Not Too Young to Watch, Not Too Young to Make

While the youth media production field empowers children nine years old and older to create their own media, children under the age of eight continue to be exposed to television just as much as their older siblings and peers. As media educators, we know that young children are capable of learning much at very young ages, whether at school, within home settings or from media sources. Children ages four through seven have inherent artistic and theatrical gifts that have not yet been affected by the educational system and the strains and stresses of life. In my eight years’ experience working with children and video, I have found that young children are ready and able to collaborate with adults to make and critique their own media.
Children under the age of eight need access to the fields’ knowledge of meaningful media-making in order to understand how media are made so they can generate, critique, and participate in media as young adults. Such opportunities will not only help develop a critical eye in young children; they will open doors for children to become familiar with media, preparing them to become producers of their own media at an early age. Media production in early childhood learning environments can only prove to benefit children down the road, as they are faced with various challenges both in school and at home, where media play a huge roll in their upbringing.
From Passive Viewers to Creators of Media: A Deeper Experience
Young children in the U.S. are experiencing the complex concurrent development of their creative play abilities and their understanding of the world around them, which includes an increasing amount of engagement with media stimuli. Both inside and outside of their school experience, young children spin their own stories and create their own worlds inside their imaginative play. Meanwhile, even at the young age of 4, children are equipped to ask questions and find out answers about the technology they are interacting with outside (and sometimes inside) school, and they are ready to become empowered through media literacy curricula.
Just as we can turn our television channels to Nick Jr. or PBS Kids and see the kind of media young children are spending three to four hours a day watching (Nielson, 2008), we can also turn our gaze to the ongoing international conversation about “play,” and see that it has become both a buzzword in the field of education and recognized as an essential component to healthy child development (Ackman, 2008, Henig, 2008, Paley, 2004; Singer & Singer, 1990; Tippet, 2007). Because of the multitude of animated options available for children to watch and even interact with (via internet complements to TV offerings), the imaginative play of the very young has increasingly taken on characteristics that stem directly from children’s television counterparts.
This issue took on great relevance for me during classroom conversations I had with young children while teaching art to K-2nd graders at a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant from 2000-02. The stories the children told me through their art and writing pointed consistently back to the television world, and I often could not tell if their stories were their own. I started asking children to tell me their stories through collaboration on digital videos, which resulted in the completion of my Ed.M. with a focus on children and media production, and constituted the beginning of Digital Story Workshop.
Digital Video as a Learning Tool for the Very Young
In 2004, I founded Digital Story Workshop (DSW), a video-making program that aimed to facilitate the spontaneous imaginative play of four to seven-year-old children through video documentation, viewing and story editing. This program was backed up by my Ed.M. research, a qualitative study about children’s experiences making and viewing a short film I had made with eight Brooklyn children in 2002 (Ark). The creation of DSW was my response to the obvious widespread exposure of young children to media and their resulting curiosity about it, combined with my personal and academic fascination with young children’s universal ability to create elaborate, engaging, and original stories and play experiences. DSW worked to address several goals. Specifically, to:
• empower young children by highlighting their own imaginative play,
• involve children in the process of planning, acting, editing and narrating digital videos,
• facilitate meaningful artistic collaborations between adults and children,
• document and provide a bridge between explorations at school and at home and between imaginative adventures outside and inside the classroom, and
• provide creative media that complements the educational goals and creative whimsy of children’s television, but that ventures deeper into children’s unique imaginations.
As director of Digital Story Workshop, I videotaped children’s spontaneous play based on various prompts or themes, edited the footage, screened the footage for the children to watch in small and large groups, planned curricula with teacher teams, duplicated DVDs for the children to take home, and wrote grants to attain more funding for this work. As the children revisited their play by watching it play back on a screen, I asked them questions like these:
• Can you tell the story?
• What were you doing there? Why?
• Did anything mysterious happen?
• What did you discover?
• What will happen next in the story?
I recorded the children’s voices and re-edited the videos, leaving some of the natural sounds of the children talking and exploring, interwoven with their voiceover narration that told the story of their play. Final videos ranged from two to ten minutes long and were screened and sent home with the children as DVDs, often decorated with the children’s own artwork.
