Children's television icon Fred Rogers was fond of quoting from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince": "That which is essential is invisible to the eye." Of course, the invisible essential can be wondrous or appalling. It's long been said that one should never see law or sausages being made; in each, the ingredients being ground together are far less appetizing than the finished product.
In Rogers' own field of children's media, however, the opposite is true; the more that's revealed about the process, the better. Producers and productions would benefit, and parents and reviewers would be heartened, from deeper descriptions and justifications of educational content.
When the Children's Television Act was first enacted (mandating that every broadcast station provide three hours per week of educational and informational content for kids) some cynical distributors sold "The Jetsons" and "The Flintstones." Their micron-deep educational rationales - that these series taught about the future and the past - were received as seriously as they were offered, and the resulting uproar from activists and press put the entire children's media industry into a poor light.
Around that same time, researchers were working on an elegant system for incorporating producers' notes about educational content, digitally linked second-by-second to its expression on screen (like a DVD playing with director's narration, only in downloadable text). The technology never caught on, but the concept - that producers can and should give parents as much information as possible about why and how their product is designed for learning - remains apropos today.
The gap between producers' claims of educational efficacy and a consistent standard for assessing those claims, especially for preschool media, is today's primary battleground in children's media. Every parent wants their children's investment in screen time to be worthwhile, so producers are happy to say their TV, DVDs, websites, toys and software are intellectually enriching. Sometimes, those claims reflect deep and thoughtful work to infuse beneficial content into a developmentally-appropriate format. Sometimes, they're little more than bait for busy, guilty parents.
Working in children's media for over a quarter century, I've been privileged to see that the majority of producers bring to their work an abiding commitment to quality. Their finished television programs, websites, apps or games are only the tip of the iceberg; beneath the surface may lie years of creative development from concept to production. The team has likely done multiple rounds of research to ensure that their vision and content align with the child's understanding. Scripts have undergone a dozen rewrites to make sure kids are engaged, entertained and locked into the mission and goals.
Even in ideal circumstances, however, no single product can honestly promise learning outcomes, given the widely varying circumstances under which young people live, grow, use media and learn. That is why - to flip Saint-Exupéry's counsel - exposing that which is invisible becomes essential.
Imagine if, instead of trying to evaluate educational media claims based on projected results, parents could read something like an "ingredients label." Responsible producers would detail their vision of the target audience, the developmental or cognitive elements they intended to address, their philosophy of how best to teach them, and how those elements are expressed in their creative approach. Parents could then evaluate whether the focus suits their child's specific needs, interests and abilities; whether the interface and presentation sound engaging and match their values; and whether the technology is worth the investment.
Those who make law and sausages would be probably be just as happy if you followed the common wisdom and averted your eyes. By contrast, I'd love to take you into the studios where high quality children's media is produced. These are spaces where "good enough" isn't good enough, for anyone from the Executive Producer to the Production Assistants.
Etched in my mind is watching an animator, one of many working on an episode of a top-rated TV series, working and reworking a three-second scene of a character dancing. To my untrained stare - and surely to any child viewing this fleeting image - her fine tuning would have been, yes, invisible to the eye. For her, however, perfection was essential.
David Kleeman is President of the American Center for Children and Media, an industry-led creative professional development and resource center. He looks worldwide for best practices in children's TV and digital media.
Follow David Kleeman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@davidkleeman