Screen Time Isn’t Created Equal — So PBS SoCal Is Crafting Classroom Materials for Healthier Engagement
Ready-to-go education packs help teachers guide students in under-resourced classrooms through STEM programs with their favorite TV characters.
If you grew up with Arthur, Curious George, or Sesame Street, you’ll remember tuning in to PBS KIDS each week to hang out with your favorite furry or feathered friend. You may also remember all those times your show got bumped for a pledge drive.
Southern California’s PBS SoCal — which continues to air those beloved series, as well as new kiddie favorites like Odd Squad, Ready Jet Go!, and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (a spiritual successor to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) — is piloting crowdfunding as a way to supplement funding from pledge drives and membership to extend programming into the community. They recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to send four resource boxes to 30 classrooms in the East Los Angeles area throughout the school year, each filled with fun, educational materials for preschool teachers to use in their STEM curricula. The boxes will include lesson plans, classroom and take-home activities, and a tablet loaded with educational apps featuring beloved PBS KIDS characters like Daniel Tiger and the Cat in the Hat.
The goal is to “make a teacher’s [lesson planning] easier,” says Susana B. Grimm, PBS SoCal’s director of early learning. “The first question for a lot of the teachers I work with is whether this is this going to be something they can open and [easily] implement in their classrooms.”
Hoping to reach new and diverse audiences, a TV station turns to crowdfunding
David Callaghan, crowdfunding manager for PBS SoCal and KCET, developed the organization’s incipient crowdfunding program as a way to harness technology to complement their tried-and-tested funding methods.
“We’re trying to reach out to people where they’re at, rather than sit back and expect them to give in the way previous generations gave,” he says. “We see crowdfunding as something that can supplement [membership] or replace it for some people. It’s a way to build a relationship with our fans in a new way.”
His first Kickstarter campaign for KCET, launched in August 2018, sought to preserve, digitize, and stream vintage episodes of the travel-documentary series Visiting with Huell Howser. The campaign was a hit with fans of the California TV personality and suggested that crowdfunding could be a viable way to fund certain passion projects at the station. “A year after running the campaign, people still like [our project updates] and leave comments,” Callaghan says.
PBS SoCal takes their programming off the screen and into the community
Grimm worked with the national PBS KIDS team to develop the resource boxes project and pilot it at the SoCal station; they hope to eventually expand it to other communities in Southern California and serve as a model for other PBS stations around the U.S. But this is far from the station’s first foray into IRL programming. PBS SoCal has developed community-focused programs for the past eight years, and Grimm has helped organize free local workshops, trainings, and events for parents, teachers, and kids in kindergarten through third grade. Last month, for example, they hosted their annual Summer Learning Day, an initiative to combat the effects of “summer slump”; this year’s event focused on space exploration, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
“Most of the educators we work with are located in neighborhoods that are not well funded; they don’t really have the resources that other districts will be able to provide.” Grimm says. This new project evolved out of conversations with educators in these communities. “For the past few years I’ve been working with principals and early childhood agencies in [East Los Angeles], and they all say the same thing: They want more resources for their teachers.” She notes that many teachers spend out-of-pocket money on materials for their classrooms. “That was one of the things that [motivated us] to create this box.”
And Grimm has firsthand experience with the hot commodity that is the subscription-box model. “I’m a big fan of subscription boxes. I’ll subscribe to makeup, I’ll subscribe to food, I’ll subscribe to groceries or cleaning supplies. I thought, ‘There’s nothing like this [for education]. Why don’t we try it?’”
Grimm and the PBS SoCal team surveyed educators to find out what kinds of learning resources they needed, and to ensure that the materials they provided aligned with national curriculum and content standards. Once they’d decided on the content, they sent the boxes out to teachers across Southern California to gather feedback and make sure they would be easy to integrate into the classroom.
The boxes will offer materials that target social and emotional development, math, and literacy. The first delivery will also include a PBS KIDS Playtime Pad, a specially designed tablet loaded with PBS KIDS educational apps. “There’s a bit of a digital equity divide in this city, so we want to make sure we’re providing that too,” Grimm says.
All screen time isn’t created equal; the team wants to teach parents and kids to use technology wisely
In a world already saturated with screens, which may be harmful to child development, the team also wants to create guidelines around the use of the Playtime Pad and educate parents and teachers about media literacy more broadly. “We’re not saying, ‘Use this tablet in the classroom for eight hours.’ We’re saying, ‘This tablet is here to be a tool for learning. Five minutes of playing an educational app will reinforce what you’re doing in the classroom already,’” Grimm says. “We created an information sheet about the positive use of technology in the classroom with a couple of tips.”
They also hope to foster awareness of how technology can be used proactively and productively. Callaghan, who has a child in kindergarten and one in sixth grade, says, “My kids play with the PBS KIDS Scratch Jr. app, which teaches coding for young kids. I feel very confident that they’re doing something educational. Parents are concerned with screen time, but what is it that [the kids are] watching? What is it that they’re playing? Are they playing Candy Crush, or something that’s very addictive and very commercial? Or are they playing with an app that’s actually teaching them something?”
The resource boxes are a jumping-off point for new relationships in the community
The PBS SoCal team also wants to offer support in under-resourced classrooms beyond the box. “We don’t want to say, ‘Here’s a box, we’ll see you next year,’” says Grimm. “We want to say, ‘Here’s a great box. We want to continue to engage with you. What else can we do? How else can we help in the classroom?’ This is not just a one-off resource; to me, this is the beginning of a long and strong relationship with the East Los Angeles community.”
“We’re not trying to compete with Netflix,” Callaghan adds. “We’re doing something different, [being] part of the community. And we want to be a part of people’s lives in the long term.”