Chocolate-Covered Broccoli and Children’s Play

This fall, American children are being treated to something never before seen: Saturday mornings without a single cartoon not bearing the e/i rating. In 1998, the FCC ruled that basic stations had to serve at least three hours of educational content a week, and so stations decided the easiest way to do that was to dedicate a programming block already targeting children to that cause. The e/i rating is given to children’s programming that meets certain criteria, both education and marketing related. (I used to have a really good resource on e/i, but the site appears to have been taken down. Sorry.) They’ve commonly been isolated to PBS, although other stations have woven them into their line-ups.

At first, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney all offer Saturday morning blocks. But while nearly every home in America has a television, just under half of those homes has some sort of cable service. That means kids in just over half of these homes don’t have access to cartoons that aren’t trying to shove some sort of learning down their throat. I know what  you’re thinking: Isn’t that a good thing? How can we make the cable companies come around and stop making our children stupid? And that’s not a healthy way to think.

We can’t process a lot of information coming at us constantly. This is part of the research-based thinking in how daily class schedules are designed in schools. The brain needs time to process what it’s just been exposed to. This is actually one of the keys to learning. If the brain doesn’t get that time, the material bounces off like a skipped stone on the water. This isn’t just true at school, but everywhere in life. We’re nearly always in situations that expose us to new information, to new skills. Without down time, our brains just can’t handle it and burn out. Kids are the same way; and for just over half the kids in this country, they’re now limited in how they can choose to spend that necessary down time. (I’ll just let you think on the ramifications of that.)

It’s almost like we’ve been led to believe that if we aren’t laying out very obvious teaching moments 24/7, kids can’t possibly learn. But just because a kid isn’t being told by a big fuzzy creature that two and two together equals four (as happened in Magi Nation, a cartoon from a few years ago aimed at tweens), it doesn’t mean the child isn’t gaining something useful from watching a cartoon that has no deliberately educational elements. Children’s play has long been inspired by the characters and worlds they meet through cartoons. They become inspired to draw, to write, to incorporate their favorite cartoons into their imaginative play. And sometimes, the skills inspired by watching cartoons as a child become a career path. That’s not insignificant.

This isn’t to say all cartoons bearing the e/i label are painful mini-lessons. A handful of cartoons, such as the much beloved PBS cartoon Arthur and the perpetually re-launched Winx Club (although it’s only the mid-2000’s series that achieved this distinction), focus more on character building skills that have formed the basis for so many social-emotional curricula…without taking the preschool show tack (where it is needed because this may be the first time those very young children actually hear any of this. Preschool shows really are their own class.) of being very literal about what is going on.

It took well over a decade from the initial ruling to reach this point, but I think we’re going to see a pushback. Whether it comes in the form of relaxing restrictions on what all children can be exposed to or higher quality educational cartoons remains to be seen. It should prove interesting, though.

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