Navigating the Media Maze – an interview with… me!

Navigating the Media Maze

About 6 months ago I was interviewed by Journalist Fiona STUTZ for a magazine article from ‘Bedrock’ an early childhood teachers magazine. Here it is…

“We’re in a phase where every day children are bombarded by images and information from a variety of media sources. Bedrock Journalist Fiona STUTZ hears from Queensland media consultant Jeff Licence about how educators can better understand media concepts and use media technologies for learning, communicating and connecting with children.
“We’ve got these incredible tools now that allow us to go beyond being a passive recipient of the story. We can actually become a lot more involved in the process. For kids, this is an exciting time, and for teachers too,” Jeff says.
Digital media can affect children in many positive ways. “It gives them an incredible opportunity to view, listen, read, share and create stories,” he says.

Has storytelling changed it’s spots into pixels?

Has storytelling changed its spots into pixels?

Is this the new reading?

A question and discussion model to help young children 

understand digital media texts.

 by Jeff Licence

Originally published in Screen Education Issue 62, Winter 2011


Growing up in a digital world is a vastly different experience from the childhood many of us remember. One of the biggest changes for 21st century children is the amount of variety, access and time they spend plugged into digital media. In this article, I would like to share a series of questions and discussion points that early childhood educators can use to broaden their students understanding of storytelling (particularly visual storytelling) in the age of the digital native.

Digital Natives are the generation born after 1980 at the beginning of the digital revolution. 30 years later, we are seeing the second generation of digital natives coming through our preschools and primary schools. These kids have grown up in households more plugged in than any in history, and they’re taking to their digital lives like ducks to water. For some teachers, especially those born before 1980, jumping into the water with them can be quite daunting.

The pace of technological change since the 80’s has been phenomenal. Today, we and our kids can choose from a multi platform, high definition digital extravaganza of options – computers, the internet, mobile phones, IPads and IPods, live streaming, podcasts, digital T.V & Radio,Youtube, Google, wireless broadband – all these media options housed in a small device in our pocket – the smart phone. And all this technology is still in it’s infancy.

One of the issues digital technologies create for educators is the incredible access children have to information, imagery and entertainment. Primary and High school teachers are being encouraged to become ‘information managers’, helping their students navigate the myriad of information out there to arrive at their own interpretations and understandings. Many middle primary aged students understand the mechanics of using computers, internet searching and word processing programs, yet still struggle with information overload, often choosing the first link that Google presents. The challenge for teachers remains in helping their students synthesize the vast quantity and varying quality of information they get from the internet, choose reliable sources, and put what they have learnt into their own words, rather than simply cutting and pasting.

In early childhood settings teachers are rightly encouraging hands on, play based learning, with computers and technology playing a smaller, supporting role in their pedagogy. However, when their students pack their Dora and Ben 10 bags and go home, the media world looms large. They quite often plug into a D.V.D, D.S or Mum or Dad’s IPhone in the car before they’ve even left the school gate.

Ultimately, the digital and traditional texts our young students are accessing are still stories. The method of delivery has certainly changed and the internet and gaming has brought a new level of choice and interactivity, but digital texts are still authored and most have characters, plots, problems to be solved, themes, levels of complexity and (hopefully) a moral or deeper message to convey.

Helping children understand what these stories mean, how they are created and how they portray and reflect real life issues can aid a child’s understanding of relationships, develop empathy for others and use imagination to solve problems. Storytelling may have changed its spots into pixels, but it’s still integral to our lives.

A Question/ Discussion model to understand media texts.

Early childhood and primary teachers have always used texts (traditionally books) to initiate conversations, ask questions and develop teachable moments. One way of engaging and broadening children’s understanding of digital texts is through questions and discussions after reading, viewing or listening to a text.

This process can help to:

–  focus children’s attention on how words, pictures and sounds are combined in digital texts to create meaning;
–  reveal children’s understandings, feelings and ideas about the texts;
–  share some of your own thoughts about digital media;
–  clarify children’s misunderstandings, such as, “Is Ben 10 real?” or “Are all bad guys men?” or “Will that monster really kill us all?”;
–  give children a sense of perspective beyond the text to see the bigger context.

You might use these questions to initiate discussion after reading a picture book rich in imagery or after watching an animated DVD. Perhaps you have observed children in the playground “role playing” from a show or game. One of your children may talk about being frightened by a movie they saw on the weekend. You might be focusing on the visual texts of a particular author. Whatever the springboard, this is an opportunity to engage the children in meaningful conversations about the texts they are experiencing though the media.

 Character Questions

Q: Who are your favourite characters – why? What do you like about them?

Children will often identify with the qualities and actions of certain characters in the story – strength, nobility, desire for justice, image, good fighter, bad guys, etc. This can give you an insight into who they align themselves with and why.

Q: Are there any bad characters in the show? How do the storytellers show or tell you that they are bad?

  Here is an opportunity to discuss the use of camera angles, framing, music, sound  effects, facial expressions, make up, digital effects and other visual         conventions and character stereotypes used by storytellers. For example, bad guys in lots of children’s movies wear dark clothing, are usually            unattractive and have deep, scary voices. Low camera angles are often used to denote their power and dark, brooding music accompany them  wherever they go.

Activity ideas:

– Children can draw a stereotypical good and bad character from a favourite or made up text, referring to stereotypes of costume, facial expression, angle, body language and background. Older children can also write a backstory for the character, creating a context for a full narrative.

– Use your class camera to demonstrate with the children how the choices of angle, framing, lighting, costume and facial expressions can effect how we ‘read’ a picture and a character.

Narrative Questions

Q: What kind of things happen in the text?

Q: What was the best part? What was the worst/scariest/funniest?

These questions allow you and the children to break the narrative down into discernible moments/segments and provides an introduction into narrative structures of beginning, middle and end; introduction, problem, resolution and conclusion.

This process also creates opportunities for the children to talk about the text in their own words and express their understandings.

Activity ideas:

– Children reinterpret the text through drawings, drama and writing. They can choose a favourite scene to recreate or different groups can act out the beginning, middle and end of the story.

Authorship Questions

Q: Where does the text come from? Who made it?

An important step in helping children understand that digital texts are constructions, is reminding them that they are authored. When we read a book, we will read the name of the author and illustrator, but with screen narratives, the process of creation and authorship is much less obvious – the story just seems to emerge magically out of the screen. Having conversations with the kids about the contribution of filmmakers, actors, artists, animators, game designers, graphic and web designers and musicians can deepen the child’s understanding of the process and help allay children’s fears about the ‘reality’ of the show.

Activity ideas:

– Watch DVD special features and ‘Making of’ documentaries from animations and movies you have all watched together.

– Give (trusted) children a camera and ask them to document the day. You’ll be amazed by their perspective. Download the photos/video and assemble into a slide show and present it as your “Class Movie”. These movies are also great for parent information nights and culminating events to give the school community a picture of what happens in your classroom.

Opinion/ Feeling Questions

Q: What do you like about the text. What do you not like about the text?

These questions provide a chance for metacognition and reflection – children thinking about what they are thinking and revealing how they feel about the text. This makes their thinking visible and helps them separate fiction from reality.

Q: Are there are any characters or things that happen in the show that scare you? What are they? How do they make you feel? Is it real?

For little children, the world is very literal, so an incredibly life like animated monster in a movie or game looks, sounds and feels real. These discussions give the children a chance to reveal their fears and gives the educator a chance to assure them that the text is a created work of fiction.

Activity ideas:

– Ask the children to draw, act out or write about a scary or upsetting moment they have seen in a movie, game or website. Just about every child will have one. As the children create, remind them that these scary scenes are creations made by filmmakers and animators, etc. Children get a laugh about blood in movies being made from tomato sauce. If a child’s fear is based around real news, (and there’s no shortage of disastrous news footage) they need an opportunity to talk about and express their concerns.

You can give the children the choice of displaying or destroying the picture afterwards, taking it home to share with Mum and Dad, who may be unaware of their child’s responses to media. If the child is seriously traumatized by something they have seen, you may want to refer them to the school guidance officer.

Modern media is bypassing parents role as gatekeepers of certain knowledge passed on at appropriate times, so these activities can give children a chance to ‘debrief’ through art and self expression and be referred to specialist councillors if necessary.

 Advertising/Merchandising Questions

Q.  Were there any ads in the text? What are ads for?

            At the most basic level, children need to know that ads are there to sell them             something and will only reveal the good things about a product. Ask the children to             compare advertising with what the product delivers. Every child has a story of a             much hyped toy that either broke or didn’t deliver what was advertised.

Q: Is Dora the Explorer (or any other character) just on T.V? Have you ever seen that character in other places, e.g in a electronic game or website, as a doll, on a T-shirt, lunch box, etc? What have these other things got to do with the show?

These days, it is difficult to buy a children’s toothbrush that doesn’t have a Wiggles, Disney or Nickelodeon character on it. With so many media platforms available to them and a variety of licensed spin off products, large media corporations can maximise their earning potential through merchandising. If a child has seen the movie, visited the website, wants the DVD, D.S Game, Doll, Backpack, Yogurt and Pencil case, that’s brand recognition on a massive scale. The saying in advertising and branding is, “get them as a child and you’ve got them for life”.

