September 15, 2010

If you haven’t yet seen THE CAT IN THE HAT KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THAT! from PBS Kids, you’re in for a real treat. The animated series, which premieres this month on PBS stations nationwide (check local listings), stars Martin Short as the beloved Cat, and is designed to spark a love of learning and an interest in science in preschool-aged children.

 We first heard about the program from PBS Kids’ programmer Linda Simensky earlier this year, when she was on a panel that Liz chaired here in New York. Simensky described the meeting where she heard the initial pitch for the series. She recognized the drawing power of the popular Dr. Seuss books, of course, but needed to be sure that the program had the kind of genuine, rich, educational focus that PBS Kids requires. "I asked them {the program makers} point blank, ‘what’s the curriculum?’ And they responded very simply: ‘Physics.’" You don’t hear that every day in a preschool story pitch.

In the end, THE CAT IN THE HAT KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THAT! sets its educational sights more broadly on the organizing idea of Exploration, for which narrative stories are particularly well suited. In each episode, the Cat in the Hat and his friends Sally and Nick go on a science adventure, such as flying with birds to discover how and why they migrate, or taking a snowcat to the Arctic to explore freezing and melting.

One of the things I liked about the episode that I screened is that there is a subtle shift from the books, where the Cat knows all and the kids are along for the ride. In this new television series, program makers are careful to keep the kids in the driver’s seat, leading the exploration, while the Cat functions as an instigator, cheerleader, and source of gentle mayhem. 

Encouraged by the Cat, the children (acting as surrogates for the child viewers) are the ones who figure things out by engaging in science inquiry.

Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) wrote The Cat in the Hat in 1957, as a response to a national concern that children were not learning to read. The book became an instant classic, and the books were animated for television/DVDs. Seeing how well suited Dr. Seuss and his towering, Rube Golberg-like contraptions are for science education, it’s a wonder no one has ever done this kind of adaptation before!

One of the things that I like best about the program is that it encourages children to find wonders in the world in the familiar world around them. This is particularly relevant to me, as I grew up in a city neighborhood in the Bronx (one of my first books, "Science in a Vacant Lot," was designed to engage urban kids in everyday exploration). Jay Ingram, the Canadian science journalist, author and broadcaster, who is one of the Science Advisors on THE CAT IN THE HAT KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THAT!, says that this is an important underlying premise for the series. "Backyard nature is full of riches. The issue is that most don’t think about small-scale nature - most people are, if anything, birdwatchers, not insect watchers - so much of it goes unnoticed."

As with any PBS Kids program, the public broadcaster provides abundant adult resources on the website. For families, there are activities like Exploring Weather, or Feeding and Observing Birds. For educators, there are activities organized by episode topic, including Bird Migration, Senses, Flowers, Weather, Animal Camouflage.

If you haven’t yet seen THE CAT IN THE HAT KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THAT!, you can sample it online.  Once you take a look, you’re sure to be hooked! (a rhyme hardly worthy of Dr. Seuss!). And the producers have provided us with a limited edition canvas tote stuffed with Dr. Seuss books and stickers so that we can do a giveaway. Click here to enter - the contest closes Sunday, 9/19.

Disclosure: The Seymour Science blog is part of the "blog tour" for THE CAT IN THE HAT KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THAT! We were provided with the graphics and materials for the giveaway, but were not paid or compensated in any way for this review. 

Posted by: Seymour Simon

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