YouTube As a Field Trip (and As a Catalyst for Safer Video Searching)
Hummingbirds are a rare sight in our backyard. Last fall, despite the hanging of a new feeder and re-fillings of the requisite sugar water, my daughters got tired of waiting to spot one.
"What are hummingbirds anyway?" my 5-year-old asked. I told her they were tiny birds with wings that beat so fast that you could barely see them. She looked at me, bewildered. To her, this was impossible to envision. The pictures in our bird books and the photographs on the feeder package weren't up to the job.
It used to be that parents faced with quizzical looks about hummingbirds would just have to let the matter drop. Or, with time and resources, maybe they could plan a visit to a zoo or nature center where their children could see hummingbirds and other animals moving in real life.
But in the era of YouTube, there is another option: Search for video. I beckoned my girls to the computer screen, went to YouTube's home page and typed in "hummingbird." Voila. There was a clip showing a ruby-throated hummingbird sucking nectar from a flower, its wings a blur. The video captured the bird's humming sounds too. My kids were captivated
Soon, we were clicking through other video clips, asking questions and talking about what we saw. We had taken a virtual field trip -- a mini excursion that lasted 15 minutes, cost nothing, and could be embarked upon as soon as curiosity struck.
But as I soon learned, YouTube field trips require adult chaperones. In fact, parents would be wise to pre-search and "visit" the video clips before they bring their children along. While YouTube has become a popular and fascinating destination for many of today's tech-savvy parents, finding video appropriate for children is tricky business.
A few weeks later, emboldened by online hummingbird watching, I asked my daughters if they wanted to see some animal videos on the kitchen computer while I finished cooking dinner. Their request? "Kittens and puppies." The first few videos that popped up seemed harmless enough — short clips of cute kittens tumbling around on someone's carpet. I went back to chopping tomatoes. Suddenly I heard some explicit adult lyrics emanating from the computer speakers. I rushed back to the P.C., and closed the browser. What was I thinking? Clearly "kittens" can have lots of connotations.
YouTube's policy prohibits "inappropriate" content, which means anything pornographic or violent. Users can change the search settings to "filter videos that might not be suitable to minors" but as the company readily acknowledges, some off-color stuff may still show up. And what may be appropriate and even funny to grown-ups may not be what you want your 6-year-old repeating in polite company.
Azad Ali, a Northern Virginia father of two boys, age 5 and 7, said he searched YouTube recently for video clips of young children learning soccer. He had mixed success. "We saw some things we weren't supposed to," he said, and he soon learned to screen out videos with rap music in the background.
Jennifer Slegg, a blogger about search engine marketing who also happens to be a mother, has written about searching YouTube for old Sesame Street clips of the "Mahna Mahna" song to show her daughter. The Muppet video brought laughs and sweet memories, but the posted comments below it were of a different sort. She wrote about being "greeted with some pretty colorful language I am sure hoping my daughter doesn't learn for a good ten years or so." Slegg said she "hastily re-sized that browser window smaller so the comments weren't visible."
This spring, I went to YouTube, typed the keywords "YouTube for kids" and tightened my filter settings, hoping to get to a kid-friendly zone. The top video that showed up was titled, "Youtube Poop: Frustrated Sonic Insults the Kids." It showed a parodied version of the popular cartoon character Sonic saying: "Kids, you're not important. You're not cool. You're dumb. No one likes you."
More than 12 million people under the age of 18 visited YouTube in March 2008, according to comScore, a Web-use measurement company. Clearly, watching online video clips is becoming a popular activity, and as my hummingbird experience showed, they open up opportunities for kids to learn new things. But my brush with kittens and Sonic spoofs has led me search for alternatives.
Here are three places to find online video that is not only appropriate for kids, but may inspire them too:
KidZui is not a Web site; it's a downloadable browser that is designed to be "The Internet for Kids." A staff of editors culls the Internet to find age-appropriate sites, photographs and videos that children would find relevant and interesting. Launched in March 2008, KidZui includes more than 600,000 sites, photos and videos, including 50,000 videos from YouTube.
My hummingbird search on KidZui, for example, would have turned up 20 videos from YouTube, and related links on the KidZui browser could have taken us to more bird videos and other related sites. "Our idea is to be broad, fun and safe," said Cliff Boro, KidZui's chief executive officer.
KidZui is funded by subscriptions. It is free for a 30-day trial, without having to give a credit card number up front. Subscriptions cost $4.95 per month and $49.95 per year.
KidVideos's tag line is "Videos for kids ... by kids." Think of it as a YouTube for the younger set, where you can browse an ever-changing library of clips uploaded and rated by children. Videos range from claymation creations to clips by the Costillo Kids, siblings who play guitar and do "covers" of popular teenage rock songs, to mini-movies from the National Film Festival for Talented Youth.
The site opened in the fall of 2007 and includes 2,000 videos, each of which has been screened by KidVideos staff members before being posted, according to Paul Marcum, chief executive of Porchlight Digital, the producer of KidVideos.com. Staff members also screen comments that are posted with videos, he said. "It's an extremely safe environment," Marcum said. But more than that, he stressed, "It's an opportunity for kids to have a space that is entirely their own."
KidVideos is free. Banner advertisements run across the top and right-hand side of the Web site.
"BrainPOP has hundreds and hundreds of animated movies that explain everything under the sun to kids," Karina Linch, the company's senior vice-president for product management. The site features 650 videos on topics in arts, history, math, science, social studies and technology. Each video starts with a child's question, such as "What are hurricanes and where do they come from?" Videos interlace jokes and cartoon-like animation with explanations, analogies and diagrams to help children learn the answer. Each topic comes with online quizzes and ideas for related hands-on experiments.
BrainPOP, which opened in 1999, is now being used in classrooms around the country; teachers use it to search for videos on topics that align with curriculum standards. The site reaches more than 13 million children in schools and homes, Linch said.
Some videos on BrainPOP are free, but full use of the site requires a subscription. For families, the cost is $99 per year for BrainPOP and $60 per year for BrainPOP Jr., which is designed for children from kindergarten to third grade. A Spanish version is also available.
Author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age 5 (Basic Books, Sept 2007).
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