Helping children understand that advertising and merchandising is a way for big companies to make a lot of money, may empower them to be more conscious about what they choose to pester their parents for (we can only hope!)
There is an environmental angle to all this too. More consumption means more merchandise produced, more resource and energy use, creating more waste. Is it ever too early for children to learn about ethics, environmental responsibility or being a smart consumer?

Activity ideas: 

– Using catalogues, children can sort and classify the varieties of merchandise derived from a particular character or show.

– Read the ‘Lorax’ by Dr. Zeus. This is a brilliant allegory about how the environment and society are affected by our need for ‘Thneeds’. Follow up discussion points and activities can be found at:

– For older children ‘The Story of Stuff’ is an online video that follows the materials economy through from resource extraction, production, distribution, consumption to  disposal. Go to:

– Children can also design their own merchandise based on a favourite book, story or character they create.

 Purpose questions

Q: Why did they make this text?

Was it to share the story, to entertain, to educate, to make money, to advertise and sell merchandise, to enlighten future generations, or for fun.
Helping children understand the purpose behind the creation of the text creates a context for storytelling.
 Q. What message or big ideas do you think the author is trying to share?
Even though children can be very literal, some children are very perceptive, so it’s worth asking these questions. You may be surprised by the depth of their understanding.

Activity ideas:

– You can compare the same story, e.g Winnie the Pooh, in a variety of formats, e.g book, DVD, comic, game, audio story and compare how story elements are dealt with in each format to create meaning. What aspects of the story are lost or gained by not having sound, or pictures for example.

You wouldn’t ask all these questions in one sitting, but one question may propel you into a great discussion that illuminates the reason why stories hold such an important place in our lives. Some of the questions may seem too conceptual for the age of your children. As their teacher, you will be the best judge of where they are at, but it doesn’t hurt to throw them the occasional curly question. You might get some blank looks or you might be surprised at their level of sophistication. After all, they are the plugged in generation.

There is a line of thought that developing some of this textual understanding can take away the magic of story for children. For very small children, I believe this could be true, but as children’s interest in, and exposure to storytelling grows, it can add to the child’s sense of interest and understanding of what’s happening in the text and behind the scenes. It also helps children separate the fiction of the text from reality, which, as graphics and animation techniques become more and more realistic, may prove a valuable emotional life skill for our young digital natives.

Jeff Licence is an early childhood teacher, media education consultant, filmmaker and writer. He presents workshops for teachers, parents and children about the changing face of media and technology and how to find balance and connection in a plugged in world.

Jeff has presented for the C&K Association at their  Brisbane and Sunshine conferences and conducted several Parent and Community Forums through C&K. Jeff has acted as media consultant for Pengari Steiner School on the Sunshine Coast and has presented his media workshops at many early childhood and primary schools. Jeff has written for Screen Education and Kids on the Coast magazines and his blog is regularly updated with articles and information about children and the media:


Rolling in Coverage – News media’s effect on kids

Rolling in Coverage

Helping families respond to the media’s portrayal of News and Natural disasters

Flooded Reflection – Brisbane floods 2011

The recent rolling media coverage of the floods, cyclones and the Christchurch earthquake has revealed just how subtle and influential news media content can be on the minds of young children. In this article I’d like to share some ideas to help families discuss and debrief about any issues that may have come from watching too much news.

Steven’s story.

Steven was asleep when the cyclone hit. He was awoken by rain on his face as the wind began to lift the roof. He could hear his parents moving around the house, doing their last ditch preparations and battening down the hatches to ride out the cyclone.

“Me, my brother and Mum and Dad crawled under Mum and Dad’s bed with mattresses all around us. I remember the sound of the wind and this big explosion when all the windows blew out. The wind was so strong it blew little bits of glass through the steel spring mattress and we got cuts all over us.”

Steve remembers the house swaying about a meter in each direction under him as it was buffeted by the wind. He was surprised because it had always felt so solid. During the eye of the storm, Steve’s father found the dog which had miraculously survived the first half of the storm outside and the family moved into the bathroom – the smallest room in the house. Steve sat in the bath, hugging the dog with his brother and watching trees, iron sheeting and other debris fly overhead. The roof of the house had come off. Steve was only 5 years old and this wasn’t Cyclone Yasi. It was Cyclone Tracey in Darwin in 1974.

Today, Steve is a fit, healthy counsellor who helps people deal with their own trauma’s, however his memories of Cyclone Tracey are still vivid and he is still gun shy of storms.   “I was fine until my early twenties when I realised I wasn’t immortal. I started getting nervous around storms, especially electrical storms. My reaction now is what I call a ‘body memory’. It’s more of a sensory, emotional reaction than an intellectual one. My strategy is to call on my frontal cortex and do some self talk: “This isn’t a cyclone, it’s just a storm…. it won’t be the same as Cyclone Tracey…. that was an extreme event….this is just a storm… but it’s a good idea to get to shelter…”

I asked Steve how he felt about Cyclone Yasi when it was bearing down on Northern Queensland. He said, “As soon as the media alerted everyone and started showing those incredible satellite images of the storm, I would have been out of there…. on a plane or in the car… I would just get away. I wouldn’t stick around. Some of those pictures freaked me out. The good thing is that the media give people lots of early warning these days, so people have time to act.”

Muddy trail

The media has relayed many stories like Steve’s over the past month. Tales of survival, loss and community strength in the face of flood, fire and cyclone. But what impact has the rolling media coverage of these disasters had on our kids? How does the news and it’s depiction of ‘dramatic world events’ affect our kids sense of safety and stability.

I got to thinking about this when I was driving my 4 year old daughter to preschool the other morning, about a month after the floods and 2 weeks after the cyclone. Out of the blue she said,

“No one is going to drown today because it’s a sunny day.”

Mia’s quiet comment made me realise just how much of what we see on T.V news and through other media channels is being internalised and processed by our little ones. We had been unaffected by both the floods and the cyclone at our place, but had kept a close eye on it via the rolling coverage provided by most of the networks. We don’t usually watch the news, preferring radio news as it’s not so visually driven and there’s less chance of the kids seeing something inappropriate. However, we relaxed all that when the amazing stories and pictures started to roll in 24/7 on almost every channel.

The kids circled around us and the T.V, not quite knowing what to do now that Mum and Dad were suddenly watching all this news. We tried to explain the gravity and historic nature of the floods and cyclone to them. Our son was interested for a while but got bored and even a bit frustrated by it. “Not more flood news!” he would say in the compassionate tones of a 7 year old. Mia didn’t seem fazed by it at all, hence my surprise with her comment in the car. When I asked her if she was worried about the floods, she said, “Yes, I don’t want you or Mama or Asher (her brother) to get drowned.”

A number of studies have observed an increasing trend to present more violent topics and graphic pictures in the news. (1) With the rise of televised terrorism, especially since 9/11, news of attacks, suicide bombers and army and civilian deaths are almost a nightly occurrence.

According to researchers, children become frightened by media content, including news media in several ways. One way is when media content evokes direct fear, in the same way as danger frightens someone in reality. Another way is when children can become frightened by observing the emotional responses of eye witnesses and surviving relatives of victims. A third way is through negative information transfer brought by the newsreader and eyewitnesses. (2)

Hill End Ferry Terminal

The recent coverage of the floods, cyclones and fires certainly provided some shocking and memorable images, but their was also an upside. The depth and breadth of the flood and cyclone coverage gave many people the opportunity to get away or prepare themselves and their homes and probably saved many lives. Perhaps, it was also the media coverage that spurred the vast flood of donations and volunteers that came to the aid of those affected. One lady I spoke to in Brisbane’s Hill End on the Sunday after the flood said she had been overwhelmed by the help they had received in the clean up. They were flooded in the same house in 1974 and had received no help. Maybe the rolling media coverage this time around helped raise awareness to a point where compassion overflowed and we felt compelled to lend a hand.

This family got no help in the 1974 clean up.
Knee deep helping hands

That our compassion overflowed is a nice reversal of the common effect of much media driven news – compassion fatigue. This is a response to information overload, the impotent and overwhelming sense that there is nothing that can be done in the face of this crime ridden, war torn, disastrous world. Of course, not all media news is like this and neither is real life. People’s lives are filled every day with amazing, positive actions and interactions that don’t make it into the news. However, if an alien chose the nightly news as a way of understanding humanity and life on planet earth, he’d probably phone home for a return ticket.

Our children (like that alien) are new to this world and they develop much of their understandings and feelings about the broader world through their media experiences. According to the Media Awareness Network, “Parents should pay close attention to what their children see in the news since studies have shown that kids are more afraid of violence in news coverage than in any other media content. Fear based on real news events increases as children get older and are better able to distinguish fantasy from reality.” (3)

A dutch study investigating elementary school children’s emotional responses to a violent news event: the assassination of Dutch filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh, showed that active mediation (discussion, questioning and explanation) successfully reduced the connection between news exposure and fear, anger, and sadness, especially with the younger children in the sample. (4)

Active Mediation – Discussion, Questioning and Explanation

So, here’s a few tips aimed at helping your kids debrief, when the media and especially the news presents some sound byte sized chucks of ‘current events’ that make them question their choice of planet.
They are adapted from the Media Awareness Network (MNet), a Canadian non-profit organization that has been developing media literacy programs since 1996.

Discuss frightening and disturbing news events with children. Don’t assume they haven’t heard about a disturbing news event – ask first and, if they have, discuss it. Talking honestly and reassuringly to kids about traumatic events will go a long way in assuaging their fears. Reassure children by giving them the facts and the broader context, e.g “floods don’t happen very often, we live on/ can move to higher ground, we will always make sure you are safe.”

