Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

TV's Dora takes kids exploring where schools fear to tread

"For my kids to learn a second language — it's so important to me," Christiane Gauthier said in mournful tones, her own mother's native Spanish fading fast among younger generations. Many parents share this lament as our children remain ill prepared for a diverse society, along with a job market that already rewards bilingual workers, from bank tellers to computer engineers.

Yet a rising generation of television writers — not pallid public schools — now works to nurture a cross-cultural agility in our kids, blurring the old categories of race and gender, even dispelling the notion of a mainstream culture. "Sesame Street" introduced Mando last year, a tech-savvy bilingual character who engages his Muppet friends. Doc McStuffins, the wide-eyed animated black girl who mends broken toys (her mother a real physician), rose to stardom after her 2012 debut on the Disney Channel.

Sniper (in background), Dora and Boots

Meanwhile, school reformers aim to purge from classrooms any language but English. Today, it remains illegal in California and other states to teach in Spanish, unless appealed by local families — a monolingual obsession advanced by few modern nations. Well-heeled parents meanwhile win waivers from state law for dual-language programs that offer high-status languages, like French or Mandarin. Even President Obama, that once-soulful icon of diversity, presses schools nationwide to test pupils solely in English.

The bold creators of this new generation of kids' programs shake off these gray blinders. Dora the Explorer — the most-watched heroine on TV and online — now journeys where no children's character has gone before. The original 7-year-old Dora pursued adventures in primitive, pre-Pixar animation, guided by a map that pops from her backpack to sketch optional routes, like maneuvering through the Prickly Forest or skirting treacherous sand dunes. Dora readily embraces would-be strangers, switching into Spanish to ask for directions or confer with dancing fish, translating the colorful features of all four seasons for a lost snowman.

For her new show, "Into the City," which premiered last month, Dora blossoms into a precocious tween. Dora now sports long wavy hair, pierced ears and ankle-length tights. She leads a gaggle of bilingual peers who take on serious challenges that surface in a colonial-looking city. One new episode centers on Dora and friends rounding up feral puppies for adoption, a chipper rewrite of Cruella de Vil and her Dalmatians.

Dora completes each weekly mission by collaborating with multiracial friends, drawing on the cultural savvy of each, flipping between English and Spanish. Dora, always self-assured yet inquisitive, is the consummate active listener. "We wanted her to be a problem-solver, not in the princess vein, just concerned with grooming or finding the love of her life," said Dora's co-creator, Valerie Walsh Valdes, at her New York studio.

Still, Dora is a revolutionary without manifesto, never referring to her own ethnicity or gender. She tacitly disregards old categories, instead assuming that cultural variety yields fresh lessons from her peers, not angst or fear.

It's far from empty idealism. Dora and her friends earn more than $1 billion annually for Viacom, the entertainment giant that owns her Nickelodeon network. The show rakes in advertising revenues and revenue from endless merchandising: Dora dolls, backpacks, even toothpaste. Her weekly television audience exceeds Stephen Colbert's by two-thirds, according to Nielsen ratings.

Dora's creators brought the Socratic method of questioning and discussion to children's TV, another lesson for real-world educators who often drill even young children in phonemes and numbers. Dora often pauses to seek advice or verification from viewers, silently staring out from the screen, patiently waiting for us to pronounce fútbol in Spanish or jump to our feet, dancing to a Latino beat.

"We helped her get over that big rock," Joaquin Guerrero, a 7-year-old Southern California fan, told me.

These pioneering shows may powerfully shape children's sensitivities for a diversifying world. Four in 5 toddlers now watch televised or online programs, averaging two hours daily. Avid Dora viewers develop richer vocabularies by age 3, when compared with even"Sesame Street" devotees, University of Pennsylvania scholars have found. Microsoft analysts detail how verbal engagement with onscreen characters or jumping up to dance while exercising novel words, one of Dora's innovations, deepens learning as well.

A dark side does arise from exploiting these young icons. Children report that high-fat snacks taste better when emblazoned with Dora's image than when they're generically packaged, one Yale University study found.

Still, the maturing characters of Dora, Mando and PBS Kids' WordGirl each vividly illuminate how learning can be fun, successfully engaging millions of children each week. Viewers see kids like themselves who grow confident in helping others, while dodging know-it-all adults. Dora never shies from opaque strangers, but instead engages each one as a potential compadre who lends a hand.

"It's all about how Dora gets this group of diverse friends to work together, to have a conversation," as Walsh Valdes put it. Let's hope that educators and would-be reformers tune in to these crucial lessons.

This piece was first published in the Sept. 12, 2014 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle.