Children's Programming Panel Educates Members
Children's Programming peer group event “What Every Kids Producer Needs To Know” offered content creators insight into how children learn. Among featured guests were children’s media consultant Donna Mitroff and author Ellen Galinsky.
In a classic research study dating back to 1961, four-year-old children were told they could either have one marshmallow immediately, or wait a while and have several marshmallows, setting up an internal conflict that each child had to resolve. As it turned out, the longer a child was able to wait, the less likely he or she was, later in life, to have low self esteem or engage in bullying.
This exercise in delayed gratification, a simple and direct way to measure confidence in children, was one of the numerous fascinating examples of how children learn, presented during the Television Academy’s Children’s Programming peer group executive committee’s morning event, “What Every Kids Producer Needs to Know.”
Held October 26 in the Academy’s Conference Center in North Hollywood, the event featured Ellen Galinsky, author of the book Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, in a program moderated by Academy member and children’s media consultant Donna Mitroff.
Galinsky, the president and co-founder of the nonprofit Families and Work Institute in New York, researched her book for ten years; the short video of the marshmallow test, along with those of other research studies, are incorporated in the vook (video book) version of Mind in the Making. She was asked to present at the Academy after former children’s programming peer group governor Nancy Steingard heard her speak at the Fred Rogers Center’s Fred Forward Conference earlier this year.
Initially planning to do a study and then a television special about children and learning, Galinsky decided upon a book instead after, she explained, “I went around the country and interviewed kids, and I couldn’t get them to talk to me about learning. They’d say, ‘Learning is important, or else [echoing what adults told them] you’ll be a bum on the street or you’ll be flipping burgers.’” Also, an Indiana study showed that only 39 per cent of kids went to school to learn, rather than to see their friends or for other reasons. “There was no fire in their eyes about learning.”
And seeing various experiments made Galinsky realize that there are skills kids have that weren’t being promoted, which help them thrive socially, emotionally and intellectually. “I felt a responsibility to share what the researchers were doing,” she said; she ultimately recorded experiments using cognitive science, neuroscience, linguistics and other research fields.
Those in attendance who create media products for the youngest children learned that, “children enter language hands first – by gesture,” Galinsky said. “And they are born with a language sense, a people sense, a causal sense – their brains are wired to understand language before they can talk, to hear sounds in their native language in patterns.”
After a video study demonstrating that even young babies can recognize who is helpful and who is a hindrance, Mitroff pointed out, “This is seminal growth development. [Children] are born to look for people who are more interactive and engaged with them, who are not the bad guys. These life skills were not being promoted by parents and teachers – so think about how you can promote them.”
Working from her handout describing the seven life skills explored in her book, Galinsky began with focus and self control – paying attention, not going on automatic. “The world kids live in is a distracted, multimedia world. We need to learn to help teach kids how to focus.” This involves the prefrontal cortex, which develops as children get older and is responsible for executive function thinking; even kindergartners are capable of such displays.
Where programming is concerned, Galinsky noted, stories could include “waiting for something bigger later, saving their allowance for something. Executive functions are always goal directed.”
Skill two, perspective taking, involves kids being able to recognize that there are other points of view than their own; those who do are less likely to be involved in conflicts. And therein lies another rich source of storytelling. “Parents should say to their children, what do you think the character is thinking? What do you think he’ll do next?’” Galinsky said.
The skill of taking on challenges was demonstrated by a video in which kids praised for completing tasks because they worked hard were more likely to take on a bigger challenge than those who were praised because they were smart. Not surprisingly, such kids do better in school and life.
Other skills included communicating, making connections – making unusual connections is the core of creativity – critical thinking and self-directed, engaged learning, including that transmitted by nonverbal communication. “You can talk through characters to children, [tell them] what’s going on by giving them nonverbal clues,” Mitroff suggested.
Summed up Galinsky, “”We have to promote these skills in everyday, fun ways. Test scores are not the be-all and end-all – you can’t forget about engagement learning. That’s what you in the media know, because that’s what you do. Educators need to learn from media people.”
In a Q&A session with the audience, Galinsky said that at ages two to three, kids can make the connection between a cartoon character and a real person, and applauded the idea of creating support materials for parents, such as online games to play with their kids.
Kelly DeLap-Evans and Michael R. Polis are the Children’s Programming peer group governors. The event was produced by former governor Vicki Ariyasu, in association with the American Center for Children and Media.