The television program Play School has been produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation [ABC] since 1966. It has been much loved over its 38-year history. Play School is a program designed specifically for an early childhood audience and has become an aspect of childhood that now spans several generations. Older members of the Australian community fondly remember the early days of the program and now in some cases share this significant aspect of childhood with grandchildren or great nieces and nephews. The program's rich contribution to childhood experience has been recorded recently in an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. This exhibition included historical elements, such as the 'flower' and 'rocket' clocks, that are familiar to past viewers.
The Play School program is currently screened across Australia each weekday morning and afternoon through the ABC television network. The half-hour viewing, currently at 9.30am and 3.30pm each weekday, is a ritual for many families with young children. Clark (1998) also suggested that a major proportion of the viewers of the afternoon session of Play School are groups of children in long day care centres. A longitudinal study undertaken by Weddell and Copeland from 1995 to 1997 investigated children, teacher and parent responses to Play School.
Weddell and Copeland (1998) found that Play School was one of the programs most frequently watched by young children, along with Sesame Street, The Book Place and Barney:
Parents reported that the presenters (people and
puppets), music, games and stories were aspects of
the viewed programs that children responded to and
enjoyed. Teachers also commented that they used
songs, stories and games which were familiar to
children based on the previously mentioned programs.
The ABC materials (resource booklets, tapes and story
books) are the most commonly used resources in
preschools and kindergartens (p. 8).
While valuing its place in early childhood experience and recognising its historical significance, the team responsible for the production of Play School continues to explore new possibilities and directions for the program to ensure that quality and the vision for excellence continues to be realised. This paper provides an overview of the Play School program and explores the question: 'What is excellence in television designed for an audience of young children?' The assertion that excellence in children's television involves moving beyond entertainment to engagement and empowerment is explored as it impacts on the program. The paper concludes with a number of suggestions for the shared exploration of the possibilities for play and learning that emerge from the program.
The nature of the program
The format of each Play School episode is characterised by the personable style of the two presenters, generally one male and one female, who speak directly to the child viewer. This style of presentation is built on the approach developed by the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] production of Play School which began in 1964. Cynthia Felgate, founding Executive Producer of the BBC version of Play School, described the audience she and her colleagues were addressing as 'one child in a room' (Messenger Davies, 1995, p. 19).
The 'para-social' interaction, in which presenters talk directly to and ask questions of the child viewer, has been shown to effectively elicit responses from the children (Noble, n.d.). Kelly (2000, p. 9), a parent viewer, also noted this quality in her letter to the editor of a popular magazine for parents of young children, Sydney's Child. Kelly wrote: 'my mind flew back to the well-known format of Play School, where the presenters often sit on the floor to do some pasting, cuddle a kitten, or trip about the studio, imitating a horse.' Luke (1990) argued that this interpersonal relationship fostered between Play School presenters and the viewer was a significant advantage of the program over other television programs designed for young children. …