To Teletubby or not to Teletubby...

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The Independent Online
If you believe what you read in some papers you might think that Stratford-on-Avon, home of the Teletubbies, was doing better out of the blobby ones than the Bard, and that their strange language was of no educational value to its young audience. Paul McCann pays a visit, meets the linguist who writes it, and sets the record straight

You can spot Ragdoll Productions' shop in Stratford-on-Avon by the mini-traffic jam of pushchairs surrounding the doorway. As you get closer you can see little children waving to models of the Teletubbies in the shop window. The models have a camera hidden at their feet which plays pictures of the street on one of their stomachs. At first I thought this was a waste of time because it was just playing back pictures of my knees. But then I realised. It's not for adults.

And that is the ethos of Teletubbies.

When Teletubbies first crept on to early-morning television few people noticed it. The producer's PR man had a terrible time trying to place a story about something newspapers consider as "only" a children's show. But then the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph seized on a few letters from concerned parents sent to the Radio Times complaining that supposed gibberish had replaced the popular pre-school programme Playdays.

Both newspapers spotted a potential "traditional teaching vs trendy teaching" story that conveniently came with some very strange-looking creatures you could use to illustrate the story. They helped spark a debate about whether Teletubbies is dangerous nonsense or a highly sophisticated programme that helps the language learning and thinking processes of the youngest television audience in history. It is now much more than "only" a children's television programme.

The programme was created after watching and filming very young children at play in seven nurseries in different parts of the country and in the special play area of the Ragdoll's shop in Stratford. From this observation its co-creator and writer Andy Davenport established that the toddlers it is aimed at are too young to receive formal instruction. Instead he wants the programme to provoke and stimulate them into learning the rules of communication.

"There is so much more to communication than just speech," says Mr Davenport, who studied speech sciences and has been angered by some of the reaction to the programme. "But even so, it is a genuine language the Tubbies have. It has a proper grammatical structure and what they say is meaningful to the children.

"And the idea of it damaging their speech development is nonsense. Children learn to speak from the continuous real world and real people around them; a half-hour TV programme is not going to affect that."

Despite the apparent madness to grown-ups, the programme has its own internal grammar and rules so that children know what to expect. When the windmill moves they know something is going to happen; when one of the Tubbies says "eh-oo" it means something bad has happened or is going to happen. When they say "again, again" children watching know everything will repeat.

Andy Davenport's research has also shown that young children rarely listen and watch at the same time, so the programme has a speaking trumpet which the Tubbies will turn and watch, so that the children know to expect speaking and will listen to it.

Meanwhile the baby in the sun is there at the beginning because a gurgling baby is one of the easiest ways of getting a response out of anyone, even another baby. By laughing the baby also lets the children know when they are supposed to be laughing along with the show.

The repetition that so baffles and infuriates adults, Davenport says, is there because children like the security of repetition. "I noticed children watching Tots TV [another Ragdoll programme] who would fix on one concept and come back to it over and over again. It is because there is such a mass of stimulus to understand when they are young that repetition keeps things simple and familiar."

Repetition also allows children to predict what is likely to happen again next, thereby training cognitive functions like deduction. And if that sounds too high-minded, the kids in the shop show Davenport how to keep it fun.

"I watched children watching a sequence where one of the Tubbies stepped in a puddle. One of the children shouted `Ugh!' when a Teletubby first did it. Next time he did it more of them shouted `Ugh!'. In the end a game came from them shouting `Ugh!' at the TV. I incorporated that in the programme by having each of the Tubbies step in a puddle and them all end up shouting `Ugh!' at each other.'

In this way Teletubbies become a group of friends for the children sitting at home on their own watching. With their big heads and round bodies they even look like their audience and that identification with the Tubbies is key: "One reporter described it as quite Brechtian," says Mr Davenport. "Because they are actors, but they are also part of the audience. When the narrator tells them to do something they don't want to do they run away."

"It has caused a rumpus because it does not look like an ordinary educational programme," says Davenport. "But that is because it approaches children in a way that is going to be of value to them.

"We had a sequence where animals marched through Tubbyland two by two with repetitive background music. But people asked why didn't we name the animals as they went past, which is to completely misunderstand what we're doing.

"The sequence was about rhythm, which is essential for children's language learning, turn-taking and even simple mathematics later in life.

"We also wanted to provoke them to ask where the animals had come from or where they are going, or whether they were happy animals or sad animals. You have to give them enough space to develop their thinking processes, which is what the pre-school years are about."

Teletubbies upsets those who automatically assume that progressive and creative learning is trendy nonsense. Those who believe that education should be strictly disciplined and functional, even when you're 18 months old.

Thankfully Teletubbies isn't for them.

It's for kids.