Understand what news frightens children at different ages. School-age children are beginning to distinguish fantasy from reality and to worry about real-life dangers. Help them to develop a realistic sense of danger by explaining that traumatic events such as fires, floods, cyclones, fatal car accidents or plane crashes are rare, which is why they’re considered newsworthy. As children get older, the closer an incident is to the reality of their lives, the more disturbing it will be to them.

Encourage older children to watch the news and discuss current events with you.
It’s important that young people understand what is going on in the world and their community. Watch the news with older children and use it as a springboard to discuss difficult topics such as racism, sexuality, war, death, drug and alcohol use. As much as we want to shelter our kids from the worst of the world, at the right age, awareness is going to aid them better than ignorance or naivety.

Create “teachable moments.” Use an atlas or Google Earth after watching the news to look up countries or areas mentioned in stories. Because news items often lack context or thoughtful analysis, use an encyclopedia or the Internet to get more in-depth information about an issue or a country that kids show interest in. Reminding children that they are a long way from these conflicts can reassure them they are safe.

Try to find positive news stories. Call attention to stories that emphasize positive actions and people making a difference – stories about new medical research, animals, bravery and personal strength, peace accords, activism on social or environmental issues and exceptional achievements in sports, the arts or sciences. There are many websites (mainly American) dedicated to presenting positive news. Here’s a few:

Explain the business of news. News media provide a valuable public service but they are also businesses that, in most cases, depend on advertising revenues to support them. In the search for images and stories that will attract audiences, the news media tend to focus on either sensational crimes, tragedies and disasters or “soft” news, such as entertainment and lifestyle features.

Discuss bias and stereotyping in the news. Although most journalists try to be objective and factual in reporting events, there is no such thing as a news story without a point of view. Bias can be unintentional or deliberate, depending on the motives of news gatherers, the sources of information they rely on and the political leanings of the media outlet’s owner. As well, reporters often work under tight deadlines and may not have time to present several sides of an issue. (5)

Some of these explanations will be too mature for very small children. Little kids live in the moment, so sometimes simple reassurances, hugs and a cuddle with a favourite toy, then moving on without dwelling on or over analysing a subject can be the best strategy. If it comes up later, like Mia’s response to the floods, talking through what they fear and reassuring them can help. (5)


Watching a disastrous news event is not nearly as traumatic as being affected directly by it. However, with the amount of ‘watching’ done by our young digital natives, as parents we need to maintain an awareness of what they watch, for how long and how it impacts on them. We can’t control the media’s representation of world events, but we can control what images, sounds and ideas enter our home and our children’s minds. As they get older and their emotional resilience grows, we can check in with them regularly about any fears or concerns they are experiencing in their digital lives. Maintaining a steady eye on the media content they experience (real and fictional) and giving them the space and confidence to talk about it is always going to be of benefit in raising happy, resilient, positive kids.


(1) Slattery K.L Doremus M. & Marcus L. (2001) Shifts in public affairs reporting on the network evening news: A move toward the senstational. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

(2) Valkenburg, P. M. (2004). Children’s responses to the screen: A media psychological

approach. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates


(4) Parental Mediation of Children’s Emotional Responses to the News

Moniek Buijzen, Juliette H. Walma van der Molen, and Patrica Sondij

The Amsterdam School of Communications Research ASCor

University of Amsterdam


The T.V is out of here!

Our shed is a place for storing all kinds of boxes.

We took the plunge. Our T.V, silent and unplugged now sits in the shed, covered in an old blanket. It no longer stares back at us from the corner of the living room, spewing forth copious sounds and images. The silence is golden.

This is not the first time our T.V has been sent on sabbatical. Before we moved house last year, we lived without T.V for about 7 years. We still watched DVD’s and had plenty of digital computer therapy, but the calls of advertisers and cries of promoters where not heard in our house. When we moved back to the suburbs, our new house had an aerial, we got given a set top box and hey presto, we were plugged in again. For a while it was interesting, like being newly arrived aliens watching a new race of people sharing their lives through a box. But it didn’t take long for the old T.V formulaes to reappear – the over zealous salesmen in the carpet ads, the slick and abstract European car ads, the annoying, breathy and OH, SO DRAMATIC voice over people in the T.V station promos and of course, the cute, witty 10 yr old American sit com kid who delivers one liners like a 40 year old jewish comedian. Not much had changed in T.V land.

Of course there were a few gems in there and we got good at being selective about what we watched. Unfortunately, our kids didn’t. For them, whatever was on was it, and don’t let family outings, the lure of the beach or a friend come to visit get in the way of that screen.