Two principles guided the work: an overarching reverence for authentic free play among children—as manifest through their spontaneous explorations of places and objects, and a commitment to work with children in small groups—to facilitate deeper learning through meaningful social play. Even more than “media education,” DSW functioned as “play facilitation,” in the sense that it harnessed the powerful tool of digital video to support and enhance the wonderful developmental growth at work within children at play.
Opening the Door to Higher Order Processing
In many of my projects, I captured on camera the spontaneous actions of pre-K through 1st grade students playing in small groups in parks and schoolyards in Brooklyn, and I recorded their reactions to seeing their play as narrative/poetic voiceovers. While watching footage of her group playing in Coffey Park with puppets they had made, Anastasia, a pre-K student at PS 27 in Red Hook, narrated:
We are together.
Your house is beautiful.
Your house is kind of music.
We are not together. We are together.
We are children. We are supposed to be children.
We are together. We not losing everyone.
We are together so we not losing everyone.

Four-year-old Anastasia was somehow able to access this deep and heartfelt poetic space as she viewed the video of herself and her classmates frolicking with their puppets in the autumn leaves. Anastasia’s poetry was echoed by that of kindergarten student Vertyce, who narrated while watching her group’s indoor play with puppets:
When the sun woke up, the sun fell down, cause it was hot.
The sun melted, cause they put water on him, and then the wind blowed the sun,
and after that, it fell on the ground.
And then the puppets ate the sun up, and then they spit out the sun, cause it was very hot.

As teachers, we can only wonder at the reasons why our students make these kinds of dramatic creative leaps. I have been tracking the poetic voice of my students over the years and have documented many such poems, all inspired by young children watching themselves play on video screens. More than anything, these poems remind me that this work is not about technology as an end in itself, but about the effective use of technology to enable children to reach beyond, to a greater, deeper, more awe-inspiring understanding of the world. This type of understanding will benefit them on so many levels—social, emotional, intellectual—throughout their lives.
While at young ages like four and five, children are not ready to operate cameras or editing equipment, they are ready to take the first step toward media creation, by being videotaped, watching their actions, and retelling what they did using their inherently diverse and creative storytelling voices. This process harnesses the vital role of storytelling in young children’s lives and pairs it with technology so as to make both components not only valid but also easily accessible to children.
Sara Barnes, the principal of PS 27, Anastasia and Vertyce’s school, spoke to the importance of the video making process in developing media literacy and self-image: “Video does change so many of the kids, because being able to hold a mirror up to their reality, and watching themselves, watching their own image in real time, interacting, it does move them along pretty fast. Kids themselves tell a story and also have the chance to be the one to reenact the story in the film, so they start to reconceptualize what the whole process is about” (Barnes, 2008). As Shariffa Martinez, a cooperating kindergarten teacher on the year-long DSW partnership at PS 27 that sparked Anastasia and Vertyce’s poetic narrations, said “This work is not an isolated thing. It lends itself to so many aspects of the curriculum” (Martinez, 2008).
Innovation at the Crossroads of Early Childhood and Technology
Over the four years (2004-08) that I worked as a teaching artist/videographer through DSW, I found myself moving against the grain of NYC public schools that had no precedent for media education in early childhood. Because this work is an unusual marriage of early childhood teaching and technology, I have often felt like a lone voice espousing the benefits of media production in early childhood.
After searching for years for any like-minded national efforts that could back up my work, I ultimately concluded that the video medium remains a foreign concept to most early childhood teachers, save for a few exceptions. Those whose work echoes and supports my own include progressive schools that model themselves after the Reggio Emilia preschools in Italy, Richard Lewis of the Touchstone Center for Children, George Forman and Ellen Hall’s Videatives, and the writer and teacher Vivian Paley, who has cultivated a network of teachers who enable their students to act out their original stories on a regular basis. Teachers at private schools in New York City, Cambridge, MA and Boulder, CO are using video to document learning and play in their classrooms.
The Child Care Collection at Ball State University produces a variety of resources for parents and professionals in the field of early care and education, including video documentation of the uses of play, and will feature DSW in a new DVD series in 2009. Coordinator of programming Teresa Matlock supports the premise of questioning children while viewing videos of themselves playing: “When you ask children questions about their play, without video footage for them to reference, you will get a few replies. Show them a videotape of themselves at play, however, and suddenly those questions will receive ten times as many answers, which will then lend themselves to 1,000 more things to play, videotape and think about” (Matlock, 2008).
