Enough with the plaudits for Sesame Street. The best preschool programming on TV is Nick Jr.'s Yo Gabba Gabba!
DJ Lance speaks in an exaggeratedly slow, sing-songy manner that appeals to youngsters still developing their aural abilities, and he moves in a manner that is both inviting and humorous without being buffoonish. He manages to put preschoolers at ease even as he nudges them off the couch and into motion. He closes each 24-minute episode with a review of what has happened in Gabbaland that day, followed by free-form dance party incorporating snippets of earlier scenes.
A commitment to encouraging movement is a primary theme of the show, one that both Marlowe and I appreciate. My favorite regular segment is I Like To Dance, in which one or two preschoolers introduce themselves, declare "I like to dance," and then bust their best moves. As basic as it might sound, the segment is valuable because it encourages preschoolers to develop the creativity to compose their own dances and, as important, to have the confidence to be willing to show them off. Marlowe now regularly struts his stuff during I Like To Dance segments. Watching Sesame Street, by contrast, is almost always a sedentary, subdued activity; the anniversary episode last week, for example, left both father and son bored and uninterested.
I Like To Dance is just one of many Yo Gabba Gabba! segments that invites Marlowe's active participation. Cool Tricks, a segment in which a child displays his or her talent (tae kwon do, gymnastics, "dancing and turning"), exposes him to the unfamiliar in a fun, quirky way. Marlowe has begun trying out some of these Cool Tricks, most recently attempting to play a toy recorder with his nose, to his and my delight. In Biz's Beat of the Day, rapper and DJ Biz Markie beatboxes a short pattern for kids to practice performing, and though he was initially sheepish, Marlowe now tries to match Biz's beat and rhythm. He's getting good.
I should confess that though the musical acts for which Yo Gabba Gabba! is known were not what first attracted me to the show, the music has enhanced my viewing experience, and for reasons having little to do with my son's reaction. In an episode called "Family"—included on the recent Yo Gabba Gabba! DVD release—the Roots performed a light and sweet ditty called "Lovely, Love My Family." As a hip-hop fan who has seen the genre take its lumps for its explicit lyrics and negative imagery, I was heartened to see one of hip hop's most respected groups joyously singing a song about the importance loving and appreciating one's family. It was also a thrill to expose my son to a thoughtful but hard-knock group he might not otherwise have been ready for until his teens. The simple wholesomeness of "Lovely, Love My Family" is commonplace on Yo Gabba Gabba!, but in combining it with hip hop acts and sensibilities—from the Roots' performance, to Biz's beatboxing, to DJ Lance's style and swagger—Yo Gabba Gabba! is breaking ground in both television and in hip-hop.
So while Marlowe won't learn that cookie starts with "c," or the many interesting things about the number 6, from Yo Gabba Gabba!, for my money it's the best thing going on children's television. There will be time for learning how to read and count down the road, and he's already getting a steady diet of letters and numbers from the reading we do with him each day. For now, when it comes time to watch some TV, I'll take wholesome, energetic, and engaging—with a hip-hop beat.
Bret D. Asbury is an associate professor at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University.
Still from Yo Gabba Gabba! © 2009 Viacom International Inc. All rights reserved.