CIRCLE and Arthur: Using Children's Media to Promote Civic Education
What do civic education and an 8-year-old talking aardvark have in common? A lot, it turns out, thanks in large part to CIRCLE Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, who has served as a key advisor on the beloved children’s television show Arthur as the series sought to incorporate civic themes and lessons into several episodes.
Arthur, which is produced by WGBH for PBS, is one of the longest-running and most critically acclaimed kids’ TV shows. Aimed at children ages 4-8, and broadcast in more than 80 countries, Arthur is known for its educational value, presenting valuable lessons and complex issues in age-appropriate ways.
CIRCLE’s partnership with the creators of Arthur highlights one of CIRCLE’s strongest convictions about civic education: that it is never too early to introduce kids to the foundational ideas, skills, and behaviors of civic engagement. Children are members of communities at school and at home; they have a stake in issues and can begin to understand how those issues affect them—and how they may come to effect change on those issues. Students as young as kindergarten-age can start to develop core assets like civic responsibility, a sense of community, empathy, and an ability to speak their mind when they see injustice. These skills and attitudes can serve as the building blocks for more comprehensive civic education and engagement in later years.
This year, when the program’s producers wanted to include content that would foster civic learning, they turned to our director for expertise. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg provided strategic guidance and had direct input into the storylines and scripts of several new episodes of Arthur, including “Making a Difference,” which focused on how students can identify a problem in their community, talk about solutions, and create positive change together; and “Taking Sides,” which introduced conflict resolution skills like being able to listen to people with different opinions and productively overcome differences.
Kawashima-Ginsberg also consulted on an episode focused on American citizenship that drew praise from judges who preside over naturalization ceremonies. Earlier this year, on a WGBH program focused on the growing connections between Arthur and civics, our director’s contributions drew praise from the show’s creative team.
Kei really worked closely with us on this episode and was really helpful. You know, what we did was try to talk a lot about: ‘what does it mean to be a citizen?’ and Cheikh’s concerns that he was going to have to leave behind everything from his own culture, and trying to reinforce, ‘no, no, the great thing about being an American citizen is that everybody brings their own background and past into it,’” said Carol Greenwald, Senior Executive Producer of Children’s Programs at WGBH. “So thank you again, Kei, for making sure that we did it right. That is the kind of thing that makes us feel like we are doing our job.
In addition to individual episodes, Kawashima-Ginsberg also provided guidance and support for new online resources, including a video game called Arthur’s Park, in which the titular character sets out to build a park in his neighborhood. Arthur must make plans, fundraise, rally support from neighbors, and overcome setbacks in order to improve his community.
“It’s a privilege to work on such a beloved educational children’s television show, and it’s so commendable that the program’s creators recognize the importance of introducing civic themes and skills to young kids,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg. “Children’s media can play an important role in an ecosystem of comprehensive and equitable civic education that prepares the next generation to become active participants in their communities and in democracy.”