Too much TV?
Letting your youngsters watch the box might improve their communication and social skills.
Preschoolers watch television. No matter how the issue is handled in a household, it is inevitable that at some point in the day they will be watching the screen. In some households children's television is banned, so kids are catching glimpses of the news or other adult content. In others, kids are plonked in front of cable children's channels for the greater part of the day. In most cases it is somewhere in between.
But according to some academics, if children watch the right programs, television can be good for them. Professor Catharine Lumby, director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of NSW, says "judiciously used" good children's television can promote literacy and familiarity with audio-visual communication.
"It's not just traditional forms of education such as numeracy and the capacity to read but also narrative literacy - it helps children's understanding of narrative or stories," she says.
Her book Why TV Is Good For Kids, co-written with her partner Duncan Fine, a children's television writer, provoked criticism when it was released in 2006 but Lumby says many critics are missing the point.
"What is poorly understood is that watching TV or any audio-visual material is not something we are born to do, we have to learn how to do it and it is an important skill which is a large part of the way [we communicate]," she says. "Children learn to [notice] new things and get their meaning, they start to recognise characters and plot and humour - they get pleasure but they also have a learning experience from that."
The stress then, is on what constitutes good children's television.
Dr Susan Roberts, senior lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University, says key features that parents can use to judge the suitability of a program include whether it is made for the preschool age group.
"Age-specific programs should include main characters within the range of the target audience and the storylines should be told from their point of view. A good test of whether the show works is to think that if the child character were removed, would there still be a show?"
Production values are another key - which, Roberts stresses, is not just about spending money.
"It should be imaginative, not too repetitive and include recognisable talent," she says. "Good programs also recognise that play is important for that age group," she says. "They are not confined by constraints of realism; kids readily accept fairytales."
Tim Brooke-Hunt, head of children's television at ABC TV, says modern program makers are increasingly dividing preschoolers into two distinct groups - the upper (ages four to six) and the lower (ages two to three). His latest acquisition, In The Night Garden, by British production team Ragdoll (makers of Teletubbies), began airing this week and is aimed at the two- to four-year age group.
His first Australian commission, Dirt Girl World, is aimed at older preschoolers and filming will begin later this year.
"There is a difference between what works for two- to three-year-olds and what works for four- to six-year-olds and in any decision about preschool television we need to recognise that," he says.
"In the younger audience we are primarily looking for storytelling that is appropriate to that age. In The Night Garden is an interesting example of a show that provides a nurturing, quiet storytelling environment.
"When they get older, then a show that has educational content becomes more relevant. Sesame Street is an example where the simple use of words has an educational aspect that comes through.
"[Television can] teach them play and social values which might be to do with teamwork, sharing and understanding people's different points of view," he says.
It was the success of the Teletubbies a decade ago that opened producers' eyes to a new world of viewers among the under-twos, something producer Anne Wood says she didn't see coming.
"We were surprised. We were trying to create a program that dealt with early stages of thinking. We were concerned with child development, not necessarily education but more in how thinking develops."
Teletubbies has now been running for 10 years in 156 countries and Lumby says it could be regarded as the model for all young toddler TV.
"Teletubbies is exemplary when you read how they put the concept together," she says. "It was one of the first shows designed by people who understand early childhood and aimed at appealing to children about 18 months old.
"When you look at the world from the perspective of a toddler, it's full of strange noises that emanate from other places [such as voiceovers in the supermarket]. The characters are reminiscent of toddlers and it tells the world from their perspective in play and in terms of sound and it has cleverly simple characters."
Wood says In The Night Garden is targeting an older audience - one that has a concept of the different worlds of sleep and wakefulness. "My experience is that good art reflects something back to them that makes them feel relaxed, confident and happy."