Children, TV, and creativity: can they mix?

It's 4 in the afternoon, almost anywhere in the United States. The children are home from school, and they've made a beeline for the TV set, hoping for a couple of hours of viewing, at least, before Mom or Dad says ``enough!'' Legions of youngsters, pre-school to teen-age, follow a routine something like this, logging 20 to 28 hours of television a week, according to 1986 figures from Nielsen Media Research.

Such numbers have ceased to amaze us, but that doesn't mean we've ceased to ask questions about them. To the familiar query about the effect of televised violence on youngsters, let's add another: What impact does all this TV have on the creative impulses of children?

Are children simply being force-fed images and ideas from the ``tube'' while their own imaginations atrophy?

It's not quite that simple, says Dorothy Singer, co-director of the Family Television Research and Consultation Center at Yale University. Her research indicates that, generally, ``kids who are the heaviest TV viewers are the least imaginative.'' But her work also indicates that a lot depends on the context in which children do their viewing - particularly, whether anyone watches with them, interpreting and discussing what appears on the screen.

Another factor is the nature of what's being watched. Peggy Charren, head of Action for Children's Television, says ``I don't agree with those people who say because it comes in flickering light it makes your brain flicker too.'' In her view, TV has the potential of encouraging imagination and even leading children to reading.

Shows like Reading Rainbow, a PBS series, hint at what can be accomplished with better programming, says Ms. Charren.

Louise Gaffney is director of the Communications Center at McDonough 15, an elementary school in New Orleans. Every student in the school writes and illustrates stories that are ``published'' - copied and bound - by the center. Out of the 100 or so books produced each year, 30 to 40 percent reflect what kids have seen on TV or at the movies, says Mrs. Gaffney.

Does this worry her? Not really, she says. ``I let them do these things about TV because it's important to them.'' With the older children, she uses the television themes as a jumping off point, urging the young writers to expand characters and plot.

``Certainly television is an important part of a child's life, but the meaning of that experience will vary from child to child, depending on what's going on in their lives,'' says June Tangney, a professor of human development at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. How much viewing is shared? How much interaction with other members of the family takes place during and after viewing? These are key questions, according to Dr. Tangney.

There's a difference, she holds, between the child who watches 20 hours a week doing little else and the one who watches that much with others and has other interests. Generalizations are hazardous, she warns. It's crucial to weigh the broader social context of each child.

Still, as Dr. Singer indicated, research provides some evidence that children who watch a lot of television score lower on tests of creativity (see story on page 31). Are the tests infallible? Nobody claims that. Creativity, especially among children who have yet to amass many accomplishments in life, defies conclusive measurement. Researchers admit to gut feelings and hunches.

``There's something about television - maybe that it provides so much in the way of audio and visual stimulation that children don't have to generate very much on their own,'' says Aletha Shuston, co-director of the Center for Research on the Influence of Television on Children at the University of Kansas.

But you have to ask, adds Dr. Shuston, what would they be doing otherwise? And there's little evidence, she says, that kids exposed to print and radio exercise creativity more.

The conclusion, it seems, is that clear conclusions are hard to come by. Most children are going to go on watching a fair amount of televison each week, and most parents are going to go on wondering just where to draw the line.

Common sense may be a guide, though. Jessica Davis, a teacher of literature at Wheelock College in Boston, points out that no matter how good the program, adults - producers, script writers - are doing the creative work. It's in play, she says, that kids get a chance to exercise their own imaginations, creating their own scenarios and roles. And, she asks, how much creative play is possible when the eyes are glued to the screen?

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