The main reason for our T.V detox was our kids. Something happens to them when they spend too much time watching. It’s hard to pin point exactly what it is…. it’s as though they become so immersed in T.V story land, they get separated from themselves and when it’s turned off, have trouble remembering who they are again.  My son gets a glazed and slightly desperate look on his face, throws uncharacteristic (and uncharismatic) tantrums and wanders around the house looking lost. It’s like he needs time to reintegrate back into his body and ‘real’ life. I’ve seen this glazed look, magnified a thousand times on the faces of serious gamers when they are having a break from a 7 hour gaming binge.

It seems our move to get rid of the T.V goes against the trend. A recent survey conducted by the Cancer Council and Heart Foundation reveals that the majority of students surveyed have at least three television sets in their homes and almost half of them have a TV in their bedroom. The report also says that one quarter of young Australians are overweight and obese, 85 per cent don’t do enough exercise and three quarters aren’t eating enough vegetables. Youch!

An excellent phone in conversation I heard on ABC Coast FM ( with Annie Gaffney (yes, we do have radio) had many parents discussing how to help their children get physical. Many societal issues where raised: time poor parents unable to drive their kids to soccer, poorly planned housing developments covered with McMansions and no backyards, the prevalence of junk food outlets and fast food advertising in children’s T.V, and the need for parents to set an example in terms of exercise and diet.

One factor in this discussion was the media habits of our digital native (and some of their parents). Many are living a stagnant, screen bound existence where their fingers do the clicking but their legs aren’t doing much walking. With 3 T.Vs’ in the house, one in the bedroom, plus the laptop computer, a wireless interent connection, an array of gaming devices, a mobile phone next to the bed and an Ipod in your ears, why would anyone need to go outside, let alone get up and exercise. No wonder we rate as one of the most obese nations in the world.

Our T.V detox is making us more active already. The beach, the pool, playing with friends on the playground are more alluring to the kids now that screen time is no longer an option. Even less physical activities like drawing, playing with lego and dolls draws on their creativity and actively engages them. Screen watching is a very passive experience and often leaves kids (and adults) thinking, “What can I possibly do now that is as exciting as that T.V show?”.

Mia in crafty action

Getting rid of the T.V has brought a host of changes in the behaviour of our kids. It’s still early days, but already the level of connection between us all has improved, as has the behaviour and level of empathy between the kids. They play happily, together and alone, and haven’t asked for the telly once. Mia (4) plays for hours with her dolls and the new space left by the abscence of the T.V has found Asher (7) either drawing or sitting on his bed reading Captain Underpants out loud to himself. Is there a more beautiful thing than the silence that comes from children engaged in happy, productive activity?

Dinner time has changed too. Since the kids were born, our dinner routine was a messy flurry of spoons shoved in mouths, wiping pumpkin off chins and brief, often interrupted attempts at conversation. It hasn’t exactly been a time of zen like family connection. Now that the kids are a bit older, can feed themselves and aren’t pulling the table cloth, their plates, cups or brothers onto the floor, we’re putting a lot of focus on dinner being a special family ceremony. The kids set the table, we light candles and everyone sits on their special chair. We all take turns sharing the best and the worst parts of our day. Asher got given some children’s affirmation cards for his birthday, so we all choose one at the end of the meal. It’s all very warm and fuzzy and makes sharing a meal together feel special.

One of things about T.V is it’s ability to suck time. Now, without it, we have all this free time to do whatever we fancy in the time before bed. After dinner, we play Uno, Eye Spy and a lego game called Creationary around the table or we read, talk and the kids play.  The vibe in the house is different too – without this screened box beckoning and shouting at us from the corner of the room, the room seems bigger, more peaceful and like a real ‘living’ room. We even go to bed earlier and read. Not having thousands of images flicking and ticking around in our brains trying to be processed means we can sleep much more peacefully….the difference is quite fundamental!

Asher in Lego mode

It all sounds very idyllic, so before you reach for the vomit bowl, realise that we still have our melt downs, shouting matches and “I’m bored” moments. It’s just that we felt that the T.V was depriving our family of connections and time that we will never get back. It was also causing more conflict than the quiet time it was creating.

The T.V may come back out for a visit in the holidays as a special treat and we will watch the occasional D.V.D or Youtube clip on the laptop, but we are glad that that T.V will no longer be the default relaxation device in our house. That’s what puzzles, books, music, games, outside and each other are for.

Folk of the far away T.V
Mia multi-tasking....feeding mousy and being the Fruit and Vegetable Queen in her shop.

Related links:


Unplugged in the Family Room

Playing on the Lego games website

The glare from the screen flickers on my sons 6 year old face as he stares intently at the downloaded Lego game. He is immersed, almost swallowed whole by the screen, enthralled by the interactivity, the colourful graphics and the many leveled options that drip feed him like a pellet fed mouse. He would happily disappear altogether into this digital media fun land if we let him. It is only my hand, wrapped firmly around his ankle, that keeps his feet on this side of the screen.

