Learn­ing pro­grammes

Is it pos­si­ble to in­stil val­ues in young chil­dren through tv shows and the per­form­ing arts?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - Sto­ries by ELAINE DONG star2@thes­tar.com.my

Young chil­dren learn from shows on screen and stage. Or, do they?

H OW much TV is too much, or not enough? When should you start bring­ing your kids to the the­atre? What kind of shows should they watch? So many ques­tions! As if be­ing a par­ent is not hard enough, now we have to nav­i­gate the mine­field of choos­ing the “right” shows to ex­pose our kids to?

Ev­ery once in a while, the field of psy­chol­ogy likes to throw us for a loop, one minute say­ing too much TV is detri­men­tal to brain de­vel­op­ment, the next ex­tolling the virtues of stim­u­lat­ing pro­grammes.

The lat­est to hit the head­lines is the US an­i­mated se­ries Sponge­bob Squarepants, which is said to ad­versely af­fect the learn­ing abil­ity and self-con­trol of four-year-olds (see story “Keep­ing watch” on page 4). Re­sults of the study are enough to alarm par­ents, even though it was not a com­pre­hen­sive ex­er­cise and it in­volved only a small num­ber of ran­domly picked par­tic­i­pants.

It is all well-in­ten­tioned; af­ter all, there are many painstak­ing hours poured into sci­en­tific re­search aimed at em­pow­er­ing and in­form­ing par­ents. It is bet­ter to know that young chil­dren, es­pe­cially those un­der the age of two, shouldn’t be ex­posed to too much TV, than not to know.

How­ever, as much as parenting is a learned skill, it is also about com­mon sense. Be­tween an ap­ple and a lollipop, you choose to give your two-year-old an ap­ple. I hope. You feed them healthy meals, not just to pro­duce healthy bod­ies, but to in­stil good food habits in their life­time.

In the same way that you nur­ture their bod­ies, you know you need to fill their minds with the good stuff. You know you shouldn’t ex­pose your tots to shows that have vi­o­lence and vul­gar lan­guage. You prob­a­bly au­to­mat­i­cally choose the shows with colour and mu­sic and nicely drawn car­toons, and if you’re an Asian mother, you would grav­i­tate to­wards shows that prom­ise to teach your child the al­pha­bet, arith­metic and sci­ence.

TV as teacher?

Here’s where the line starts to blur. From want­ing to ex­pose chil­dren to knowl­edge, par­ents are slowly but surely inch­ing to­wards the other side, where they find them­selves in­creas­ingly look­ing to var­i­ous me­dia to “ed­u­cate” their child.

Chil­dren’s TV pro­duc­ers and the­atre com­pa­nies pick up on this, churn­ing out shows with ed­u­ca­tional con­tent. They are fo­cused on cater­ing to this great niche of par­ents with young chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly the un­der five’s.

In­ter­na­tional chan­nels like Dis­ney Ju­nior, Nick Jr, Baby tv and Cbee­bies are in al­most ev­ery coun­try, in­clud­ing Malaysia. There are seg­men­ta­tions – pro­grammes for ages zero to two, two to four, three to five. There are re­search and de­vel­op­ment teams ded­i­cated to com­ing up with shows that will stim­u­late, de­velop and teach.

Chil­dren’s the­atre, too, is flour­ish­ing, with shows that are equally fo­cused and seg­men­tised.

The ques­tion has to be asked: Do these shows teach any­thing? Or is it just a gi­ant mar­ket­ing ex­er­cise to cap­i­talise on a par­ent’s in­tense de­sire for ex­cel­lence in their chil­dren?

Dr Goh Chee Leong, child psy­chol­o­gist and dean of the Fac­ulty Of Be­havioural Sciences at HELP Univer­sity Col­lege in Kuala Lumpur, says there’s noth­ing wrong with watch­ing TV, but adds that TV and shows are en­ter­tain­ment, and par­ents need to be re­al­is­tic about their ex­pec­ta­tions.

“You can­not de­pend on TV to ed­u­cate a child,” he says. “Yes, there are good shows that ex­pose chil­dren to new ideas and knowl­edge, which is a bonus, but es­sen­tially, par­ents need to look at it as en­ter­tain­ment.”

Tele­vi­sion, he says, is like any of the me­dia that helps ex­pose chil- dren to dif­fer­ent ideas and it does it very well, in a quick, colour­ful and ex­cit­ing way.

“Tele­vi­sion en­gages a child very eas­ily. And be­cause of that, it is a dou­ble-edged sword. It is en­gag­ing, and also ad­dic­tive,” he says. “The point that par­ents need to be aware of is not the role TV has in ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren, rather the lim­ited role TV has in ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren.”

The­atre for the young

Richard Gard­ner, artis­tic di­rec­tor of Gard­ner & Wife The­atre, the Kuala Lumpur-based com­pany he founded with his Malaysian wife Chae Lian in 2000, presents in­ter­na­tional the­atre acts for adults and kids.

