Lessons from Super WHY!

super-why.jpgA couple of weeks ago I attended a Super WHY! media event at WGBH and three things struck me as remarkable. First, parents clearly feel TV stigma, even in a room full of other parents who are on the same page as them. Second, few academic theses result in something as directly impacting as Super WHY! (I feel at liberty to say this, having written what I consider to be a quality Ph.D. thesis that was read by about 6 people, tops). And third, experiencing Super WHY! over the last couple of weeks has led me to: a) conclude that the characters work both in TV and print form; and b) loosen up on my data-obsessed analytic tendencies.
Treating each of these issues in turn:

1. TV stigma. The confessions and widespread nods of agreement in the WGBH conference room made clear the reality that many parents use TV to occupy their kids while they get other stuff done (e.g., dinner, tidying, work emails), yet feel kind of guilty about it. The good news, however, is that Super WHY! is researched in impressive fashion for educational value (see next point), so -- assuming TV is being consumed in moderation -- I think it’s pretty safe to drop the guilt when your kids tune into Super WHY! programming.

2. The best thesis ever. That’s sort of a joke and sort of not. Super WHY! was inspired by the developmental psychology master’s thesis of Angela Santomero (creator, executive producer, and head writer of the show). The show is crafted to build literacy skills while drawing from familiar elements of classic fairy tales. I was impressed to see how an academic thesis could grow into something so powerful and pedagogical, and also learn how much research and development goes into each episode. Episodes are tested for appeal, attention, comprehension, etc., in two stages: by reading stories/scripts to kids and by showing early (no music, little animation) black and white versions of episodes. Furthermore, a third party research group also has demonstrated that kids who watched Super WHY! (test group) outperformed kids who watched other non-literacy based educational programming (control group) on pre/post standardized literacy tests (e.g., letter naming and identification, word decoding and encoding, reading).

3. The show in practice. We’ve watched Super WHY! in the past and Laurel has always enjoyed it (though not in a clamoring, “Can I turn on the TV and watch Super WHY!?” sort of way) and Jon and I like the show as well, particularly for its calm pace. Prior to the meeting, however, we hadn’t watched Super WHY! in a long time, primarily because we like the convenience and commercial-free nature of On Demand PBS Sprout programming. Laurel – who actually sat on my lap the whole meeting – did immediately recognize the characters when they were projected on screen, and while I felt geared up to watch Super WHY! after this meeting, admittedly, we still didn’t get around to it. Instead, we read Jack and the Beanstalk repeatedly, Laurel burned through all of the activity pages she received at the meeting, and she also made popsicle stick puppets with the character mask cutouts.

Then at a recent bookstore outing, Laurel immediately picked out the Super WHY! Little Red Riding Hood and Princess and the Pea books. And every time we’ve read the books since, I’ve been amazed by her ability to follow the trajectory of the TV show through the book -- identifying red super letters and interacting at every opportunity; for example, giving a thumbs up, taking a bow, and even singing the “Hip, hip, hooray” song at the end (she even does the little hand motions).

Typically, the nit picky academic in me would be more skeptical of the data, seeking the details of the methodology and scrutinizing the general applicability of the measures (and in fact, I was the uber nerd at the meeting who got her knickers in a twist over the lack of standard error bars on the bar graphs). But learning what I learned, then seeing Super WHY! in action with Laurel made it clear that whether it’s via TV or book, there’s something powerful here; the programming is catchy, fun, and educational for kids, plus, it’s nice that the twists on fairy tales get away from the typical princess-rescued-by-a-prince nonsense. In short, if you need to use the TV to get the dishes done or dinner on the table, consider Super WHY! as a solid choice that’s engaging and educational for your kids. And if you’re anti-TV, the books are an excellent option.

My dad used to tell me, “A book is your only friend.” I always found that statement absurd and extreme, but like many lessons he taught me, I now see some truth in it. I still don't share his extremist viewpoint, but reading with, to, and in front of your kids is enormously beneficial both for bonding and learning. And there’s something about those sweet, giant-headed Super WHY! characters that kids really love. Clearly, Angela and her colleagues have done their homework, and then some.