Many families have had their children swallowed by screens. At first it was just the T.V, sitting benignly in the corner, spilling forth cute children’s shows and DVD’s with perky presenters and catchy theme songs. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the children moved closer to the screen, grabbed a chair and a mouse and started clicking on stuff. Suddenly, while your peeling carrots or checking emails in the other room, they’re entranced, plugged in and gone all digitally native on you.

As a 21st century parent, I feel the magnetic push and pull of the digital world and it’s effect on my children. Having studied and worked in the media and also taught young children about the media, I’m particularly interested in how our plugged in digital experiences intersect with our family lives. Many children I have taught (children in Grade 3 and younger) have a T.V and a computer in their bedroom, as well as an arsenal of computer games and hand held games gear, seemingly at their disposal 24/7.

Media in bedrooms for little kids is a particular issue, because it gives them unmonitored access to the media world, particularly through the web. It also assumes they are mature enough to make good choices about what they will view, play, upload and download. If you’ve ever sat through a morning of kids cartoons, you’ll understand that kids aren’t always choosy or discerning viewers.

For the first 5 years of my sons life, we lived without T.V. When I told my primary age students this, they looked at me aghast and said, “But… how do you live??!! Sure, Asher watched plenty of DVD’s, played a few online games and watched the odd Youtube clip, but essentially he grew up with a large backyard, lots of great toys and a small, daggy, non wide screen T.V. He would watch all the usual G rated stuff and the occasional nature doco, but at the end of the show, it would just stop (DVD’s just finish, and that’s all folks), and he would start playing with his toys or go outside. His T.V exile meant that he had a limited time frame around his viewing and he wasn’t exposed to 100,000’s of ads. He has never pestered us for stuff, mainly because advertising hasn’t convinced him that he needs it.

We are perversely proud of the fact that he has only recently recognised the McDonalds big M and still calls it ‘Old MacDonalds’! When he first noticed it, aged about 4, he said, “Hey Dad, that’s a funny looking sun!” (I mention this because the McDonalds big M symbol is considered one of the most widely recognised symbols in the world. And Asher really is very observant!)

We have used the DVD player as an electronic babysitter at times, but we always knew what was on and for how long and Asher always knew that there was a time for turning it off and doing something else.

Many children (and adults too) use T.V’s, Computers and Games as their default way of relaxing: vegging out in front of a screen. However, think about the number of pictures, sounds and words their young, developing brains are interpreting and give meaning to in a 30 min show or a 90 minute movie or in a 4 hour gaming marathon. It’s a lot for to decipher and really not that relaxing. Sleep studies have shown that high levels of media interactivity effect the quality and quantity of sleep. I’ve taught kids who look strung out on a Monday morning at school because they’ve spent 10+ hours playing computer games on the weekend or went to sleep at 10.30pm because their was a good movie on the T.V in their bedroom.

Having the screen as a default way of relaxing or tuning out, also implies that all entertainment and fun will be found elsewhere and provided by someone else. Limiting the availability of Asher’s media entertainment helped him feel capable of creating his own fun and diversions. Susan Maushart, in her excellent and often hilarious book, The Winter of our Disconnect, (Random House, 2010) shares her journey of disconnecting herself and her 3 teenage children from the mainframe of media for 6 months. Amongst her many insights, she talks about the changes that occurred in her own family as a result of having no T.V, computers, mobile phones, IPods, or gaming stations pulsing in the background whilst they shared a meal together.

With no more attractive prospect to lure them from the dinner table, the children did not exactly learn to linger over cigars and brandy. But at least they stopped inhaling their food {speed eating} and bolting for the nearest digital foxhole…. we probably increased our face time at the dinner table by 15 – 20% in both quantity and quality.

Susan Maushart, The Winter of our Disconnect, (Random House, 2010)

Maushart makes many deep observations about her children’s and our societies use, overuse and abuse of the electronic media. One of the fundamental things she discovers is that our modern predilection for being plugged in 24/7, and for entertaining and virtually connecting ourselves into a stupour, separates us from ourselves, each other and our ability to connect as families. Or put another way, having screen free time allows us to connect with ourselves and each other in a more real and meaningful way.

Asher is nearly 7 now and T.V has once more entered our lives. He watches afternoon cartoons, he’ll sit through a movie, he hates the News,  but he’ll happily switch it off and go and do something else. He is an excellent little artist, can climb and run like a monkey and music is also a big part of his life. Hopefully, the simple choice to have no T.V in Asher’s early life, has given him wings to be a creative and active participant in his own ‘real’ life.

And no doubt one day soon, he will recognise the McDonalds symbol and probably want to eat there.

