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Family Matters No. 27 - November 1990

Lift Off: New initiative in TV for early childhood.

Don Edgar

Abstract

Lift Off is an entertaining and educational television series of the Australian Children's Television Foundation (ACTF) for children aged three to eight years. The aim of Lift Off is not merely to enhance the quality of early childhood; it is to make the whole community aware of the significance of early childhood and assist in its development. Lift Off's associated Outreach Program aims to extend the impact of Lift Off in the way Headstart did for Sesame Street.

At a launch of a new series of TV feature films for children titled More Winners in June this year, the Australian Prime Minister, Mr R.J. Hawke, also announced a major new initiative in television for early childhood. He described it as a basis for his hope that Australia can become again 'the Clever Country'.

This is a series for children aged three to eight years, entitled Lift Off, now in the development stages by the Australian Children's Television Foundation (ACTF).

The concept underlying Lift Off as an entertaining but educational TV series for young children derives from the adaptation of the work of Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University (Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Paladin, London, 1983). In essence, he holds that our traditional view of 'intelligence' has ignored whole 'frames of mind' that can and should be stimulated. This 'multiple intelligences' or 'multiple competence' model offers exciting possibilities for child development, from the moment of birth and the varied stimuli parents can offer, to the whole structure of the school curriculum.

I have been privileged to act as a consultant to the ACTF on this project and will chair the 'community' element of Lift Off's associated Outreach Program. Just as Sesame Street involved parents in activities such as Head Start and Home Start, plus a large range of educational materials, books and games, the Outreach Program will extend the impact of Lift Off into the whole community.

Much of this Institute's research on children and early childhood development has fed into the ACTF's planning workshops, but the Institute's interest goes beyond that. It has become obvious from our analyses of family support, youth homelessness, child abuse, and divorce outcomes that parenting skills are central to both family stability and positive child development. I have argued repeatedly (see Director's Reports in Family Matters) that support for those who take on the task of raising children is a key concern of family policy. I have also argued that parents and families cannot bring up children alone, (see also my review of Whose Keeper? in this issue). I have suggested that families should be 're-surrounded', the generations re-linked (Family Matters, No.25, December 1989), so that the whole community has a stake in the growth to full potential of every child.

The aim of Lift Off is not merely to enhance the quality of early childhood; it is to make the whole community aware of the significance of early childhood and assist in its development. The Outreach Program aims to extend the impact of Lift Off, in the way Headstart did for Sesame Street. The difference is that this will not be a formal pre- school program but one which can be used in the home, in child care centres, in parent groups, in after-school activities or simply in the games and stories children engage in themselves.

The accompanying diagram shows the overall model developed for the Outreach Program which is seen as essential in order to:

  • ensure the program reaches all children in the target age group, not just those whose parents are alert to new opportunities; 
  • extend the impact of Lift Off beyond viewing times through the use of toys, games, books, puzzles, cassettes, compact discs and, above all, activities which reinforce the ideas and skills being introduced by the program;
  • generate new layers of opportunity for young children to learn about other people in the community, beyond their own family and beyond their own age group;
  • help our three to eight year-olds see that the whole community is part of their world, an environment to be explored and cherished;
  • help parents see the task of child-rearing as an exciting one, to explore parenthood in active partnership with their children and others who can help, rather than as a burden on them as parents alone;
  • stimulate those involved in child care, family day care, infant health and welfare, community planning and other family support services to think more broadly about the potential of childhood and to see themselves as partners (with parents) in the achievement of a 'clever country', a positive learning culture;
  • provide other opportunities, venues and resources beyond the home where children can explore further and consolidate the learning opportunities offered in the TV program;
  • develop a widely-shared language and understanding about thinking and learning which brings children and adults together in a joint cultural enterprise of intellectual enquiry, skill development and intelligence building;
  • draw upon the experience, wisdom and practical resources of youth, other adults and the aged to expand the horizons of childhood and help compensate for the unequal resources of families and parents in the task of helping children reach their full potential.

Outreach

The ACTF recently conducted a workshop to develop more detailed plans for the Outreach Program, with the following as key elements of the process.

Toys, games, puzzles, cassettes, activities will be devised to illustrate and extend the messages of Lift Off. These will range across language (verbal and mathematical), music, the arts, social interaction, physical and spatial activity, with a strong emphasis on understanding both the human family and the natural environment. Puppets and other characters in Lift Off already offer a huge potential for such spin-off activities.

Existing groups such as schools, child care centres, family day care homes, playground associations, kindergartens, parents' clubs and parent education centres/courses will be contacted, informed about Lift Off and linked up through the Outreach Program to build on it and enhance its influence. Many of these contacts have already been made through the ACTF's preparatory workshops and the extensive mailing lists for newsletters.

Groups not usually considered relevant to early childhood will also be contacted and recruited to the cause of Outreach. The aged, in suburban homes, aged care centres and retirement villages offer much potential as mentors and 'Outreach Friends'. And youth, often today lacking a sense of purpose yet desperate to have a stake in society and to make a meaningful contribution, can be encouraged in this way to contribute to the youngest group in our society.

New groupings may need to be created to establish and enhance the inter-generational links we see as crucial to the success of Lift Off's aims and to a healthy society. For example, a Neighbourhood 'Outreach Corps' could be organised, drawing on the unused expertise and vitality of early retired adults and the desire of many unemployed youth to be usefully engaged. These groups could be involved in running local Lift Off Care Centres where young children could come to view the Lift Off program and engage in a range of learning experiences based on associated materials.

It should be noted that the new Family Resource Centres (promised $15 million by the Federal Government), and the already operating Family Centres in Western Australia, have the potential to develop in this way as Lift Off Centres, voluntarily staffed by the 'Outreach Corps'.

The Outreach program would also aim to reach parents in the home, to build up their confidence as educators of their own children and to expand their skill by learning how to use the program in association with the materials produced. Every State government is currently expanding its parent education programs and funding as a result of the clear need to support parents in their child-rearing task so that neglect, child abuse, failure and the later associated social costs can be prevented. The aim of the program would be to help people 'explore parenthood', rather than a formal parent education approach which too often assumes every child is a 'problem' and that parenting is a difficult or onerous task. The London (UK) Exploring Parenthood model is a good one, and the Outreach Program would be a stimulus to exploring childhood and life itself in a vital enjoyable way.

In short, the Outreach Program will build on the stimulus of Lift Off and, by involving other members of the community with the target three to eight years age group, will use their experience and raise their awareness about those very issues Lift Off is tackling --- living in a global community, protecting the environment, helping one another and getting along together.