Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What the kids are watching

In part 2 of Shows You May Not Know Exist, we take a look at the kids' current favorite: Ni Hao, Kai-lan.

This well-designed, vaguely anime styled half hour teaches Mandarin Chinese and gentle, Chinese-flavored life lessons about group dynamics. I love the big-head characters and their individual character quirks. (Most endearing: Tolee the koala, who is enamored of pandas. He walks around in panda gear clutching a toy panda named Pandy, and when bedtime comes he trades his day panda-head slippers for identical night-time panda-head slippers.)

Even though my kids have never been enthusiastic participants in the shows that endeavor to get them to stand up and play along (like Dora the Explorer), they follow Kai-lan's every instruction eagerly. And the vocabulary really sticks. We hear more "xie xie" and "bu keqi" around the house than "thank you" and "you're welcome." Naturally Archer and Cady Gray know how to count in Mandarin, and they repeat "yi, er, san" in the sing-song way it's taught on the show -- which reinforces the central role of pitch and tone in the language.

The show is pitched toward preschoolers, so it has the leisurely pacing and repetition common to shows at that age level. I prefer that to even the low-key frenzy of shows aimed at the elementary crowd. And so does Archer, who has trouble following stories and so is left cold by the setup, conflict, resolution, denouement structure of narrative television.

In fact, Ni Hao, Kai-lan emphasizes questions that are exactly the ones Archer needs to be able to answer before he can make the inferences necessary for story comprehension:
  • Why is a character acting this way? In every show, a character becomes upset, mad, scared, guilty, or unhappy, and Kai-lan asks the viewers why. The incident that triggered the negative response is replayed, and the reason for the emotion is reinforced. The idea here is to empathetically share the perspective of the other character -- exactly the skill an autistic child needs special help with.
  • How can a problem be solved? The characters devise simple plans to restore group harmony. This requires hypothetical thinking and the application of basic principles such as "If you accidentally mess something up, help fix it."
  • When is the right time? Episodes feature both exuberance and calmness, conveying the idea that different behaviors are appropriate for different settings. Again, this is something that is key to teaching an autistic child to cope with a world of invisible social cues.
Ni Hao, Kai-lan is attractively designed; I like it from an adult perspective because I find the graphics appealing. It also happens to be one of the most culturally interesting ways to support kids in early stages of their social development. Give it a whirl, whether you have kids or just want to learn a little Chinese.


Adam Villani said...

Oh gee, I hadn't known about this show before. Looks cool. Thanks!

Adam Villani said...

Oh man, I watched the show. The pros:
1. Cute! 2. Teaches Chinese!
1. Really, truly aimed at four-year-olds, in a way that makes it unwatchable for adults.

I like that the show exists, but I'm not going to be a regular viewer myself.