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This content is taken from the University of York's online course, Pictures of Youth: An Introduction to Children’s Visual Culture. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 4 seconds Even when not explicitly aimed at children and their education, there are many television programmes

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds in which children feature: soaps, dramas, family game shows, and sitcoms to name a few. Around the millennium, there was an explosion of reality television. Reality television purports to show ordinary people, rather than professional actors, being filmed. Sometimes the premise is that they are carrying on their ordinary daily life. Other times they are placed in extraordinary situations - herded together into a house, a jungle or a remote island from which they cannot readily escape. A few reality television programmes feature children as a mainstay. Cameras, often hidden, film children’s candid behaviours at play, at school, or in the family home. To make the programme, this footage is usually edited to select the most dramatic incidents.

Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds These highlights are then interspersed with various ‘talking heads’, perhaps the children’s parents or a behavioural psychologist shown reacting to, and commenting on their filmed behaviour, straight to the camera. Much criticism of reality television brands it “mind-numbing dross” and decries its emphasis on sensational entertainment over information. However, with their audience share threatened by the immense popularity of the genre, many public service broadcasters decided that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. They harnessed the genre in order to meet its remit for education AND entertainment.

Skip to 1 minute and 40 seconds Rather than screening an overtly educational, documentary series on Victorian England or life on the American frontier - where audiences are lectured to by an academic or other expert - they filmed real-life families learning about and reflecting on the period by recreating life in a Victorian or frontier house. The families would inhabit these locations for a set period, taking on roles typically available

Skip to 2 minutes and 8 seconds at the time, 24/7: that of a Victorian schoolboy or a ranch owner out West. Audiences are invited, by these programmes, to witness pedagogic processes in and beyond formal educational settings and to form their own opinions about their success or otherwise.

Children on reality television

Once you’ve watched the video above, list some examples of reality television programmes that you can think of showing non-fictional (real) children learning or performing, at home, in educational or other settings.

If you can’t think of examples for reality television, consider other types of television, or film.

My UK-based examples, some of which are shown internationally or have been remade internationally, include:

  • Child Genius
  • The Secret Life of 4 year olds (in the US remade as The Secret Life of Kids)
  • Junior Bake Off
  • Off by Heart: Poetry
  • 1900s House (and other period ‘Houses’ in the same series)
  • The Unteachables
  • Educating Essex
  • Edwardian Country House

Now it’s your turn. Don’t forget to tell us which country your examples come from, so that we get a global picture.

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This video is from the free online course:

Pictures of Youth: An Introduction to Children’s Visual Culture

University of York