Assuming you're not going to just say no to the whole lot of it, choosing mass media entertainment for infants and toddlers can be really tricky. Parents and gift-givers need to pick wisely, because many kids get so attached to the program du jour that they want to see or hear it over and over and over. Of course, with today's technology, that's entirely feasible from a technical standpoint. It's the frailty of adult nerves -- and the wisdom of rationing TV and stereo time -- that typically sets the upper limits for most of the stuff.
At our house we went through a couple of stages early in our child's life. The first videos we showed her were from Baby Einstein, then a homegrown company somewhere in the Rockies that specialized in really simple programs. The early ones were sweet and elegant: interesting movable kids' toys in action, set to nice classical music, and silly, wordless puppet shows. Foreign language training, too: Songs and counting to ten in a handful of languages, for example. The whole thing looked as though it was shot in the creators' basement, but it was extremely well done, and it got rapt attention around our house for a long time. Just as our baby was beginning to outgrow this series, Disney took the production company over, and we were not pleased with the obvious resulting changes that appeared in the newer shows. But the early videos were, and still are, priceless. Just last month we watched the Christmas tape several times with the 2-year-old. Still thumbs up.
After Einstein came the Wiggles. This is a kiddie rock "band" (if you can call it that) from Australia. I believe they're also in the Disney stable now, but they weren't when they started. Let's see, four dark-haired guys with English accents and cute uniforms making rock music -- sound familiar? Anyhow, we went through several months complying with constant requests for "Wiggies? Wiggies?" We even caught their live act at the mid-sized theater in the Portland Performing Arts Center. They sold out four or five shows, all done in a single day. The show we saw ran about an hour, but of course, the toddler attention span maxes out at about 20 minutes, and so by the end of the concert only the parents were still grooving. The videos were in good humor, with some skits and several costumed figures jiving around on stage with the new fab four, but they got old after only the first few hundred plays.
Then one day, suddenly, our daughter lost all interest in the Wiggles. She knows who they are -- we noted their appearance on a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float -- but on our VCR they're now officially over. I hear tell they are coming back to town to play the sports arena, and that they are charging even bigger bucks for tickets than what we paid. Guess we'll be missing them this time.
Music-wise, perhaps our best finds have been the Music Together classes and Dan Zanes. Music Together is a series of weekly classes, around 45 minutes or an hour in length, at which kids and their grownups get to celebrate music. A single instructor leads a group of around 8 kids and their accompanying adults through a changing array of music exercises. Lots of singing, dancing, noisemaking, hugging, and fun, although hidden beneath the ease of it are some important lessons about tone, rhythm, harmony, etc. They have these all over the country, and while a great deal depends on the particular teacher, the music and program is apparently uniform throughout all the locations. It's a great idea. Rather than the teacher having to police wayward kids -- even newborns are allowed, so there's lots of corralling involved -- a parent or adult buddy is there to keep an eye on each kid (or pair of siblings). Thus, the teacher, and the class, get to stay focused on the music -- some traditional, some original. It ain't cheap, but it's very good.
Dan Zanes is a veteran rocker and blues man whose most familiar resume item was a stint with a band called the Del Fuegos. Now he's making music for kids out of a studio in New York -- Brooklyn, I believe -- and the three albums he's produced in that genre are quite enjoyable for adults, children, or preferably both together. He's become sufficiently hip that he can get heavy-hitting music industry celebrities on the albums with him, but it all boils down to consistently good fun no matter who winds up in the credits. We can throw a Zanes CD on as a backdrop for play time or even dinner, and everyone does just fine. Buy a child one of these albums, and you do his or her parents a big favor, too. In contrast, though they're doubtlessly all good for you, some passages in the cassettes and CDs that come with Music Together can get downright grating at times. With a skip button handy, however, they're proven performers.
Our current TV favorite is Oswald, a blue cartoon octopus at the center of a wonderful cityscape, on Nickelodeon. Gentle, beautiful, well written, with spectacular whimsical scenery and exquisite story lines. The characters' voices are some familiar figures from TV's past, such as Fred Savage and Laraine Newman. The frumpy penguin friend is done by the guy who played Squiggy on Laverne and Shirley. You get two episodes over a 24-minute period, and no commercials until both stories are over. Very nice. Soothing. I'm no expert, but it seems very healthy.
In stark contrast, we got Beauty and the Beast for Christmas and tried putting it on the DVD. Our child alternated between being threatened by the violence and confused by the story line. Then the attention span alarm clock went off. At about 35:00 on the timer, we switched old Beauty off. Our "peanut" obviously is not ready for that sort of thing yet.
Neither am I. Like the little one, I would much rather watch Oswald. I love that guy.