These are the days of our kids lives……

This is a fictional story, depicting a day in the Media life of Little Johnny (or could it be Jonette?)
The numbers are to highlight the number of media interactions that can occur in a single day.

Johnny arises from his bed with the warm expectant glow reserved for 8 year olds at the start of a new day.
He wanders down stairs to breakfast. In the kitchen the T.V (1) is on and Mum is sending a text message (2) on her mobile while she gets breakfast ready.
As Johnny eats breakfast, he flicks through his latest Games magazine (3) and glances at the catalogues(4) on the table while ‘Sunrise’ bubbles through the kitchen.
In the car on the way to school, Johnny watches a DVD (5) from the back of his Dad’s head-rest while Dad listens to the News on the Radio (6). As they drive, they pass a vast sea of signage (7), selling everything from real estate to lingerie.
At school, Johnny spends the day immersed in a range of reading and writing activities, including learning a new song (8), reading and viewing a story (9), surfing the Internet (10) for research material for his Powerpoint presentation (11), exploring learning objects on the Ed Qld Learning Place, composing a narrative (12) and viewing photos (13) of their latest class excursion. After school, Johnny joins the cast of the school musical (14) for practice before heading home.
At home, Johnny watches some T.V (15) and plays on his Xbox (16), killing 500 alien mutants before dinner. During dinner, conversation is limited as the News is on T.V (17) and Dad is expecting an important phone call (18).
After dinner, all the members of the house retreat to their own separate entertainment zones.
Johnny’s big sister continues the days gossip with her friends on MSN (19), watches Youtube and downloads some new songs onto her Ipod (20).
Mum goes to her computer and checks on her latest bid on Ebay (21) before settling down in front of the T.V (22) for the nights viewing.
Dad hurries to his office to check his emails (23) and to finish that computer presentation (24) for work tomorrow.
Alone in his room, Johnny knows he should be reading his school home reader, but the roar of the semi automatic weapon in his electronic game (25) game calls to him. Besides, there’s nothing on T.V tonight.
At 7.30, his Dad calls out that it’s time for bed.
Johnny says, “O.K Dad, Good night.” He then turns down the volume of his game, turns the light off and continues to play until 10.00pm.
Finally, tired but satisfied with his score and kill statistics, Johnny slips off into a scattered, restless sleep.

This is a day in the media life of some of our kids.

Media Education – Plugging into the Mainframe

Plugging in to the Mainframe.

Teaching Media to children is like teaching ducks to swim. They know the media, they are immersed in it everyday, but they don’t always know what lies underneath the water, how the current flows and where the whirl pools are. They are carried along by the current of the stories, rarely questioning why the words, pictures and sounds flow this way and not that. Helping children understand the depth of construction and manipulation in the words, pictures and sounds happening in any media text is vital in giving kids choices about the types of media they connect with.

Parents are asked to give ‘Parental Guidance’, but many don’t really know what that means or where to start. How do you help your child debrief about their nightmares from the horror movie they accidentally saw at a sleep over, or to realise that the incredibly life like monster that just wiped out half a city, is just an animated bunch of pixels?

It starts with questions about what they like, don’t like and how they feel about particular media texts. It develops through conversation about film making and animation techniques, character construction, story development and the use of stereotypes and generic structure to convey an idea and  tell a story. It ends with reassurance that these media texts are just stories; creations authored by people with cameras and computers and drawings to share ideas and tell stories. The key to helping children understand the media is in having conversations with them about the media they are experiencing and sharing each others thoughts, ideas and feelings.

Teachers work hard to stay up to date with the latest evolutions in technology, but often work with computers that are outdated or simply not working. This is changing with the Governments commitment to computers in schools, but it stills leaves already time poor teachers with a whole set of new skills to learn, before they can pass these on to their students. Sometimes the students are more computer savvy than their digital immigrant.

Having computers in classrooms doesn’t guarantee they are used as anything more than glorified typewriters. There are many teachers embracing media and computer technologies and doing amazing things in their classrooms, and others who see them as a distraction from ‘real teaching’.

A commitment to media and ICT education in the home and in schools builds a common ground between children, parents and teachers. The media world has shifted dramatically in the last 20 or so years since computers, the internet, gaming and mobile phones have entered the home and we all plugged into the mainframe in earnest. Todays kids connect in a whole other way. The stories they tell may not be that different from the ones we told back in the day, but the ways they are  telling them is light years apart.

When children, parents and teachers can navigate the media maze with a similiar degree of understanding, we can share a common dialogue about how we connect and share our stories across all media. We may also gain a sense of the importance of  disconnecting from the mainframe long enough to reconnect with each other in the real (non-cyber) realm.

As this blog develops, I look forward to exploring how children, parents and teachers can navigate the media maze and stay connected as families.