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October 13, 2010

Security Blanket: Dinosaur Train

For his first year-plus, it seemed as if our younger son, Griffin, had no interest in television whatsoever. This was one of those facts that was great in the abstract (“He’ll spend all his free time on reading and active play!”) but actually kind of a problem on a daily basis, at least once he started walking. You couldn’t distract him with videos or TV shows for a few minutes to cook dinner or take care of a necessary task or phone call. Since he’s the kind of kid who has the knack for finding the most dangerous item in any room to play with, this was not good.

Luckily for the bad parents in us, it was only a phrase. Griffin began watching PBS and Nickelodeon shows along with his five-year-old brother a few months back, first intermittently, then more enthusiastically. (Like the Body Snatchers, TV gets us all in the end.) He likes several of the same ones Dash is fond of, from Charlie and Lola to Super Why!, but there’s no question he has his very own favorite now: Dinosaur Train.

This program, which premiered on PBS in 2009, admittedly sounds like the cynical result of a Hollywood-style children’s-TV pitch meeting—“It’s got dinosaurs…and trains! Greenlight it, baby!” But this CGI-animation program is a product of the Jim Henson Company, and accordingly very sharp. Dinosaur Train’s main character is a young T. rex named Buddy, who has been adopted by a family of Pteranodons. He and his siblings are fascinated by the differences between dinosaur species, so each episode, their parents take them on, yes, the Dinosaur Train. The train takes them magically across the globe and through time to meet other dinosaurs from various lands and eras, allowing them to explore the entire span of the species's existence.

Kids get a basic background in the science behind each episode’s dinosaur, especially from short live-action segments with a real, live paleontologist. And the show’s writing is unfailingly informative and clever; the Archaeopteryx the family meets, for instance, has a German accent suitable to its actual dwelling place in what is now southern Germany. (The show follows this pattern throughout.)

Griffin, a typical two-year-old boy who loves both trains and dinosaurs, is this right in the forefront of the program’s target demographic; by now, he’s singing along with the theme song the moment it comes on. While watching, he is as dead to the world as any soap-opera addict; he will not be distracted from  his Dinosaur Train. And as disturbing as that may be, well, at least we can change a load of laundry without worrying Griff will scale the bookshelves before we return. Parenting is all about small victories, right?

[Images courtesy of the Jim Henson Company]

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