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Multi-tasking Your TV

By Laura Fries

Technology has advanced so much that we expect a great deal from all of our gadgets. We have cars that talk to us, phones that serve as portable offices and computers with instant access to anywhere in the world. At the same time, TV technology has also advanced, giving us more channels to record digitally, and watch in high definition and surround sound for an entertainment experience like never before. Why is it though, we don't we expect more from the programming these fabulous devices deliver?

As parents, we should demand much more from the shows that we watch with our children. Time is a precious commodity for busy families and we need to really ask ourselves if we're getting our money's worth from our programming choices.

Although the delivery system has changed, most shows still have the same simple goal — to draw you in and keep you there. By now, everyone acknowledges that unlimited TV access for kids is a huge mistake. Still, even diligent parents who monitor the time their kids spend in front of the screen need to take a measured look at the quality as well. Shouldn't our programming selections offer more than just passive entertainment? After all, watching TV should be a choice, not a habit.

It's fine to unwind in front of the screen every once in a while, but why not unwind and spend quality time with your child while watching television? The trick is choosing the best shows that can serve as a launching pad for new, personal and learning experiences.

Smithsonian Channel is striving to do just that with its new slate of programming, including Inside the Vault, hosted by Tom Cavanaugh, which explores the multitude of hidden treasures that never make the museum floor and Critter Quest, a nature show for kids 5 to 12.

"We are an HD channel with 5.1 surround sound, so we are very much going for a quality experience in terms of technology," says David Royle, head of programming for Smithsonian Channel. "But it's no good just doing programming that's educational. The importance of education is absolutely clear, but with television you have to entertain and inspire as you educate. That is our challenge and that's exactly what we are determined to do."

Royle sees the future of these kinds of programs stretching far beyond the living room. Smithsonian Channel's website,, has an area for families to find books and other materials to enhance the viewing experience as well as share pictures and blogs of their own adventures. Beyond offering tie-ins, the channel is developing web components in which the goal, says Royle, is to reach a stage where there will be podcasts and telephone downloads that viewers can take away from the show.  For instance, Critter Quest host Peter Schriemer already provides ideas and projects to try at home. Soon, you'll be able to take his instructions with you, and perhaps a segment of the show on your iPod, out into your garden or back yard.

Not all channels or programs can offer that level of interaction, but parents just need a little imagination to make the ordinary extraordinary. Busy, single working mom Erin DeCaprio tries to only watch the shows that offer what she calls an extra bonus, but also works to make every TV experience with her five-year-old son Roman worthwhile. "TV doesn't have to be a babysitter. It can be a kind of tutor if you pay attention and use a little creativity," she says. "We don't have much time at home, but when we do, we'll watch a program like Wonder Pets and look for things that start with a certain letter — I see popcorn, I see something purple, I see a planet — or we'll follow up with some kind of 'find-out-more' activity. Shows like Peep in the Big Wide Word are easy to follow up with by going to the zoo or finding enrichment activities on the Internet. But even SpongeBob gets him thinking about undersea life and the properties of water. For instance, how can they make a campfire underwater?"

PBS is just one of the many networks that offer various enrichment tools for parents through their website,, as well as through accompanying books and activities. The trick is not to be fooled by marketing gimmicks. Just because it has a sticker with a particular character on it, doesn't mean it's educational enrichment. The product, book or game has to fit with the learning experience that you're looking for.  Parents just need to think about ways to use real, hands on projects to complete the viewing experience.

Look to your kids for clues and sparks of interest that can be easily ignited. A book about engineering is great for your Build it Bigger fan, but why not try a three dimensional puzzle of a place seen on MegaStructures? Take a field trip to local points of interests, including buildings with unusual architecture or bridges with special construction. Or, you can work on beefing up your child's vocabulary skills with an episode of Word Girl followed by the dictionary game or Scrabble for kids.

Even if a child is a fan of popular animated shows that don't have any obvious benefit, parents can use it to as segue to get away from the television. Check the local children's museum or art studio for more on animation. What artists use the same primary colors as their favorite show? Find out where Anime and Manga style animation comes from and have your child look it up on a map. National Geographic Channel has a plethora of interactive tools including maps, games and quizzes that can help kids discover the origins of their favorite stars, shows or art. Their national campaign,, has a very thorough site that helps kids of all ages become more aware of the world around us. Just be sure to get in on the fun when testing your whole family's global IQ. Learning together only adds to the experience.

Even cooking shows can offer many learning opportunities with just a little follow through. Units of measure, organizational skills, cause and effect are all part of the cooking process.  Use these types of shows as springboard off the couch and into the kitchen. Before you know it, you'll be making vegetables and not just becoming one in front of the TV.


About the Author
A freelance writer and TV Critic for Daily Variety, Laura Fries has been writing about TV and film entertainment for more than eighteen years. She lives with her husband, daughter and a small menagerie of pets in Alexandria, Virginia.


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Today's parents face unprecedented competition for influence in their children's lives - never has there been a more concerted effort at marketing to children. Families concerned as much about what their children are learning out of school as in, have difficult choices to make. If parents want their children to be thinking, literate citizens they will have to take a stand and be involved - as much after school as during.

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