In Septem­ber 2004, the com­pany brought in Pluck – Mu­si­cal Ar­son, a fam­ily-friendly gig that was quite a hit with the kids. Gard­ner says it wasn’t a con­scious de­ci­sion to bring in a show that catered to young chil­dren but through the re­sponse to the pro­duc­tion, he re­alised there was a glar­ing gap in the mar­ket for chil­dren’s the­atre. So it be­came the right thing to do.

Just like in tele­vi­sion, there is seg­men­ta­tion in the­atre for chil­dren as well, for the age groups of zero to three, three to five, and five to eight and be­yond.

Gard­ner notes that there are shows that cater to the pre-lit­er­ate, where the songs are with­out words, while shapes, colours and sounds are used to en­ter­tain. A-tishoo! by the Bri­tish out­fit Dy­namic New An­i­ma­tion which was staged in KL in 2008, was one such show that tar­geted kids aged be­tween three and six.

Gard­ner & Wife The­atre is not strict with age lim­its. “If you ask me when par­ents should bring a kid to the the­atre, I would say it’s up to the kid,” says Gard­ner.

“You’d be sur­prised at how much chil­dren can ab­sorb. There was one show, Dr Bun­head, which is a slightly more mas­cu­line show. It’s about a sci­en­tist that blows things up. This four-year-old girl got scared of the loud ex­plo­sions and had to be brought out of the the­atre. A cou­ple of days later, I ran into the fa­ther and he told me his daugh­ter had talked about noth­ing but that show!”

Value-added fac­tor

Gard­ner likes that chil­dren’s shows don’t ram so-called val­ues down your throat. Some of the shows are adapted from well-loved chil­dren’s books. When they turn it into a show, they “teach” val­ues in a way that chil­dren can re­late to.

The the­atre maven cites as ex­am­ples three pro­duc­tions by Bri­tain’s Blun­der­bus The­atre Com­pany, which were pre­sented by Gard­ner & Wife in Malaysia in re­cent times.

There’s The Self­ish Croc­o­dile (based on Faustin Charles’ best­selling book), which re­turns for its sec­ond run in Malaysia in Petaling Jaya, Se­lan­gor, this month; the pro­tag­o­nist learns the per­ils of be­ing self­ish. Elmer The Ele­phant, a story by author David Mc­Kee, is about be­ing happy de­spite be­ing dif­fer­ent; while Gi­raffes Can’t Dance, writ­ten by Giles An­dreae, is about it be­ing okay to look a lit­tle silly some­times.

Hav­ing loved the­atre since he was five grow­ing up in Bri­tain, Gard­ner, 62, thinks go­ing to the the­atre is about the amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of do­ing some­thing as a tribe as it “teaches chil­dren im­por­tant so­cial­i­sa­tion skills”.

“Why do you go to some­one’s house and eat din­ner as a group? It’s about do­ing some­thing to­gether. This is the same rea­son we teach kids in classes, be­cause half the ed­u­ca­tion is from books, the other half is so­cial­i­sa­tion. It’s not just about the IQ, but the EQ as well,” he says.

Fig­ures are en­cour­ag­ing when it comes to chil­dren’s the­atre. Ac­cord­ing to Gard­ner, seven years ago when they did the first chil­dren’s show, they sold about 1,000 tick­ets a year. Now, in 2011, they would have sold 15,000 tick­ets by year end. This ex­cludes tick­ets sold to mostly in­ter­na­tional schools for their week­day shows, which is an­other 15,000.

Gard­ner & Wife did ap­proach national schools to bring their stu­dents to see its shows, but were told it wasn’t in their list of pri­or­i­ties.

The way ahead

As par­ents come to re­alise that ed­u­ca­tion takes many forms, not just aca­demic, it can only bode well for the child. Both TV and the­atre are great forms of en­ter­tain­ment, and should they im­part val­ues, whether in con­tent or ex­e­cu­tion, that’s great.

It’s easy to dis­miss this re­lent­less pur­suit of aca­demic ex­cel­lence in every­thing as Asian, even seek­ing ed­u­ca­tional con­tent in en­ter­tain­ment, but there’s a grow­ing num­ber of Malaysian par­ents who are seek­ing a more holis­tic ap­proach to bring­ing up ju­nior. Many are go­ing back to ba­sics and realising the ben­e­fits of ex­pos­ing chil­dren to play and non-aca­demic ar­eas like mu­sic, drama and art.

As with any cy­cle or trend in parenting ap­proach, mar­keters fol­low close at the heels. We’re be­gin­ning to see shows (TV and the­atre) go­ing back to the con­cepts of cre­ativ­ity, play and humour.

So there’s re­ally no es­cap­ing the vast reach of “en­ter­tain­ment”. And why should we, when it’s so much fun?

as the self­ish croc­o­dile makes a re­turn to the Malaysian stage, we speak to an artis­tic di­rec­tor on how drama can help to trans­form chil­dren. T HE Self­ish Croc­o­dile, the book by Faustin Charles with colour­ful il­lus­tra­tions by Michael Terry, is be­ing brought to life on stage once more in Malaysia by Gard­ner & Wife The­atre. The pup­pet show from Bri­tain’s Blun­der­bus The­atre Com­pany was first pre­sented in Kuala Lumpur in 2008. It’s back for an en­core this month, in Petaling Jaya, Se­lan­gor.

