Movies are friendly, familiar, soothing companions for many children. They can help reassure a child of the familiar and to quell any worries about parents being gone. During a rainy day, they are a quick go-to activity and can serve as a distraction from the monotony of inside play. But there is also a way for babysitters (and other caregivers) to use movies as valuable teaching opportunities.

TeachWithMovies.Org’s free Talking and Playing Guides are designed to help parents and caretakers make watching a movie an educational experience for children ages 3 – 8. If you intend to have your babysitter show a movie while you’re gone, you can select three or four that your kids love and set them out. Allow them to work together and pick the one they want to watch.

Print out the Talking and Playing Guide for the movie and leave it under the film. Ask the babysitter to look over the Guide while the children are watching the movie and, after the movie is over, talk to them about it and engage in age-appropriate activities described in the Guide. Review the Guide yourself so that if your children are awake when you come home or over the next few days, you can talk with them about the movie or play a game based on the film.

One comment by a parent or caregiver that takes a concept from the movie seriously can change the way children look at the film. — Now it has something to say. Now it’s more than just a movie. — After such a comment children will think about the lessons of the film.

Talking and Playing Guides use a system that has developed in consultation with childhood development experts to make movies more than just a way to entertain kids. The system is based on two basic insights:

  1. Studies have shown that verbal and emotional development is enhanced when parents and caregivers talk a lot with the children in their charge. Imaginative, exciting verbal exchanges are the best.
  2. Kids love movies and will watch the movies they love repeatedly. When a parent or a caregiver tells a child that there are lessons in the movie to be taken seriously, the lessons will be repeated and elaborated every time the child watches the movie. For example, after a child has watched “Finding Nemo” a parent or caregiver can ask, “How did Nemo get into all this trouble?”

Specific Examples: Parents and Babysitters Maximizing Verbal Development

and Social-Emotional Learning with the Talking and Playing System

These techniques apply not only to watching family movies but also to any other activity. Verbal development and social-emotional learning are also be enhanced when talk and play are related to a book, a play, an outing, etc.

Ask Questions: Ask open-ended questions about the story, its characters, situations, and themes. Listen to a child’s answer and acknowledge its value. Then, if you can, ask another question that refers to the answer. A good time to ask questions is at a break in the film. You can ask what your child thinks of an incident or character in the movie. Another good question is: “What do you think will happen next?” When the film is over, ask again about a character or incident that you had brought up before: “What do you think about [refer to the character or the incident] now?” Or ask what your child thinks of the film or about his or her favorite part. If at any time you get an answer that doesn’t explain the reasons behind it, ask “why?” You might not get a response but the question will get him or her thinking. Another question that can get a conversation started is: “Was there anything that confused or surprised you?”

Remember to treat a heartfelt opinion from a child with respect and, if you disagree, to gently and fully describe your reasons. Be flexible. If the child challenges your position and presents convincing reasons, change your mind.

Retell the Story: Let your child retell the story to you. Or retell the story yourself. Be aware of the themes of the story when you retell it. Stress them and try to engage your child in conversation about them. Use words that might not be in the child’s vocabulary and explain their meaning.

Add More Stories: Make up a different ending or create a new story using the characters from the film. Better yet, ask your child to make up a new ending. Or, the two of you can do it together. The new story can be based on themes from the movie, on your child’s interests or experiences, or on social-emotional lessons you want to stress. If a child wants to jump in and add facts and scenes to the new story, that’s great. Allow the child to take over the story and make it his or her own.

Act Out the Stories: A child can be encouraged to act out the story with or without other people assisting.

Play With Stuffed Animals and Toys: Encourage your child to select stuffed animals, dolls, puppets, or action figures to represent characters from the movie and use them to act out scenes from the movie or additional scenes that the two of you make up. (The toys selected don’t need to look anything like the characters in the film.) When you participate in this type of play, include situations which refer to the themes of the story and use words that will help expand vocabulary.

Draw Pictures: Get out some paper and colored pencils and suggest that the two of you draw pictures that include scenes from the movie or find coloring books with its characters. As you draw or color, talk about the characters, scenes, and themes of the story using words that will extend your child’s vocabulary.

Prepare Food Suggested by the Movie: If there is cooking or eating in the movie, you and your child can cook the same or similar food, or a character’s favorite food. Again, while you do this, talk and use words in an imaginative manner.

Word Play: Pay attention to the words in the movie. Use, demonstrate, and illustrate those that your child may not know. Try to use these words when you tell stories based on the film. Use them in other contexts, as well. Especially with very young children, make the concepts expressed by the words real and concrete. Show a physical object, a picture, or engage in play that demonstrates the meaning of the word. Then use the word in a sentence. Then try to get your child to use the word.

Work with the sounds of words, especially words that sound like what they mean or have an interesting sound. Make a game of words with some of the syllables having the same sound and some having different sounds. Show how the different sounds change the meaning. Examples of words that sound like what they mean are: buzz, crash, tinkle, moan, whirr, clang, pop, hiss, crunch, purr, click, squeak, mumble, hush, boom, and whopper. Work with the meanings of words. Many words have a meaning that are the opposite of what other words mean (e.g., light/dark; fat/thin; hot/cold). Some words mean almost the same thing, like damp/wet; hot/scalding; light/bright. There are prefixes and suffixes and you can work with their sound and their meaning.(Examples are: prefixes: mis-; sub-; pre-; un-; & a-; and suffixes: -s; -es; -ed; -ing; -er; & -ific). Then there are compound words such as cupcake, newspaper, thumbtack, etc. Finally, there are words derived from Latin or Greek. You can invent fun games with them all.

What’s Going On in the Characters’ Minds? Talk to children about what the characters in the film must have been feeling and thinking when they took certain actions. Try to get below the surface if you can.

Teach Good Habits: Most movies don’t make much of an impression. But if you find a film with good lessons that will help to develop your child’s character, take it seriously. When you talk about it your child will take the movie seriously, too. Praise the actions of characters who: (1) talk about their feelings rather than bottle them up; (2) resolve their conflicts peacefully rather than with violence or passive aggressive behaviors; (3) are compassionate and nurturing; and (4) act ethically (for example, follow The Golden Rule). When a character in a film acts badly, talk about it and explain why you disapprove of the conduct. When a child faces an issue that was dealt with in an appropriate manner in one of the movies, ask the child how the character in the movie would react in this situation. If there was a movie in which a character faced the same situation and did the wrong thing, you can talk about that, too.

Parents who intentionally seek to use many different activities to enhance the verbal development and social-emotional learning of their children can enlist their babysitters and other care givers for this purpose. Family movies can be more than just entertainment, but engines for growth, development and character education.