September 17, 2012
Since all three of those examples come from recent experience, I feel our family has been a good test lately of distracting videos that don't make parents feel too guilty. And we were lucky enough to stumble over the new champion series during this period: the animated adaptations of the Magic School Bus books, which recently came out in a new box set from Scholastic. (I vaguely knew of the books themselves, but these videos were made in the late '80s—the new edition celebrates their 25th anniversary—and so hit our generation's sweet spot of ignorance: We were too old to ever have seen them ourselves, but too young for them to be current when we had kids of our own.)
The shows, for those unfamiliar even with the books, follow the adventures of the class of Ms. Frizzle, who with the aid of the wonder vehicle of the title leads the kids through all sorts of expeditions into scientific knowledge. The bus in question being magical, this often involves some improbable journeys and transformations—to learn about bats' echolocation, what could be better than becoming a bat, after all?—as well as not a few close calls, until the unflappable Ms. Frizzle calmly puts everything right again. It's sort of like Scooby-Doo crossed with Carl Sagan and Jacques Cousteau, and the fact that Ms. Frizzle is voiced by the great Lily Tomlin (clearly enjoying herself quite a bit) is the icing on top.
Our boys love every minute of the series, and now we find them talking to each other at odd moments excitedly about the facts they learned from the shows about snakes and volcanoes and penguins. We got that massive early-fall home-improvement agenda done, and got to overhear the wry Tomlin's voice rather than SpongeBob's in the process. And sure, we still feel a little guilty about all the screen time, but sometimes mitigating that guilt can go a long way toward everyone's feeling better. (Especially if you pour a few dark-and-stormies over that mitigation.)
[Box image courtesy of Scholastic Media/New Video]