The average American child watches two to three hours of TV a day, according to the American Association of Pediatrics. And that doesn’t include the time they spend playing video games, sitting in front of the computer, and watching movies. Yet, few children are taught how to decode the messages that come wrapped in visual media. Ellen Besen, an acclaimed animator, author, and teacher who’s worked with students from pre-school to college level says that visual literacy is a skill that every child should be taught. “Because of technology our kids have near-constant access to visual media, yet we’ve done very little to teach them how to really understand what they’re seeing,” says Besen. She is the author of Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writers, Filmmakers, Video Artist, and Game Developer Should Know and she answered my questions about what parents should know about visual literacy.
How do you define visual literacy?
It’s the ability to watch visual media with awareness of exactly what is being communicated (including less obvious messages and intents) and how that communication is being achieved.
How do you turn children from passive viewers to active, engaged viewers of television and film?
The first step involves introducing the idea that media can be questioned instead of just being accepted carte blanche. By its very nature, media seems authoritative — if something is on TV, for example, it must not only be true but also important. Left unquestioned, media can become established in a child’s mind as the ultimate authority. So you need to sit down with your children and watch things with them and discuss what you are watching. This way you maintain (or re-establish) the role as the main authority in your child’s life. Media may then raise interesting questions but the final answers to those questions come from you.
What can preschoolers learn about visual media? Elementary school kids? Middle and high schoolers?
Recognition that everything we see in media was put there by choice is key to developing visual and media literacy. This recognition leads to three big questions which can be adapted for children of different ages:
What choices did the creators make? Why did they make those choices? What else could they have chosen to do?
Again I must emphasis here that for kids of all ages, you need to watch the shows and movies they watch, preferably with them — you can’t be a credible authority (especially with older kids)unless you know the material! This allows you to see how your children react to specific elements — both positively and negatively — which will open doors for conversation with them. It also helps you observe your children’s overall reaction to media. What kind of watchers are they? Some kids get taken right in and once there, are hard to peel away. Other kids treat TV as a background element to which they give some of their attention while also carrying on with other activities. These different styles of watching offer clues to what your child might need to understand about media.
Since preschool programming is already quite regulated, efforts with very young children can mostly be focused on laying the foundation for visual literacy. Watch a favorite show with them and ask what they like best about it and what they like least. What would they change, if they could — show more of a favorite character, perhaps, or add a new character? Put the stories in a new setting or have more stories in a favorite one? This encourages active watching and helps create the groundwork for critical thinking by stimulating the child’s ability to form an opinion. Older preschoolers can also begin to consider the difference between real and not real — at this age, it might only be the broadest of distinctions: live action actors — real, animated characters — not real, for example.
With elementary school kids and preteens, you can try a more sophisticated version of the same exercises. Here along with encouraging active watching towards forming an opinion about the content, you can also begin to foster an awareness of the various elements through which different media communicate. Have them watch for changes in camera angles or the use of camera moves. Once they’ve identified that the angles often change, you can have them think about why they change: has the camera just cut closer to showcase a tiny detail which would otherwise be hard to see, such as something a character is taking out of her pocket? Has the camera started to move way back from the scene because the show is over and we are now saying good bye?
At this age, the “real/not real” discussion can also become more sophisticated. And it definitely becomes more important. Kids can watch TV ads aimed at them and look for false information — camera angles which make a toy look bigger than it really is; favorite cereals which look more brightly colored and more appetizing on TV than the real thing because the food has been doctored. They can also watch action sequences or fight sequences and begin to understand that the actors are not actually fighting.