Using Cartoons as Learning, Development Tool for Children

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Thomas Ejike

Cartoons have been a part of cinema history since the first motion pictures were made in the late 1800s. Cartoons were initially very short because they were shown in movie theatres before their feature film, but became longer when cartoonists could put their shows on television, creating the sort of half-hour block shows that are today found on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and the Disney Channel.

Many Nigerian children have become very interested in cartoons and the genre has become a primary source of entertainment to them. A survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that children watch television for up to six hours daily, much of the viewing unsupervised and intended for adult viewers. The rise in the number of hours children devote to television viewing, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, is attributable to the growth of satellite and digital television, which have brought new channels devoted to cartoons. A study conducted by psychologist Steve Hossler of Bowling Green State University in the US, about 60% of children in the US have television sets in their bedrooms, exposing them to approximately 18,000 hours of television from kindergarten to high school graduation.

But such tailor-made research results are quite sparse in Nigeria. However, one of such readily available reports in the country released by researchers at Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, states that 57 per cent of Nigerian children watch cartoons between one and three hours daily, while 24 per cent watch between four and six hours three days a week. The study, which used pupils of Kingdom Heritage Model School and The Bells Primary School, both in Ota, as respondents, also stated that 19 per cent watch cartoons between seven and nine hours once weekly, with 66% of children watching cartoons for between one to three hours a week.

Therefore, there is little, if any, doubt that cartoons have considerably grown in popularity among children of all ages, notably through the growth in digital television penetration abetted by easy affordability. The development has unloaded its numerous influences on Nigerian children. There is a consensus among psychologists that cartoons influence children’s behavior in many ways. Educational psychologists, for example, are united in the view that children learn faster through cartoons than via conventional class teaching because the former makes absorption of academic content easier through a combination of audio-visual effects and acting. These, being the backbone of cartoon shows, experts believe, is why children can sit still for long hours watching animated series on television. This is also thought to apply to adults who, for example, can easily recall the scenes and the situations that they have watched in a documentary on National Geographic than a situation rendered with no visual or vocal effects.

Experts believe that children who watch educational programming are more likely to have higher grades, read more books, place greater value on achievement and show more creativity than children who watch violent or purely “entertainment” television.  Many cartoon and educational programmes teach things directly related to education, including colours, shapes, and life facts.

According to a 2014 study conducted by Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, an Associate Professor in the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), after watching an educational children’s television program, toddlers can learn to count to five and learn to read a simple map presented on the show. Cartoons and kiddies’-oriented shows also help children’s imagination by assisting them to comprehend lessons more clearly, so they might imagine different themes and think about the imagined stories of different cartoons. So, while children are watching cartoons, there is a form of learning process that is going on and whatever children learn while watching cartoons, they tend to act out thereby influencing their mode of socializing with other children and with the world in general.

Cartoons have also been found to improve children’s language and speech by providing access to new words they might not have heard, making them learn faster and know how to express their feelings appropriately and with better vocabulary. This particular benefit is heightened among children, who do not have English as their first language. In addition, these programmes also help improve children’s social interaction. Conversations between their favourite characters assist children to know how to respond to questions and provide better feedback during interactions. Mrs. Amaka Babalola a mother of three, said this was true of her son, who was largely withdrawn. She explained that through the son’s frequent exposure to cartoons and other educational programmes, he overcame the shyness.

“My husband and I were worried about how withdrawn my son was. He was close to his fourth birthday, but hardly interacted with his peers in school. His teachers complained, noting that it was unusual and certainly not healthy for kids of his age to have such nature. We spoke to a few friends and one of them recommended a child psychologist, who advised that we should expose him more to cartoons and educative programmes on television. The changes have been impressive. He has loosened up considerably,” she said.

These benefits are being enjoyed by many more Nigerian children through GOtv packages, which have a variety of internationally renowned kiddies’ channels. Available on GOtv Max and GOtv Plus is the world-famous Disney Junior and the recently added PBS kids. On GOtv MAX, GOtv Plus and GOtv Value, children have access to Nickelodeon, while Jim Jam is available on GOtv MaX, GOtv Plus, GOtv Value and GOtv Lite)

It is, however, a major finding by experts that cartoons may also predispose children to aggressive behaviour, which is thought to arise from sustained exposure to a media diet of cartoons with violence as opposed to those with pro-social and educational content. Studies indicate that children of pre-school age, who have been exposed to cartoons with violent content, develop building blocks for aggressive conduct like bullying, shoving, yelling and destroying things when they start school and such could remain with them later in life.

Programmes aired by channels on GOtv packages are pro-social and educational in nature, teaching positive attributes such as sharing, cooperating and sensitivity to each other’s challenges as well as assist in the development of communication skills and ability to make important decisions and understand the consequences.

Monchhichi, aired on Jim Jam, centres around a dream tree factory. It teaches children about the value of teamwork and how the sweetest dreams are made possible in a magical place.

Also offering entertainment and education is Robocar Poli, which also airs on Jim Jam. The animated TV series teaches children that law enforcement agencies such as the police and emergency services like the fire and rescue services are important in difficult times, especially during car accidents.

It further explains the perils of dangerous driving and advises viewers to be responsible motorists while on the road.

The Thundermans, a series that airs on Nickelodeon, teaches children to be virtuous. The story revolves around a mythical superhero family and counsels children to be kind when in positions of advantage and use such an advantage to the benefit of the society. It also impresses on them the need to live a simple life free of opulence.

Providing much more than just fun to teens by stimulating their minds about today’s evolving hi-tech revolution globally is I Am Frankie, which airs on Nickelodeon. The drama series depicts how technological simulations like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR) have revolutionised occupations tasks and how machines assist in securing an environment. It, therefore, helps to unlock viewers’ imagination.

In a world dominated by negative impulses such as hostility, bloodshed and vengeance, Vampirina teaches kids the importance of diversity and kindness. Although it makes use of scary characters, this musical children’s series, broadcast on Disney Junior, challenges the prevalent worldview of resentment and rejection and stresses the importance of accepting people notwithstanding their status. In addition, it also emphasizes to kids from a young age to urgently learn how to adapt to and survive in their environment, irrespective of the circumstances.

Elena of Avalor, which airs on Disney Junior, educates kids on the theme of leadership and the qualities a leader needs to govern his or her subjects in order to excel: thoughtfulness, resilience, and compassion.  It also underscores the importance for children to seek guidance and follow instructions given to them by their elders, particularly in challenging times.

But it is not just only cartoons that impact positively on children. Programmes such as documentaries and family drama also provide learning opportunities for children. A 2007 study conducted by Huston et al. reveals that older children develop other viewing preferences favouring more complex programmes that feature verbal humour. Some media scholars are of the view that shows on non-educational programmes may lead to learning outcomes even if they were not intended for educational purposes.

Children are drawn to programmes such as Born in Africa, Trials of the Wild and The Incredible Dr. Pol, from which they learn about the importance of animals, wildlife and the need to appreciate and protect the environment. Also, drama production such as The Johnsons, although not created in an educational format, helps older children to understand the essence of family unity and the need to engage in good virtues rather than vices. The drama is also easier for children to relate to as it makes use of the humour element to pass across its constructive message in simple terms.

As Children’s Day is being celebrated worldwide, GOtv reiterates its commitment to helping Nigerian kids unlock their imagination by showcasing pro-educational and pro-social programmes, offering entertainment and building character.

––Ejike, a creative content creator, writes from Enugu.