These children's television shows aren't just for the kids

'Who's Dancin' Now?' touches on themes of discipline and perseverance; Twain's 'Pauper' focuses on moral courage

Both parents and kids can watch and learn together from several fine programs this week, including a warm retelling of a lovely moral fantasy, an innovative documentary on the importance of arts education, and a brief introduction to child rearing.

It's important that parents and children watch together and discuss what's going on, says Rita Weiskoff, curriculum director of Sesame Workshop (the folks who make PBS's "Sesame Street").

Dragon Tales has started a new summer season (PBS, check local listings) for the youngest members of the clan. Two little Hispanic children, a sister and a brother, wish themselves into a dragon fairyland where they confront the very problems that face them in preschool. The United States Department of Education's National Institute of Early Childhood Development said that "Dragon Tales" reinforces resilience, reading readiness, and social relationship building.

And now Sesame Workshop, the producer of "Dragon Tales," has come up with a one-hour special that could help parents of small children.

"Parent Tales from Dragon Tales" (PBS, check local listings) uses messages built into the children's series to inform parental challenges. From bedtime dramatics to tantrums and assorted other small-fry rebellions, the special applies a few simple rules that help parents make better choices.

Among the tips: First, look at the challenges from all sides. Appreciate and praise success or achievement, however modest or partial. Keep trying; be consistent. And most important, see parenting as a joyful adventure.

The producers gave a group of parents video cameras to take home and record problematic behavior. The parents and counselors analyzed the behaviors and uncovered what the underlying problems were, usually involving mixed signals and inconsistency. Two months later, all the parents reported improved behavior in their children.

"We hope that parents who watch will get some understanding that the problems they face daily are universal: whining, bedtime problems, and so on," says Ms. Weiskoff.

One of the most unusual points made by the show, she says, is that little children often think in pictures rather than words, and communication can be improved with visual aids. So draw them a picture! Even though the show is meant to speak to adults, children might benefit from a discussion based on it. Helping them learn to articulate how a show makes them feel is part of media literacy.

Who's Dancin' Now? (PBS, June 20, check local listings) visits former students of dancer Jacques D'Amboise's National Dance Institute (who were featured in the Oscar-winning film "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' " in 1983).

Filmmaker Judy Kinberg looked these kids up 15 years after her first film about them, and organized a reunion with Mr. D'Amboise. All grown up, these students talk about how dance influenced their lives for the good.

We see them at 8 and 10 years old, dancing their hearts out for D'Amboise. As adults they affectionately talk about the time and effort they put into dancing. They learned discipline, perseverance, and the satisfaction of accomplishment. If anyone doubts the importance of arts education, let them watch this sterling program and see how the concentration, effort, and praise that came with giving their best led these young people into careers in business, law, education, and science.

"I believe that the major defining and necessary parts of our humanity are science, art, and play," says D'Amboise in a recent interview.

The dance instructor observes that, just as everybody wanted to join Tom Sawyer when he made a game of painting a fence, children can learn from their play activities.

"When you are constantly being challenged in gamelike and exciting, dramatic ways in the environment of play, you're learning," he says.

D'Amboise is disappointed in America's schools because, he says, the arts are given short shrift. "They don't realize they are only tools to discover more about our arts and sciences," he says. "What I object to is the idea of arts in education, instead of art is education,"

For older children and their parents, The Prince and the Pauper (Odyssey Channel, June 22, 9-11 p.m.) is a sweet, updated version of Mark Twain's classic original tale. Here's a drama that celebrates the goodness of boys and their sometimes heroic honesty in the face of corruption. It reflects what Twain really thought about natural greatness of heart. And this entertaining TV movie could be the occasion for parents to discuss such things as ethics, history, politics, economics, moral courage, and children's innate sense of justice.

The 13-year-old Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VIII, is bored and lonely in the palace, when he discovers his double, a street urchin named Tom Canty. Edward longs to know what it's really like on the mean streets of London, and Tom longs to know what it's like to have a full stomach and fine clothes.

So they trade places for a day. But at the end of that day, Edward can't get back into the palace. Edward, of course, finds out more about the injustices of his father's reign than Tom ever did. How will Edward use his knowledge? When Prince Edward became King Edward VI, he was known in his short five years on the throne as a champion of the poor. Burnings and hangings and such things as truly happened in the 16th century are referenced here, and parents may need religious intolerance, among other things, to their children.

Young English brothers Jonathan and Robert Timmins play the prince and the pauper with delightful energy and insight, and veteran actor Alan Bates makes Henry VIII scary and oddly vulnerable when it comes to his boy. Aidan Quinn as the noble champion of young Edward is funny and charming, if not quite the Errol Flynn of the 1937 version.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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