The Television Project visited a Baltimore elementary school this month, offering children alternatives to the medium that dominates most living rooms.
Annamarie Pluhar, 43, founded the nonprofit organization, based in Silver Spring, to loosen television's grip on family life. Through workshops, lectures and a quarterly newsletter, Pluhar urges parents to change their children's point of view.
"Kids today are truly at a loss if they turn off the TV," Pluhar said. "Parents depend on it as a baby sitter and children are watching for hours. When they are not watching, they are demanding that parents be entertainers."
A $1,000 grant from St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Westminster helped deliver the message to Robert W. Coleman Elementary, the only year-round school in the state.
The grant paid for supplies, Pluhar's salary and travel costs for atwo-week workshop, given while the children were on a break from their regular class schedule.
The project is one of 17 recipients of $135,000 in grants this year from St. Paul's United Church of Christ. The money was divided among nonprofit organizations with projects ranging from music education to riding lessons for the disabled. Much of the money comes from interest on a $2 million bequest to the church from the estate of Granville and Elizabeth Bixler.
The third-grade children at the Baltimore school were the youngest participants in the project, which is most often offered to adults. Pluhar taught the basics of turning off TV by using games, chapters read from lengthy books and exercises designed to turn on children's creativity.
"I am turned on to exercise now," said Courtney Crowder, 9, jogging around the school track.
"I learned to make banana bread instead of watching TV," said Brittany Coles, 10.
"I can make up my own games," said Johnathan Brown-Queen, 8.
Every day the children tracked their hours in front of the television, keeping diaries of what and how much television they watched and how it affected them. Near the end of the course, the hours were dropping, although not dramatically.
"By their own reports, they are watching six to eight hours a day," Pluhar said. "They watch an astonishing amount of TV and often late at night."
One child wrote "watching too much TV makes the people you love leave you." Another said he lost a pet because he spent more time with television than he did with his puppy.
The children interviewed adults about the violence in many shows and the changes to television in the last decades.
"We asked if violence is better or worse and they said it is worse," said Lataesha Jones, 9.
"On TV, they make the violence look real and it makes me scared," Brittany said.
Eight-year-old Centura Lewis, whose mother is recovering from a bullet wound, said real violence is "not so exciting. TV doesn't show you what really happens with violence."
Pluhar seeks a return to the pre-TV era, when children "occupied themselves, made up their own games and were more manageable." Teaching children to analyze programs could make them converts to her cause.
The younger children were more attuned to lessons on advertising, Pluhar said. She found the students to be savvy consumers, aware of advertising tricks.
"On TV, we can't see how they make food look good," said Brittany. "They could do anything and we couldn't tell the difference."
Pluhar played videos advertising several popular toys and then asked the class to assess the actual products. The young consumers easily identified the differences between a glitzy ad and the real thing. They all knew that toys require batteries and assembly and are rarely the perfection presented on screen.
Their brief inspection of a castle, a game based on a blockbuster movie, and a mechanical doll came up with inconsistencies.
"The castle was a whole lot bigger in the commercial," said Christopher Gaines, 8. "It says connect all three castles, but we only have one."
"That is because you have to buy two more to have the set," said Brittany.
It took eight children and their teacher nearly 20 minutes to assemble a miniature movie set.
"They don't show how hard it is to put parts together," said Christopher, who was not sure he could do it by himself. "They show you how it looks tomorrow."
The doll, which appeared to walk and talk on its own through a lengthy commercial with a catchy tune the whole class hummed, disappointed the group.
"She just sits there and doesn't bounce by herself like she did on TV," Brittany said. "They made a promise that is not there."
"And, everything needs a battery," said Centura.
Another toy came with a poster describing other parts available for purchase. Johnathan looked through the pieces for the men needed to play the game and found none.
"They have pictures of everything, so we can buy more," he said. "Where are the guys? We need the men to play this game."
Every class included outside time, freeing the children to run on a track, blow bottled bubbles or toss a big blue ball -- "a fun toy we never saw advertised," said Christopher.
The day ended with Pluhar reading successive chapters from a children's novel. Before she read, she settled the children into comfortable chairs, doled out animal crackers and asked them to recap previous chapters.
"If we don't finish in class, I think I will read it at home," said Brittany.
Pub Date: 10/26/97