Scaffolding learning with pop-culture

Published on Tuesday, 27 July 2021
Last updated on Thursday, 02 September 2021

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Building curriculum on children’s interests is an established practice in early childhood education, and with popular, fun and educational television programs winning the hearts and minds of children, it makes sense for educators to engage popular culture as a tool to promote learning opportunities.

Popular culture offers a valuable pathway for educators to implement a contextually relevant and meaningful curriculum in-light of contemporary childhood experiences.

This can include investigating themes such as social and emotional intelligence, taking responsibility for actions and developing a strong sense of belonging.

Episodes of New Zealand’s Kiri and Lou or Australia’s Bluey offer rich and relatable examples of these themes and connect culturally to the majority of young children.

An article on the educational value of Bluey by Linda Harrison, an early years educator and trainer with more than 20 years’ experience states: “Reflecting on the experiences of the characters provides opportunities for teachers to engage in meaningful discussions with children about broader concepts related to identity, fairness and justice to help them make sense of the world.”

Bluey is a loveable, inexhaustible six-year-old Blue Heeler dog, living with her Mum, Dad and her four-year-old little sister, Bingo. Like every kid her age, the thing Bluey likes to do best is play games.

Bluey includes overarching themes that resonate with young children, such as the joy of imaginary play. In one episode, Bluey’s dad Bandit instils the importance of play as he tells his daughter, “Making up games is more important than you think.”

Harrison adds: “Depending on what particularly fascinates a young child about Bluey, educators can plan and program for a pathway of meaningful inquiry-based learning.

After becoming familiar with some Bluey episodes themselves, educators can provide valuable play-based, hands-on learning experiences to allow children to explore their understandings about important overarching social and emotional wellbeing themes.”

The same remarks can be attributed to the show Kiri and Lou, a distinctly New Zealand product set in a prehistoric cut-paper forest with kōwhai, ferns, giant sloths, moa, and kiwi and kākāpō who can still fly.

Watched in five-minute episodes, viewers follow the friendship between Kiri, a feisty little dinosaur (therapod) and Lou, a gentle and thoughtful elephantine creature, as they explore a ‘forest of feelings’ through laughter, song and adventure. They are joined by motherly Pania, sensitive Dalvanius, who disappears completely when he feels shy and Sorry, a small but extremely fast little animal who cares about everyone’s feelings.

A number of studies have shown that viewing quality educational television and other media can contribute to children’s learning. When children watch educational programs and interact with apps that promote learning, they make gains in literacy, numeracy and vocabulary.

Sesame Street is a prime example of how a popular-culture educational television show has helped improve math and literacy skills.

In a 2011 study on interest-based curriculum, Helen Hedges, a Professor of Early Childhood Education at Auckland University, realised that children were using popular culture themes to explore aspects of cultural knowledge.

Hedges proposes a rethinking of popular culture, concluding that if educators overlook children’s interest in popular culture, they may be ignoring a rich source with which to engage and extend children’s knowledge and understandings.

Referring to her study, Hedges writes: “At first, I simply analysed popular culture as one of children’s interests. However, a closer examination revealed that children’s interest in popular culture was not often about popular culture characters, scripts or games per se.

Interpreting the data from a sociocultural perspective enabled me to recognise that popular culture represented something that influenced children’s language, play, relationships and behaviour in ways consistent with the concept of funds of knowledge.”

Like interactive reading through ‘big books’ or dramatic storytelling, educators can use quality television shows as opportunities to guide thinking, questioning, and ideas before, during, and after viewing. To help illustrate the benefits consider the most recognised educational show for young children, Sesame Street.

In 1969 the study, The Potential Uses of Television in PreSchool Education, led to the creation of Sesame Street. It basically began with the question: could television be used to educate kids?

Using a culturally diverse cast, early childhood education expertise, and the unforgettable Muppets, Sesame Street has educated and entertained generations of children around the world for over 50 years.

A landmark 2015 study by researchers at the University of Maryland and Wellesley College found that watching Sesame Street delivers educational benefits as effective as preschool – especially for disadvantaged children.

The show's creators employ academics and educational psychologists to figure out sound scientific methods for teaching children through entertainment.

In a recent interview, Jennifer Kotler Clarke, Sesame Workshop's VP of Content Research and Evaluation said: "We're always really spending time reading research reports and understanding from experts how children learn."

"We're particularly interested in things that help foster curiosity and excitement and motivation towards learning so it really is very much a part of everything we do."

To assist early years educators, Cool Australia has partnered with Bluey creators, Ludo Studio, to create a range of educational resources, which could be used un early childhood settings. Each resource showcases an episode from Bluey and contains all the instructional information, curriculum mapping and teaching strategies.

Each resource contains information supporting educators to understand the research behind evidence-based teaching strategies and key early developmental stages. The resources provide instructions to facilitate experiential activities and socio-dramatic play.

References and further reading

The Spinoff: Immerse yourself in kindness with new kiwi kids show Kiri and Lou

Sydney Morning Herald: Struggling with preschoolers? Take Bluey’s lead, say experts

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