Bill Davies, Blun­der­bus’ artis­tic di­rec­tor who was here to per­form the last time, gives an in­sight into the world of the­atre for chil­dren: Why did you choose to do the story of The Self­ish croc­o­dile?

The Self­ish Croc­o­dile is a hugely pop­u­lar chil­dren’s sto­ry­book and has been since it was pub­lished in 1998. The vivid and charm­ing il­lus­tra­tions by Mike Terry begged to be lifted from the page and per­formed live for lit­tle ones.

The huge ar­ray of an­i­mals, from the croc­o­dile him­self, lit­tle mouse, the gazelles, lion and hippo, was a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate beau­ti­ful and orig­i­nal pup­pets to take the per­for­mance to the next, mag­i­cal level. What is it about the­atre plays that reach out to kids?

The the­atre is mag­i­cal and fan­tas­ti­cal. It’s an es­cape from re­al­ity, be it a day at school or a day in the of­fice. Chil­dren, and adults, can be whisked away into an­other world. Ev­ery time you choose to do a show, do you have a mes­sage in mind?

Our plays will al­ways be fun, en­er­getic and vi­brant with a clear ed­u­ca­tional twist. Af­ter 14 years of tour­ing, we’ve crafted a sig­na­ture style which con­tains quirky, de­tailed and brightly coloured sets, em­bel­lished cos­tumes and, of course, beau­ti­ful hand­made pup­pets, all of which make a show recog­nis­ably Blun­der­bus.

These all tap into a child’s imag­i­na­tion and have a huge “feel-good fac­tor”. The book we adapt has to be on the national cur­ricu­lum and show true po­ten­tial to be­come a script. cri­tique our per­for­mances. They will make it very ob­vi­ous if they are en­joy­ing a per­for­mance or not. If you can see them fid­get­ing about or pre­oc­cu­pied, you know they have lost in­ter­est. When you see a child sit­ting still and trans­fixed on the play, we know we’ve got the level just right and it works! We would never rule out chil­dren tak­ing part in the fu­ture, and with our youth the­atre open­ing in the new year, this may set a new path­way for Blun­der­bus.

–ElaineDong Some books are beau­ti­fully writ­ten, but would strug­gle to be adapted for live au­di­ences. How does per­form­ing arts im­pact kids, whether they’re per­form­ing in it or watch­ing it?

Go­ing to the the­atre is a three-di­men­sional ex­pe­ri­ence and no TV pro­gramme or com­puter game can com­pare to the amount of en­joy­ment and en­ter­tain­ment a live the­atre per­for­mance can evoke.

All the lovely ac­tors that work for Blun­der­bus are trained to get the chil­dren tak­ing part and feel­ing like they are part of the per­for­mance. Should par­ents en­cour­age kids to par­tic­i­pate in per­form­ing arts/show­man­ship?

Most def­i­nitely. A live per­for­mance stays with a child for years. Not only do they learn from a beau­ti­fully crafted script, or rep­e­ti­tions of catchy songs, but they will ab­sorb the at­mos­phere a group of peo­ple can cre­ate. It will build so­cial skills, an imag­i­na­tion and con­fi­dence in their own abil­ity. Drama is a great way to bring a shy or ner­vous child out of them­selves. Your shows are for kids, but acted out by adults. Will there be a show in the fu­ture where kids are the ac­tors?

At the mo­ment our per­for­mances hinge on the skill and train­ing of our adult ac­tors. The plays them­selves al­ways en­cour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion by get­ting the chil­dren up on stage, or in front of their class­mates. This might mean look­ing af­ter a pup­pet or hold­ing a piece of set or join­ing in with the songs.

We al­ways use chil­dren to re­view and n TheSelfishCrocodile runs from to­mor­row till Oct 22 at PJ Live Arts at Jaya One in Jalan Univer­siti, Petaling Jaya, Se­lan­gor. Show times: Tues­day-Fri­day, 10am; Satur­day, 11am, 2pm and 5pm; Sun­day, 2pm and 5pm (call 017-228 9849 to con­firm the show dates and times). Tick­ets: RM48, RM58, RM68 and RM78. Box off­fice opens ev­ery day from noon to 7pm.

Mouse tale: Malaysian kids were in­trigued by a pup­pet from TheSelfishCrocodile when it was first staged in the coun­try in 2008. The chil­dren’s the­atre show re­turns for an en­core this month. – Photo cour­tesy of Gard­ner & Wife The­atre

The­atri­cal im­pre­sar­ios:

richard and chae Lian, of Gard­ner & Wife the­atre, with duke, one of their three dogs. the com­pany brings in in­ter­na­tional shows for adults and kids.

‘tele­vi­sion is a dou­ble-edged sword; it is en­gag­ing, and also ad­dic­tive,’ says dr Goh chee Leong.

Colour­ful and fun: theSelfish croc­o­dile pre­sented in Malaysia in 2008. – Photo cour­tesy of Gard­ner & Wife the­atre (In­set) bill davies.

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