cream, after a healthy meal. By that logic, the amount of time these 2-5 year olds spend watching TV should be reduced accordingly.

Do you think any network is hoping we curb our consumption of the content they produce? No; and we’re grateful when their 22 minute program has allowed our kid to sit quietly long enough for us to make lunch.

But our preferences in children’s shows, or the ones we are guided to make, are big business.

According to The New York Times article, Disney expects to make 1.5 billion this fiscal year in merchandise related to Disney Jr. shows. “…a 50 percent increase from last year.”

Parents are eager for good television that captures their children’s imaginations. But given how much time and money families devote to these programs, I don’t think it’s too much to expect that those who are in the position to lead and shape young minds do what they can to cultivate a love of learning. Why not continue to offer more than passive entertainment to preschoolers, whose minds are so full of energy and potential?

As the mother of two girls, I hope the only ball that is dropped when it comes to these shows is the kind that requires a gown.

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