Videatives (video + narrative) focus on the use of video in pre-school settings with children as young as three. Videatives CEO George Forman likens video revisiting to “a tool for thinking about thinking” (Forman, 2008). In that sense, video is a powerful tool that can enable young children to make a leap into the relatively unexplored metacognitive realm. This prospect has fueled my work: not only have I provided an engaging experience for children, but I have helped them to access brain development that may not otherwise be available to them, especially given the traditional learning climate of many public schools.
As Erin B. Reilly and Alice Robison note in Youth Media Reporter, “new media literacy skills are central to the lives of all young people, who will increasingly communicate and rely upon technology into their adult lives.” Reilly and Robison go on to make clear the importance of the role of “focused, explicit instruction and experience with these skills,” and remind educators that we cannot simply assume that just because children have access to technology, that they will succeed in using the tools to the best of their abilities (Reilly and Robison, 2007). It is important for all media educators to note that early childhood technology enrichment can pave the way to much deeper understanding, once students come to the age at which they can videotape and edit on their own.
While this work may present a challenging addition to most early childhood classrooms, it still resonates deeply with professionals in the field, and therefore should be pursued. Teachers are interested in documenting their students’ explorations of the world, and they are intrigued by the extended vantage points allowed by the video medium. They are open to using such videos within the classroom for “thinking about thinking.” But this discussion is only just getting off the ground; it happens in pockets of the early childhood field, but is not currently sustained by meaningful ongoing professional development.
Given more investment on the part of educators who could commit to becoming a network of early childhood media producers, the dialogue, and as a result, the work, could become much more meaningful. The obvious next step then would be to widen the conversation to include more voices within the field of media education. The challenge for each field is to work together with each other to expand the possibilities of video production for young children.
The Next Step
All young children need to interact with digital video. Eight years and 25 projects after I first introduced a camera into an elementary school, I have witnessed the symbiotic relationship of viewing, questioning and learning that digital video brings to pre-K youth. Because of its power, relevance and increased accessibility and affordability in the world at large, video in the classroom remains a tool that should be explored in early childhood, so that it can help practitioners go beyond documentation and offer truly life-affecting education experiences to their youngest students.
Learning about and interacting with multi-media tools will help to prepare the youngest children to be media critics in a media-saturated society and will validate and enhance their imaginative explorations, which in turn will benefit their intellectual growth in early childhood and throughout their lives. As early childhood and media educators, we have the opportunity to shepherd the youngest generation of media viewer/participants into a new understanding of their relationship to media. Anastasia and her friends are leading the way, with their powerfully relevant poetry that fuels a deepened meaning of our work: “They are together so they not losing everyone.”
In 2004, Kristin B. Eno (Ed.M., Columbia Teachers College) founded Digital Story Workshop, a nonprofit media education company that enabled young children eight and under to make creative videos in collaboration with a teaching artist/videographer/editor. Since then she has produced 25 projects based on the stories and play of pre-K through 2nd graders around New York City. She recently founded Little Creatures, a film company that produces high-quality live-action films based on the imaginative adventures of young children around the world, told in children’s own voices.,
Ackman, D. (2008, August 5). The Architect-Designer Focuses on Child’s Play. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved September 17, 2008 from Wall Street Journal Website:
Barnes, S. (2008, August 25). In-person interview.
Forman, G. (2008, September 27). Email interview.
Henig, R.M. (2008, February 17). Why Do We Play? Taking Play Seriously. The New York Times Magazine, 38-45, 60, 75.
Martinez, S. (2008, June 26). In-person interview.
Matlock, T. (2008, September 17). Email and phone interview.
Nielson Media Research. (2008). Nielson’s Three Screen Report: Television, Internet and Mobile Usage in the U.S. Retrieved August 6, 2008, from Nielson Website:
Paley, V. (2004). A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Reggio Emilia.,
Reilly, Erin B. and Alice Robison. (2007). Extending Media Literacy: How young people remix and transform media to serve their own interests. Youth Media Reporter, 1, 96-101.
Singer, D. & Singer, J.L. (Eds.) (1990). The House of Make-Believe: Children’s Play and the Developing Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Touchstone Center for Children.
Tippet, K. (2007). Play, Spirit and Character. Speaking of Faith. American Public Media.