Unexpected Learning: Unschoolers and TV

Why I Love TV

Sarah Anderson-Thimmes:

TV is right up there with politics and religion. I mean this topic elicits more questions than "What about church?" in the unschooling community. I think even sugar is less of a hot topic than TV.

And it really cracks me up. Because TV is like a godsend around here.

My girls really like to wake up slowly watching TV. This is great for me because it gives me a chance to drink my espresso, read the paper (still looking for a dog), switch the laundry, maybe do a little pilates, and generally prepare for the day. A moment to clean in the morning is great for me. I feel ready to say lots of yeses when I'm not saying, "Let me just slick this up first."

TV often offers us a moment to reconnect. I can sit down with the girls and laugh out loud or ask what shows they like and why. Many, many great conversations have happened because of this.

We have the sit and spin and a mini tramp and puzzles and games and art projects and a computer and Lego's and baby dolls and magazines and books in the same room as one of our TVs...people rarely just sit passively and watch TV.

It offers siblings a chance to do something together. Or, it can get them apart!

Lots of imaginative games and pretend play have ensued due to an idea gleaned from a television program.

We've discovered new crafts, new recipes, art activities and science projects...all from TV.

Many new concepts have come to us via TV: from beginning reading for my almost three year old to the study of physics and "The Elegant Universe" for myself.

Half the music I like I found from watching TV and movies...either from soundtracks or music videos or musical guests or TV concerts.

My husband turns it on at bedtime for white noise. He has to wake up earlier than us and this drowns out our sometimes loud sounds late at night.

TV (I'm thinking parody here) has given us many ways to laugh about situations that have the potential to make me cry.

The TV offers a connection to history and literature and language and culture and differing opinions and glimpses of remote parts of the world I will probably never see in person.

I like to watch shows from my childhood...it is a connection. My kids learn more about me from what I watched and liked when I was younger.

We've learned how to cook new foods.

My husband, a busy, busy man, will actually sit with us if we watch a show together, and he finds things for him and the girls to watch together. Major bonding.

When my kids are in a "TV phase", I like to look at it as a great opportunity for me to catch up on housework, phone calls, a new craft, or my sleep. 🙂 These don't last long so instead of worrying I take full advantage!

It really adds to our never-ending list of questions. The topics take us to the library and on field trips and into new artistic endeavors.

Ooooh, and here's a really good one: TV topics are a great conversation link between my kids and schooled kids. They can talk about favorite movies or shows or actors or musicians. These topics are much better than, "What grade are you in?"

We have been introduced to so many fun games and toys because of the *gasp* advertisements.

It gives me a cozy, tucked-in, home-from-school feeling. My kids don't really have that, but I'm sure sometimes they get a nest-y cozy feeling.

It connects us generationally. My kids can talk to their grandparents about shows they mutually like and they can watch them together. My grandparents don't go to the skating rinks and sledding hills and zoos with us, but they can watch Mary Poppins with my kids and laugh and bond together.

My Mom had the TV on all the time. She loved it. But I don't remember her sitting and just watching very often. She crocheted and cooked and cleaned. And she and I both read in front of the TV. I read many a book in front of the TV just to be near her. I did most of my homework in front of the TV (and did really well according to their standards). And it still gives me a chance to knit and paint my toes and other things I like to do with some noise on.

And guess what, even though I have these feelings of regard for the TV and tell my kids when their favorite shows are on and get them lots of movies and offer to go to lots of movies, they probably end up watching the same amount of TV as some kids with TV limits watch. Because they *want* full lives and have many interests and love the outdoors and art and experiments and friends and going out to eat and well, you get the idea.

Josh Moll:
My son (18) has watched all the House (MD hospital Fox series, probably over 80 hours of watching) series the past months, probably triggered by me being in and out of the hospital all the time. And when my eye-nerve infection came back he said to me, what if it wasn't Lyme's disease, but what if it was two different things at the same time? Lyme is gone but the eye nerve thing isn't? We asked my doctor the same question, not telling it was Olaf's House watching, making us question this.

