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