Shelli's family watches documentaries every day—and screen time has become an important ritual for their homeschool routine. Here's why their daily documentary works for them.
I commit that primordial parenting sin: I let my children watch a lot of television. And not only that, I let them watch during lunch and dinner. If you are shaking your head and thinking, Never would I allow my children to do this!, I don’t blame you. There was a time when I thought the same thing, and I fought against so much TV viewing. But in my house, I felt like a fish trying to swim upstream because I was the only one spoiling the fun. My husband loves watching TV, but fortunately, he’s not the kind of person to waste time in front of the TV or watch useless programming. On the contrary, he uses it to learn and relax. It took me a while to jump on board this boat.
I think the reason I fought against it is because when I was little, I usually ate alone with my food on a TV tray, watching TV My siblings were so much older than me that they were rarely home at mealtimes, and my father worked late, and my mother would wait to eat with him when he got home. When I became an adult, I longed to have a family meal around a table. Now I realize mealtimes at a table are more helpful to families who don’t spend all day together. My husband works at home, and we talk frequently during the day.
We decided we should make a habit of watching documentaries at least once a day, and with our Apple TV and Netflix, we have hundreds of documentaries we can watch. The thing about watching at lunch is that we always have this time to sit down together. During other parts of the day, one or more of us is too busy, but during meals we can relax, and the boys stay quieter and eat better while they watch television. So we watch part of a documentary every day at this time for about 30 minutes. (During dinner we may watch a cooking show or something else fun, though usually educational in its own way.)
The boys love the documentaries because they have been watching since they were babies. They don’t think documentaries are boring. There is something about watching them every day as a family that makes them extra special, and not only that, the documentaries have spurred interests, deeper inquiries, and good conversation, too. I can now challenge anyone who says that watching TV is passive and non-interactive! It all depends on how you do it.
For many years, we had to watch nature documentaries, i.e. documentaries about animals, because for little boys, any other documentary was a little boring. But now as they’re getting older, I see their interests expanding. They loved a documentary reenacting the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, one about the Vikings, and they’re enjoying the more complex NOVA science documentaries too. They have probably learned more about science through these documentaries than all the science classes at the nature center or any of the science books I’ve read to them.
We have watched so many documentaries now that sometimes we visit the same place with a new photographer. “Oh, I remember seeing this place in another documentary,” one of us will say. Or we’ll notice when two documentaries use the same footage, which rarely happens, but occasionally it does. It’s always exciting to see something completely new, and this happens often. “Wow. I never knew that!” or “Where is that?!” we’ll cry out. Sometimes we are critical of the documentaries, and we discuss how the director may have manipulated the footage to make it too dramatic. Though we realize sometimes nature documentarians have to manipulate images or set the scene, we appreciate when this is done sparingly and only when necessary. So we have our favorites (BBC, PBS Nature), and then we have those we are wary of because too much license is taken.
We have also become huge fans of David Attenborough, considered a “rock star” to us geeky, documentary-watching families. I even went so far as to write him a letter, thank- ing him for his excellent programming, and he wrote me back a hand-written letter! (Swoon! I have framed his letter.)
I teach geography with the documentaries. I keep our globe handy, and I’ll find the place the documentary is taking us to. I’ll point it out to the boys, and we’ll all huddle around the map for a few moments. Sometimes the 6-year-old will go get the globe when I forget. I’m impressed that my boys know more about our world than I ever did at their age.
I have lived and traveled abroad in real life, and I will say that nothing quite compares to being in a foreign land, smelling the smells, listening to the sounds, and trying to speak the language. You can’t capture that with video. However, when you watch a documentary every single day over many years, it does something to your awareness of your place in the universe. You begin to piece together that vague and indescribable puzzle of how our world is functioning, and it reminds you that your troubles and cares are very minor in the big scheme of things.
You are also reminded that most of our world is incredibly beautiful. There are places I will never go, but I’m so glad someone ventured there so that I can see it through their lens. My boys have watched a tiger tend to her cubs and followed the dolphins in their cooperative effort to hunt for food. We have seen blizzards rage in Antarctica and watched Snowy Owls feed their chicks in the Arctic. We’ve seen tribes in the South American jungle who live strikingly different lives than we do, and we’ve followed an eccentric chef on his travels around the world.
You also begin to see how humans and animals are so similar.... a reminder that we are actually animals ourselves. We have similar needs, and our basic daily tasks are the same. When there is an anomaly in nature, we ooh and ahh, such as watching the male seahorse carry the eggs with his babies in a pouch on the front of his tail until the babies emerge, fully developed. It’s fascinating because it’s so out of the ordinary.
I have also learned that, as someone in a documentary so eloquently stated, “Life depends on death.” Everyday I see how this is true, and even as I sit there eating my lunch, my life depends on the death of other living things as well. The best documentaries do not gloss over how dangerous it is in the wild and how cruel nature can appear to be; yet somehow this realization has been uplifting to me. I am grateful for my life, and I fear death very little.
I no longer worry about the amount of television my boys watch. I have realized it’s up to me to make sure their lives have a variety of activities in them. So I schedule time for everything. We read books, do meaningful lessons, cook together, visit museums, play games together, and when the weather cooperates, we go outside together. When you look at all our activities as a whole, television is a mere fraction of that, but truth to tell, those documentaries are high on my priority list now, too.
I will even go so far as to say that spending the last few years watching nature documentaries everyday with my family has been one of the best experiences of my life. It is nothing like my experience watching TV alone while I was a child. We are a family who learns together while we eat. I have even seen the benefits of watching movies, children’s programming or the cooking shows we love because it is not a passive viewing. We don’t sit all day idly watching TV. We have specific goals to achieve, and the television is one of the tools we use to achieve those goals. When you gather around your television and use it to spark conversation and deeper learning, it’s a very worthy thing.