In Fam­ily

Ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren through doc­u­men­taries.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - KATE LEMERY

I’ve been search­ing for ways to ed­u­cate my kids out­side the class­room this sum­mer. Now, more than ever, it seems im­por­tant to give my chil­dren dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on life and to teach them to be cre­ative, coura­geous and re­silient. I want them to be­come con­scious, in­de­pen­dent thinkers and good global ci­ti­zens, to be in­spired by great peo­ple and the beauty of our world. But how does a par­ent en­gage them in th­ese top­ics with­out lec­tur­ing? With movies.

Mes­sages de­picted in a good film some­times res­onate more deeply and have a greater im­pact than those in a book. Sto­ries told through doc­u­men­taries are pow­er­ful be­cause they’re about real peo­ple and hap­pen­ings. In 2002, I be­came so cap­ti­vated by the Shack­le­ton minis­eries that I passed up a night on the town in New York to watch the fi­nal, thrilling episode in my ho­tel room. I’ve no­ticed that Imax and plan­e­tar­ium pro­grams, such as Di­nosaurs Alive! and Planet Nine, have had the same ef­fect on my kids — ex­cit­ing them about the vast­ness and di­ver­sity of our uni­verse and en­cour­ag­ing trips to the li­brary to learn more. Watch­ing movies to­gether can open a di­a­logue about my kids’ view­points on var­i­ous top­ics.

Be­low are 10 doc­u­men­taries I want to share with my 9- and 7-year-old boys this sum­mer. All are about an hour long, ideal for short at­ten­tion spans.

Af­ter the film, we’ll talk about it. For any­one in­ter­ested in do­ing some­thing sim­i­lar, Com­mon Sense Me­dia at com­mon­sense­me­ of­fers good dis­cus­sion guides on many of th­ese ti­tles. Check the rat­ings and watch the pre­views be­fore view­ing th­ese with your kids. Some top­ics may be sen­si­tive.

■ Planet Earth, 2006 (550 min­utes)

Nar­rated by David At­ten­bor­ough (Bri­tish ver­sion) and Sigour­ney Weaver (U.S. ver­sion), each 50-minute episode in this 11-part, Emmy-win­ning se­ries fea­tures a daz­zling por­trait of a ge­o­graph­i­cal re­gion or wildlife habi­tat. The far-flung lo­ca­tions and im­pos­si­ble mo­ments with some of the world’s most as­ton­ish­ing crea­tures can help in­spire re­spect for our planet, and with it the de­sire to pre­serve our frag­ile ecosys­tem.

■ Wings of Life, 2013 (80 min­utes)

Meryl Streep nar­rates this Disney doc­u­men­tary, which has the power to kin­dle chil­dren’s cu­rios­ity about the nat­u­ral world. The cin­e­matog­ra­phy cap­tures the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of but­ter­flies, birds, bats and bees, and the film de­scribes how one-third of the world’s food sup­ply de­pends on th­ese in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble pol­li­na­tors.

■ Na­tional Ge­o­graphic — Lewis and Clark: Great Jour­ney West, 2002 (42 min­utes)

This con­densed nar­ra­tive on a great story of per­se­ver­ance and ex­plo­ration fea­tures stun­ning pho­tog­ra­phy and a stir­ring mu­si­cal score. Grownups and kids will be swept up in this dra­matic tale. At the end, you might be in­spired to dream up an ad­ven­ture.

■ Bi­og­ra­phy: Su­san B. An­thony, 2005 (50 min­utes)

Ab­sorb­ing re-en­act­ments and in­ter­est­ing de­tails help view­ers un­der­stand what life was like for Amer­i­can women be­fore An­thony’s half-cen­tury cru­sade, which ad­vanced women’s suf­frage. This doc­u­men­tary pro­files a re­mark­able woman who ex­hib­ited strength through ad­ver­sity and can help in­tro­duce a con­ver­sa­tion with your kids on where gen­der is­sues stand to­day.

■ Brook­lyn Bridge, 1981 (58 min­utes)

This early Ken Burns film brings to life the hu­man fac­tor be­hind the con­struc­tion of the gor­geous ar­chi­tec­tural mas­ter­piece beloved by New York­ers and oth­ers, and still in use. The movie also dra­ma­tizes the enor­mous en­gi­neer­ing and so­cial ob­sta­cles that were over­come in the process.

■ The Statue of Lib­erty, 1985 (60 min­utes)

Also on the ar­chi­tec­ture front, Burns chron­i­cles the con­struc­tion his­tory of this iconic land­mark and dis­cusses what lib­erty and free­dom have meant to Amer­i­cans over the past cen­tury. The film’s de­tails, mu­si­cal score and in­ter­views with im­mi­grants and well-known Amer­i­cans il­lu­mi­nate timely themes.

■ What’s on Your Plate?, 2010 (76 min­utes)

Film­maker Cather­ine Gund fol­lows Sadie and Safiyah, two cu­ri­ous, in­tel­li­gent 11-year-olds, for a year as they pose ques­tions to food ac­tivists, farm­ers and distrib­u­tors, and ed­u­cate them­selves on nutri­tion and food pol­i­tics. This thought-pro­vok­ing, fam­ily-friendly doc­u­men­tary might cause your kids to look more closely at the food on their plates and their eat­ing habits.

■ Spell­bound, 2002 (96 min­utes)

Eight ded­i­cated young Amer­i­cans vie for the ti­tle of Na­tional Spell­ing Bee cham­pion in this Os­car-nom­i­nated film, which brings the re­al­i­ties of aca­demic com­pe­ti­tion into fo­cus. You’ll find it im­pos­si­ble not to root for your fa­vorites as the field is nar­rowed from 250 con­tes­tants to one win­ner. This story of­fers mes­sages about hard work, sports­man­ship and the sac­ri­fice and re­wards in­volved in pur­su­ing dreams.

■ Pa­per Clips, 2004 (83 min­utes)

To bet­ter com­pre­hend the hor­rors of the Holo­caust, the stu­dents of Whitwell, Tenn., a small, largely ho­mo­ge­neous town, take on an ex­tra­or­di­nary project — col­lect­ing 6 mil­lion pa­per clips rep­re­sent­ing the 6 mil­lion Jews killed by the Nazis. This doc­u­men­tary chron­i­cles how the ex­pe­ri­ence trans­formed not only the stu­dents, but the comI

mu­nity, as it un­der­scores the im­por­tance of learn­ing about his­tory and other cul­tures.

■ Cos­mos: A Space­time Odyssey, 2014 (557 min­utes)

Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts this up­dated ver­sion of Carl Sa­gan’s award-win­ning TV se­ries Cos­mos (1980), which ex­plores the his­tory of the uni­verse and our place in it. Each of the 13 episodes fea­tures bril­liant vis­ual ef­fects and a per­fectly paired mu­si­cal score.

With un­flag­ging en­thu­si­asm, Tyson makes dif­fi­cult con­cepts easy to un­der­stand and stresses that any­one with imag­i­na­tion can be­come the next sci­en­tific su­per­star.


A ti­gress stalks in Ra­jasthan, In­dia, in this photo from the Emmy-win­ning se­ries Planet Earth — a doc­u­men­tary that par­ents can watch with their chil­dren this sum­mer.

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