College Stories 2011: Surprise Assignment

Surprise Assignment

 by Allison Hastings ’11

One of the last assignments I expected to receive during college is watching children’s cartoons, let alone writing a paper about them. That is exactly what happened, however, during my child development class last semester. The class was given a variety of project opportunities, and my choice was to analyze how the themes of child development were portrayed in children’s programming.

I received some interesting responses upon telling my friends and family about the assignment, such as “that’s cool” and “I wish I had assignments like that.” Others remarked how interesting and different the assignment was from the lab reports that I have grown so accustomed to as a pre-med student.

I looked to my family for inspiration on what shows to analyze. My 4-year old cousins were particularly fond of Yo Gabba Gabba! and Dora the Explorer, so those shows made my list. With my choices made, I next went to visit my aunt, who kindly tivoed the episodes for me. My little cousin sat in one recliner with his blanket while I sat in another, laptop ready to take notes on everything. We had a Saturday morning of cartoons ahead…

Notes in hand, the final step was to analyze the episodes for the themes of child development. I found that numerous themes of child development were found interwoven within the dialogue and plots. For instance, each show promotes positive emotional development by encouraging children to share and express their feelings. Praise such as “you guys are awesome” and “we couldn’t have done it without you,” also provides positive reinforcement for participating in the show’s activities and fosters positive self-esteem.

One of the most important themes displayed may be that of social scaffolding. Social scaffolding is especially apparent in Dora the Explorer. In my child development lecture, we learned that the zone of proximal development (ZPD) represents the zone of achievement that children have the potential to reach. Children’s current development is less than the ZPD, and they need the assistance of social partners to achieve their full potential. Through social scaffolding, Dora helps to push children to their uppermost achievement limits at a faster rate than they would learn on their own. Dora often asks the audience to help her solve problems, and she gives clues to guide children towards the right solution. And of course, she praises the audience for answering correctly.

The premise of Yo Gabba Gabba and Dora the Explorer is to engage children in song and dance while trying to teach them new concepts. They encourage children to be active problem solvers and team players. It was interesting to see how what I have learned in the classroom can be taken into the real word to create television programming that is effective in fostering child development. It can even be fun at the same time, according to my cousins’ singing and dancing all over the living room while watching!

 Allison Hastings ’11, of Courtland, Va., is majoring in biology with a double minor in chemistry and music. She plans to attend medical school in the fall.