They took a fresh look at everything, gathered new data and yesterday we got a totally new diagnosis because of it. Lyme's disease is really gone and the nerve infection is a rare symptom of a immune system illness, that can at least be treated symptomatically.

We told him that his question made a huge difference, and got a good talk about what made House so interesting to him (the logical puzzles) and he suddenly sees himself working/studying as information analyzer.

So hurray for excessive TV watching!

Lisa Wendell:

What we would miss if Zachariah only watched TV somewhere else would be family time. A sharing of interests. Bonding. Even a common conversation topic or a common knowledge base. Don't get me wrong we bond over many many things but TV is one of them.

We just finished watching a show about the Anglo Saxon Horde that was found not too long ago in the UK. Our 15 year old son knew his mom and dad would enjoy watching this with him - he recorded it and invited us to watch this evening.

I can remember him watching "This Old House" when he was 3 years old. He watched Blues Clues too ;) He loved Mary Poppins at about this same age - he loved to dance with the chimney sweeps. We loved to dance with the sweeps ! He also loved the tapes of River Dance - wow - he could really dance that one up.

Many movies have spurred a love of a particular type of music. He loved the movie "Masters and Commanders" - which spawned a love of music from epic movies. While watching tonight's show about the horde, he made mention about how he really liked the music they used in the production. I might add that Zac is not musical in that he does not play an instrument - he is a connoisseur of listening to all types of music.

The inter-connectedness of TV and the rest of his life is just amazing!

His love of all aspects of war and history led to him listening to 40's music - which led to swing music - which led to him learning to swing dance. So much for TV being sedentary ;)

I'm assuming you have books and a computer - correct? how is TV any different? It broadens our world and takes us places we might never see otherwise! Or simple entertainment - a laugh together is very bonding. We went through a stage where we watched an old show called "ALF" on the internet - OK the stage lasted about a week - but we still laughed together.

Tonight he got to hear and see people from England - from farmers, to antiquities professors. You cannot hear a British accent in a book.

I still say that a huge portion of the knowledge that our son knows he has learned from TV and movies. He was a late reader and still does not read full pages of text. He has eye teaming difficulties and many people would call him severely dyslexic. But he was talking about "Teddy Roosevelt" and "Atmosphere" in Kindergarten (he went to school through mid 3rd grade) due to TV, not in spite of. I remember the first grade teacher being so puzzled at his lack of reading and poor memory skills (remembering schooly things of course) and yet when asked to give a word that begins with "a" the other kids were all saying "apple" (something they had memorized in school) and he was saying "atmosphere" and could explain it to her thanks to TV and a full life of doing and exploring his interests (with supportive parents).

When he was younger, our son would have the TV on and be doing something else. Lego's come to mind. I don't think he ever really just sat and watched TV.

He went through a stage where he made wooden replica swords - according to what he saw on the History Channel and then would look up details on-line - I think that was about age 13.

Many shows have led to reading about something interesting to our son. TV, movies, books, internet are all intertwined for Zachariah and then comes gaming - board games, card games, computer games, console games, etc. I still say games were the biggest incentive for our son to read. His desire to play games - especially Rune Scape - where you read and type A LOT to communicate with other players.

He knows tons of history - world history - I didn't know world history until I went to college. He can tell you aspects of various wars - cultural instigations and impacts, socio-economic causes and impacts, inventions because of a particular war, - he watches / has watched all sorts of movies and documentaries about war. Some are entertainment shows like a John Wayne WWII movie or it could be a documentary on the Korean war or even about a Japanese imperial army - Samurai and Shoguns, etc. - that one led to him making an entire Halloween costume for himself and his horse of a Samurai Warrior and his war horse - he won first place at the stable with that one.

I could spend hours listing all the various interests our son has had over the years due to seeing something on TV.

I think the modeling as you refer to for us is that we, his parents, (model) live life with various interests: we read extensively, watch a bit of TV here and there, we go out and dig in the garden, cook meals, wash dishes, go to museums, nature sanctuaries, ride horses, ride bikes, go for a walk in the creek: catch tadpoles or crawdads, fly kites, exclaim "Oh wow, who wants to see a really neat spider web/sunset/something funny the dogs are doing?" etc. Our interests ebb and flow right along with our lives. We take his interests to heart and do things with him all the time.

