How to Choose a Video Gift for Children

The right film can inform and delight - and give parents more control over what their sons and daughters see

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

HUMBUG. Videos for kids for Christmas. Bah! Buy them a book. On the other hand, a good video might make a sterling stocking stuffer. There are, after all, advantages to the VCR - provided it's used wisely. Carefully selected movies on tape can offer more than mere diversion - they can inform and delight. And the great advantage of videotape over television is that parents have more control over what the little ones watch.

``I think videos certainly have their place,'' says Judith Volc, children's librarian and media coordinator at the Boulder, Colo., Public Library. ``There are things books can't do - in geography, the arts, and science, for example. On film, you can show children how a flower opens with stop-action photography or what dances and other performances look like.''

Ms. Volc agrees that videotape is a welcome alternative to commercial TV programming with its quick-cut editing, violence, and shallow sitcoms. ``Part of the biggest reason to have a VCR is to control television,'' she says. That's one reason that libraries all over the country maintain circulating videotape collections.

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Kay Weisman, chairman of the Film and Video Committee of the American Library Association, agrees that videos have important uses: ``A good video can be as good or better than a book. But there is always a danger with video, too. It should not be used as a babysitter. Children can spend too much time in front of the TV....But I think videos offer another way to introduce children to literature, because so much of children's video is information- and literature-based.''

But doesn't video-viewing undermine reading? ``Oh, no,'' says Sally Mason, director of Video and Special Projects for the American Library Association. ``In many cases, video reinforces reading by introducing children to stories they then want to read themselves. A carefully made film of a good story can be better than, say, a mass-market book that has not been carefully written or illustrated. A really good film is a valuable piece of art in itself.''

``Of course, the danger lies where no care is taken in selecting films for children,'' Ms. Mason continues. ``There are terrible movies, just as there are terrible books. The key is parents' control.''

Choosing among the dozens of releases each year can be tricky. Mason suggests looking for reviews in parents' magazines and checking with librarians for tips. But the one way to make watching videos a good experience for children is to make it a shared experience. ``Sit down and look at it together. Ask how the child feels about the story. Does it make you sad? Why? And answer whatever questions the child has about the content.''

It's helpful to remember that a lousy film may still hold a child's attention, but a good children's film will probably capture parents' interest, too.

Sally Mason's favorite ``kidvid'' is a marvelous animated film about a little boy who builds a snowman. The snowman, of course, comes to life and takes the child on a wonderful journey. ``The Snowman'' (Sony Video, $19.95), based on a book by Raymond Briggs, is a beautifully illustrated, benevolent story with very few words and some haunting, lovely music. The child must imagine the story to a certain extent, so the video is more interactive than usual. The Christmas subtheme makes ``The Snowman'' a natural for the stocking.

Films that delighted parents when they were children will probably delight their own young ones. ``The Wizard of Oz'' (MGM/UA, $24.95) still sparkles, engaging the modern youngster as it did his senior. Judy Garland's need to travel ``somewhere over the rainbow'' followed by her more urgent appreciation of home still beckons, and the moral still blooms almost as fresh as the day it hit the big screen back in 1939.

One generation grew up with ``National Velvet'' (MGM/UA, $19.95) and another with ``The Black Stallion'' (MGM/UA, $19.95). Both horse stories are magnificently photographed, poignant dramas featuring children in the lead roles. Innocence and goodness prevail in these pictures.

Older films usually come equipped with some moral vision. So films like ``It's a Wonderful Life'' (Republic Videos, $9.95) and ``A Christmas Carol'' - preferably the Brian Desmond Hurst version starring Alastair Sim (Goodtimes, currently out of production) - offer the older child and young teen a feeling for the complexity of human experience in an essentially moral universe as well as a sense of benevolence intrinsic to that experience. The moral dimension also creates more interesting characters and situations than many contemporary films. But beware the cheaper, muddier prints of great old films.

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