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Storytelling and the role of imagination in educational children's TV of the 1980s

by Ethan Tussey

by Caroline Ferris Leader for IN MEDIA RES

Children’s educational programming is one of the more problematic areas of TV research, since it is fraught with the concerns of child development. In the 1980s, trending educational thought on imagination as a learning tool coincided with a glut of fairytales and folktale TV series. I look at the series Long Ago and Far Away (1989-1993) as an example to understand how this fairytale niche parallels contemporary educational theory.

An educational study by Egan Kieran (1986) stated that “children’s imaginations are the most powerful and energetic learning tools” despite the existing focus on “logical thinking.”  However, imaginative learning is complex, with seemingly real but unquantifiable benefits to children’s learning. This fascination with the intangible imagination nonetheless affected “edu-tainment” programs of the 1980s, particularly the fairytale/folktale series. While tales and myths are canons in children’s narrative literature, the adaptation to television aired mostly in niche markets, relegated to subscription channels as well as public television—PBS’s Long Ago and Far Away (1989-1993), HBO’s The Storyteller (1988) and Showtime’s Faerie Tale Theatre (1982-1987) serve as a few examples.

I use Long Ago and Far Away’s intro as my clip here because it deconstructs the single story narrative and presents various artistic styles in its storytelling, manifesting both visual and narrative limitlessness—or at least variety. As seem in the intro, the show presents itself as a collage of various animation forms, from claymation to stylized drawings. The series is not only about the folktales, but also storytelling methods. Additionally, the show includes a framing narrative—the host James Earl Jones sitting in a sparse, wall-less living room surrounds by a star-filled evening sky—which seems to invoke limitlessness in the mundane, a familiar room with an otherworldly background. As our host introduces the story, he simultaneously unravels the Romantic Western idea of authorship, instead highlighting the iterative nature of storytelling and the possibility of stories without clear origins.

Children’s reactions to this kind of visual and narrative stimulus are not easy to analyze. And yet fairytales and folktales were and are seen as valuable learning tools. It begs the question: why do we seek results-driven analysis for the less tangible forms of children’s education? Like literature, the TV fairytale adaptation presents a child with a body of work that be or may not imprint and may or may not influence that child’s development into adulthood, but will most certainly spur their imagination.

Long Ago and Far Away opening

Opening sequence of Long Ago and Far Away

from Long Ago and Far Away (1989)
Creator: WGBH
Distributor: WGBH
Posted by Ethan Tussey