... I could go on and on about how TV & movies (computers and radio too) have been fantastic things in our lives — and they are all intertwined / swirly connected / flowing into each other.

Lisa W. - public school teacher for 27 years now - just so we have no secrets ;) wink wink nudge nudge

Shan wrote:
We recently adopted a kitten for Annalise. She's friendly and thriving, but she's snotty...really snotty. Annalise heard about a cat with swine flu, and theorizes that's what Thumbelina has, too.

I started to talk with them about immunity, and Jeremiah did that exact eye-roll, and said "I know, Mom"...and told us about immunity, antibodies, that there is a shot, that there are lots of kinds of flu... he DID know!

And when I opened my mouth, he said, "From Sid the Science Kid!" a la Radar O'Reilly, before I could get a word out.

That was just after all the discussion of Elvis songs and alien social workers during Lilo and Stitch, and just before Frank Sinatra Jr. on Family Guy...

I haven't regretted the choice to—at long last—get cable for even a second! And I am wondering why I ever wanted to control what and how often they watched.

Robyn L. Coburn wrote in 2009:
More on the unforseen consequences of unrestricted tv viewing including pure entertainment....

So Jayn and I were watching tv together yesterday, when one of those community service announcements came on encouraging parents to talk to their children about electrical safety in the home, mentioning a couple of dangers.

Jayn and I have never had that kind of talk, although various electrical safety things have come up in passing in the course of activities (like pretty much everything!), but I somewhat lightly asked Jayn if she knew what the ad was talking about.

Her answer (with only a small eye roll), "Of course I know that Mom. I watch Family Guy."

For those unfamiliar with the show, you would think that the satire Family Guy would be the last place to learn about electrical safety in the home, but Jayn was able to rattle off a bunch of episodes where Peter was doing something so monumentally stupid and unsafe (because he's a comic idiot) that Jayn learnt to do the opposite—like the time he was babysitting the kids in the bath and gave them a boom box plugged in to listen to and then left. Keeping electronics away from the bath was one of the specific safety issues in the community service ad.

Julie Daniel wrote:
Adam and I went to a concert in London for children under five. It was very interactive with the presenter asking questions as they introduced the different instruments. Adam was really engaged with it and was answering lots of the questions identifying the instruments.When he identified the piccolo the lady presenting it said how did he know what a piccolo was and he said “I watched the Tweenies. And they are very interested in music and they talked about the woodwind section in the orchestra. So I’ve seen a piccolo before." It was really funny because a lot of the people who were there don’t let their kids watch TV and kind of look down on the Tweenies. (October 2009, in a chat)

Holly Dodd, on Twitter, October 2009:

"Mythbusters- it's like ZOOM for grownups!"

Notes on that, from the Mom of Holly:
In school one of the "skills" of logic and writing is "comparison and contrast"--the analysis of how two things are the same and different. No doubt Holly could go into some pretty perceptive detail about how Mythbusters and ZOOM are similar, and sing the ZOOM song, and show you some things she learned watching ZOOM when she was growing up.

With apologies if this doesn't work all over the world, it's on the PBS tv site: pbskids.org/zoom/ A better link, to peek in on Zoom: Zoom 50th Anniversary, at WGBH.org

and here's what "Mythbusters" is: wikipedia.org/wiki/MythBusters

In the U.K. there's a fun discussion/humor show called "QI" (for "Quite Interesting") on which they discuss myths and misconceptions and fallacies, in humorous ways, in a kind-of gameshow format. Some of that can be seen on YouTube. Quite Interesting

Educational TV, sometimes with songs, explosions and comedians! Cooool.

This morning Shawna (10) had a dentist appointment. While she was being worked on, Jacqueline (7) & I watched Animal Planet in the waiting room. We watched Backyard Habitat and they were discussing flying squirrels.

They showed how to build a nesting box and gave the link to their website for more information. They also talked about what they eat and how to make a feeding area for them. Right before one of the commercial breaks, they asked "how many nuts do squirrels store for the winter"? We each guessed, I said 100, she said 150. We learned was they store about 1,500 nuts!!

While we were watching, I got this *incredible* feeling of being lucky. Lucky that there are shows like Animal Planet. Here's this great resource and it's available *only* on TV.

I would never want to limit that.

~ Joanne ~
Mom to Jacqueline (7), Shawna (10) & Cimion (13)
Adopted into our hearts October 30, 2003

from the same Joanne, on another list earlier:
My youngest (7 years old) was having a conversation with our neighbor (8 years old and in school) about space. Jacqueline is VERY interested in space and what it takes to become an astronaut. She She was telling our neighbor that she likes learning about space and that she and her dad had just hung up a model of the solar system in her room. This boy already thinks my kids are weird because they *like* learning. LOL He said "I already finished learning about space in school. We're done now." She started talking about Galileo's life and different facts about the planets. He said "I told you we already *finished* and now we're done. I don't have to remember it anymore. I passed my test."

When she came in I asked her where she learned about Galileo's life and how she knew such cool facts about the planets. She told me from, Reading Rainbow and NOVA. :-)

From Ren Allen's house:

Yesterday, while I was getting ready for work, Dora the Explorer was on while Jalen watched. I heard him speaking Spanish back to Dora everytime she asked for help, it cracked me up. He was even rolling his "r's" while saying "arriba" with Dora over and over.

The kids and I have made some really fabulous connections over Japanese Anime, something I would probably not learned about on my own. They tell me about Japanese mythology and spirituality they've picked up, why the artist uses certain facial features and the symbology in it all.

Sierra loves the home improvement, fashion and cooking shows. She wants to take a cooking class with me now and has decided she'll earn money as a chef someday, simply being a chef at home for now.:) We've had lengthy discussions spawned from the show "How do I Look?" as to the damage that parents create when they don't honor their own child's uniqueness. One Goth girl was on it and we were SO upset at the parents I could hardly watch it. This girl had designed her own clothing...very unique and creative, and they were all over her about looking freaky. It was terribly sad. We got something different from that show than you'd have thought.

Sierra told us how to cook a fish one night, in detail. She comes to us with written recipes for things I've never heard of, craft projects and is constantly looking up information online because of something she heard or saw on tv.

Over the years, Trevor has learned a TON about various wars (mostly the civil and WW11 though), weaponry and history from tv. I really don't know where he learns most of what he learns now, only that when he shares stuff with me it a bit strange because he's REALLY well informed and intelligent, but he seems to spend most of his days on World of Warcraft!!:)


Joy Karim wrote on unschooling.com:

Today we went to the history museum and were looking at meteorites when my 8 yo son started purposefully striding towards the next exhibition area saying "C'mon Mom. Let's go to the gem section." That took me by surprise. I would never have pegged gems as an interest of his. We looked around a bit and then he asked me to tell him if I saw a garnet or peridot.

Where did he know about these things? I'm guessing probably a Pokemon gameboy or gamecube game. There's a lot to be learned from these AND TV.

I've spent a lot of time watching tv, mostly the Disney channel, with my 10 yo daughter. She's an avid tv watcher. I used to think tv was really stupid and useless but I was surprised at how much history, art and other cool stuff's on these shows once I actually sat down and watched.

Sometimes I go pick out some library videos (Bill Nye the Science Guy, other science or art related videos) just to mix things up a little.

By Dewa (Dewa):

We have some school-at-home friends. The mom is teaching an ancient history class based on the Well-Trained Mind. My daughter wanted to be in the class because all her friends were and she likes the mother. I was worried that it would be too schoolish, but it's turned out to be a really nice experience because the mom's actually very laid back and it's mostly really fun crafts and some really interesting discussion and some storytelling and then a lot of playing with friends rather than a lot of lecturing.

