Tunes, Tots and Tube: Rock On!
Are your preschoolers into music? So much so that they're bored with the simple, repetitive melodies that dominate the kids' music genre?
Help is coming, say both scholars of children's programming and parental watchdog groups. Already you can find a preschool program based on Broadway show tunes. The coming months will see yet another, this time devoted to the rhythms of hip-hop. Another is essentially an operetta.
In January the Disney Channel, under its Playhouse Disney imprimatur, launched "Johnny and the Sprites," a live-action show featuring veteran Broadway performer John Tartaglia as he sings Broadway-style songs penned by established composers.
Tartaglia plays Johnny, a charming young man who's moved from the city to the country. There he finds a group of magical creatures knows as the Sprites, furry little friends that keep him in line. In one typical episode Johnny realizes he's been spending too much time playing his new video games, and his friendship with the Sprites suffers for it.
"The bonus for parents is that Tartaglia's talent means that the show relies more on strong acting, good writing, and fun musical numbers, many of which are written by Broadway composers, than on general goofiness to capture audiences," wrote Emily Ashby, who reviewed it for the well-known parenting website Common Sense Media. "Johnny" airs Saturdays and Sundays on the Disney Channel.
Nickelodeon is going in a different musical direction: hip-hop. Come the fall it will launch "Yo Gabba Gabba!," a live-action puppet show featuring big toy monsters in a hip-hop music-and-dance environment.
Just last year Nickelodeon launched "The Wonder Pets!" on Noggin, the network's preschool channel. "The Wonder Pets!" is about a group of extraordinary animals that leave their classroom cages at night in order to save other pets that are in jeopardy. The show is modeled on an operetta, with songs running throughout each episode. Kids learn such lessons as the value of teamwork and solving problems. "Wonder Pets!" runs Monday through Friday, 4 p.m. EST; 1 p.m. PST.
Pam Gelman, a reviewer for Common Sense Media, writes that though the show may be good for children ages 2-5, "more precocious preschoolers and some kindergarteners may find the fuzzy softness of these pets, and the show in general, too young for their taste." One note of caution, she says: Some circumstances may be frightening to young viewers, such as a character being threatened by an oncoming meteor.
Why so much music now to go along with preschool programming? "When you hear information in a musical way, it sticks," said Teri Weiss, senior vice president of production and development for Nickelodeon Preschool Television.
It's not just deeper appreciation of music among new preschool programs -- there's also a deeper appreciation of language and culture, too.
Later this spring Nickelodeon will launch a new animated series called "Ni Hao, Kai-lan," about Chinese-American culture and language seen through eyes of a 5-year-old girl named Kai-lan. This follows Nickelodeon's other multicultural efforts "Dora the Explorer" and "Go, Diego, Go!"
These shows are a far cry from the preschool programming of yesteryear. Today, the emphasis is on literacy, math, and, most importantly, "metacognitive" skills (thinking about one's thinking).
One upcoming show, spinning off Disney's "Winnie The Pooh" franchise, is "My Friends Tigger and Pooh." It helps kids formulate questions around science themes, such as "What is an echo?" and "Why does a stream's waterflow occasionally slow down?" Disney executives say this show was created from suggestions by experts in child learning. "One of the things we always hear from educators is how to ask really good questions," says Nancy Kanter, senior vice president of original programming for the Disney Channel. "Usually we focus on the answers." "My Friends Tigger and Pooh" will debut later this spring.
Jocelyn Longworth, editor of KidsScreen, a business publication devoted to the children's entertainment market, says all this is good news for parents. "Preschool programming is at a pinnacle. The networks are doing more due diligence. These shows have the backbone of really good curriculums. That's the difference between now and ten years from now."