Experts Ponder Academic Value of ‘Barney’

By Mark Walsh — September 22, 1993 4 min read
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After edging Big Bird aside as the top-rated children’s star on public television and scoring a runaway success in merchandising, Barney is now coming under scrutiny from researchers asking whether the overstuffed purple dinosaur makes the grade as a teacher.

New episodes of “Barney & Friends’’ will make their debut next week on the Public Broadcasting Service.

A forthcoming study by Yale University researchers suggests that the show contains many positive educational elements that aid young children preparing for school.

Critics, though, say “Barney’’ lacks a clear educational focus and sacrifices production quality.

Last season, “Barney’’ overtook the venerable “Sesame Street’’ in the Nielsen ratings of PBS children’s shows. On a typical day, some 3.4 million households were tuned into “Barney,’' while 2.8 million homes turned on “Sesame Street.’'

“Sesame Street’’ remains the most-watched show among 2- to 5-year-olds, however, in part because each episode is a full hour long, compared with a half-hour for “Barney,’' and most stations air it several times a day, resulting in larger cumulative ratings.

“Barney’’ has become a television and cultural phenomenon since it appeared on PBS in the spring of 1992.

Young children are entranced by the show’s simple formula, in which a stuffed dinosaur comes to life and leads a group of children through songs, games, hugs, and lessons about such concepts as imagination and the alphabet. But the show’s saccharine approach has turned off many parents and media observers.

‘Impressive’ Research

In contrast to “Sesame Street,’' which is one of the most-researched children’s shows ever, child psychologists and other academics are just beginning to examine “Barney.’'

Initial results from the first academic study of the show will be released soon by the show’s producers.

“Barney’’ is produced by the Lyons Group, a division of a Texas-based religious and educational publisher, R.C.L. Enterprises Inc.

Connecticut Public Television, which first brought “Barney’’ to PBS, commissioned researchers at Yale University to study the show’s educational content and impact. The research team has been led by Jerome and Dorothy Singer, psychologists at Yale’s Family Television Research and Consultation Center.

The first phase of the Singers’ study is a content analysis of “Barney’’ for the inclusion of positive cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and multicultural elements. Future research will examine what children get out of the show.

The analysis of the first season’s 30 episodes “looks extremely impressive,’' Mr. Singer said last week. “The overall picture suggests a very enriched teaching context.’'

Each episode contains 10 to 25 examples of information or behavior that would be helpful to young children preparing for school, he said.

“It is probably one of the richest shows available,’' he added. “At least we can argue with people who say there is no educational value and who put it down as just some dumb songs.’'

Searching for the Curriculum

But other observers argue that the show suffers from unfocused educational goals and slipshod production.

“It’s a little simplistic,’' said Peggy Charren, a longtime advocate for improved children’s television. “As an adult, I look at it and think those kids aren’t real, and the songs aren’t very imaginative.’'

Gerald S. Lesser, a professor of education and developmental psychology at Harvard University, said he is mystified by the show’s success.

“I’m not sure what the strong attraction is, because it does not make much use of the television medium,’' he said. “If there is an organized curriculum, I haven’t figured it out.’'

Mr. Lesser is the chairman of the advisory board for the Children’s Television Workshop, which produces “Sesame Street,’' a show known for its lavish production and lengthy list of curricular goals.

“The one thing that bothers me is the possibility that people will reach the conclusion from ‘Barney’ that you can do a show for little kids that is cheap, relatively unsophisticated, not well thought through, and still attract a big audience,’' he said.

But others argue that young children are not concerned about production quality or a second layer of humor aimed at adults.

John C. Wright, a professor of human development and psychology at the University of Kansas, praised the show’s music and Barney’s “generic sweet voice.’'

“Barney sets out to be charming and benign first, and instructive second,’' said Mr. Wright, the co-director of the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children.

The show “is intended basically for preschool children,’' Mr. Singer noted. “It doesn’t have a lot of the Broadway and Hollywood humor of ‘Sesame Street.’''

“Children are desperately in need in those early years of what we call security and a sense of pure love and acceptance,’' he added. “Maybe they ought to have a chance to get it.’'

A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 1993 edition of Education Week as Experts Ponder Academic Value of ‘Barney’


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