Anyway, yesterday they started talking about Ancient China, and I was in the other room, but I heard my daughter interjecting all sorts of points about Chinese culture. Then they tried some Chinese brush calligraphy, and my daughter's came out amazingly, like she'd been doing it for years. I was startled by all this. But then I realized that she had learned a lot of this from watching a lot of Sagwa on TV. She was drawn to Sagwa because Sagwa is a cat. But she learned about traditional Chinese culture and calligraphy while getting her animal fix.

The funny thing is, a lot of the parents of other children in that class are very into academics and very anti-television. And their kids didn't know that stuff.

Photo respectfully lifted from [a blog long gone now].
I wanted to share what my son (9) said today about his own TV and computer experience. I was snipping my new maiden's hair fern and made a comment on how much I liked my plant. He said, "Let me guess. Is that plant tropical?" I told him I believed that it was. I asked him how he could tell. He said, "Just by seeing how it grows and how the leaves are rough. I know my science, Mom." I said, "Yep, I think you've learned a lot about biology from watching the shows on TV." He started pacing around the kitchen excitedly talking about how neat it was that he had learned so much from the TV and the computer. He said, "Mom, almost everything I've learned comes from the TV. TV is a scheduled, fun to watch, learning facility! (And, I learned all those words I said just now from TV.) I bet that 3/4 of my knowledge is from TV and computer. Let's see, 1/4 is probably from reading and talking with people." When he mentioned reading, he meant reading books. Of course, he's reading when watching TV and playing on the computer, but he doesn't really think about it that way.

-Dana Burdick

Comment: I wanted to add that he first said that he learned a 1/2 plus a quarter from TV. I made a brief comment that another way to say that was 3/4 and the conversion continued. I no longer think in terms of subjects; Oh, that was math he just did, or, that was reading he just did? When I first started unschooling, it was almost as if I was keeping some kind of score. It all seems so ridiculous now. Anywho, I thought that I would mentioned it here for anyone who is interested in seeing another example of how schoolish subjects such as math naturally blend into everyday life. It's amazing how one five minute conversation can hold so much.

Recent TV Discussions:

While watching a show on dinosaurs, we got into a discussion about how crude oil is formed, and the different methods that have been developed for bringing it up out of the earth (or "sucking" it out, as my youngest put it), and also the refining process and all the things that the oil is used for.

While watching Spongebob Squarepants we talked about why people cuss, (there's an episode where Spongebob and Patrick think cussing is cool) and we all decided that people that cuss constantly must not be very "smart" if they can't think of any better words to use. :)

While watching a movie, a Kotex commercial came on and spawned a lengthy discussion on menstruation, and how all the different methods of protection work, or don't work, the reasons why women pick one method over another, and what did women do back before companies like Kotex existed. Then the discussion moved to the different methods of birth control, then to birth itself, and C-sections, natural childbirth, etc. All from one little Kotex commercial.

While watching The Mummy (cartoon), we talked about Egypt and the pharoahs, and then slavery, which eventually led to the civil war and Abe Lincoln, and then on to other presidents that had done "great" things.

That's just a few off the top of my head, but the main thing to remember is that none of these discussions were planned, and it's always the kids that initiate the talks, and when they stop asking "why, when, how, who and where" the talk is over. They may come back at a later date and want more information to add to what they know, or they may be satisfied and leave it at that.

TV is not a "bad" thing. TV can be very, very cool.


Jackie Chan, on TV (the last of three questions—the first two are "Are you Ever Afraid?" and "Who do you Admire?")

Thanks to Katherine for knowing this existed and Lynda for finding it!

The video has been removed; bummer. It was Jackie Chan, in a live clip from his cartoon show, saying he learned English from watching TV.


Alexis, age 9, asked:
Do you like to watch television?
Jackie Chan:
Yes, I learn so many things on television! Even my English, I learnt from TV. I like educational channels. Even from cartoons I can lean something. I love TV. When I'm only in Hong Kong, I can watch what's going on in America, what's going on in South Africa and Europe, everywhere, and really learn a lot of things I didn't know before. Even training I watch on TV. TV is my teacher. I love TV!
Source (ep.5)

Television and Unschoolers


Gilligan's Island...Science

Building an Unschooling Nest