Gerald Haigh assesses a television series for infants and juniors that compares human and animal natural abilities
It has always seemed unfair that the gift of flight should be within the grasp of the merest sparrow but beyond the reach of humankind. Refusing to accept the obvious, people through the ages have launched themselves hopelessly into space borne up by useless contraptions.
The fact is, though, that in order to fly with flapping wings, a human being would need enormous muscles attached to a startlingly large breast bone. A bird, you see, is made for the job. A person is not. This is the message of I Want to Fly, the first of the five I Want to... programmes in a series from Channel 4 for infants and lower juniors. The others are I want to swim, I want to go fast, I want to be loud, I want to be big.
In each case the presenter, Michaela Strachen, looks at areas where other species are better equipped than humans, and then goes on to see how human ingenuity has tried to catch up. Thus we see a hovering helicopter intercut with shots of a humming bird, as well as all types of aircraft from para-gliders to supersonic fighters. In this way the programme covers both science and technology.
Each of the other programmes uses the same approach. The one on swimming acknowledges that humans can swim, but uses some technical trickery to show that compared with dolphins, for example, we are not very good at it. On the other hand we can make some pretty clever boats and submarines.
Perhaps the least riveting of the programmes is I want to be loud, because the contrast between humans and animals is less pronounced - and against the ability to fly, the gift of being able to shout loudly hardly impresses.
Michaela Strachen has an engaging manner, yet is unassuming and does not strain for false enthusiasm. There is good natural history film, and lots of "gee whizz" information. The accompanying booklet links the programmes to the national curriculum and to the curriculum documents for Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The two Stage Two programmes start with the handicap of dealing with topics that are extremely difficult to present in any way that has meaning for children. The first, Our Solar System, looks at the relationship between the planets, showing relative distances with the aid of models, and reminding us of the awesome distances involved. Again, the gee-whizz facts are there - that it would take a Jumbo Jet 20 years to reach the Sun from the Earth, for example, and 1,500 million years to reach the nearest star.
The second programme, Our Earth, tackles another challenging topic - the movement of the earth on its axis and in its orbit round the sun, and the associated movements of the moon. Here, computer graphics help to make things clearer. The difference in the times of sunrise and sunset both across the United Kingdom and across the world are well illustrated. One of the strengths of these programmes is that they cover areas about which many teachers are themselves uncertain, and which are, even in knowledgeable hands, difficult to present.
I am not so sure that I like the way the programmes are presented. The device used is that of two teenage girls. One is slightly scatty and full of questions. The other is a bit of a know-all, and has all the answers ready. No doubt the programme-makers have good evidence that young people like this sort of thing, but I felt that it got in the way.
Both the Stage One and Stage Two programmes are accompanied by excellent support material in the form of teacher notes and extra classroom activities.
Stage One Science: I want to do that Channel 4, Tuesdays 11.15-11.30am. Rpt Fridays 11.15-11.30. Age range: 5-7 Stage Two Science: the Earth and beyond Channel 4, Mondays 10.00-10.15am. Rpt Wednesdays 10.00-10.15am. Age range: 7-11 Stage One video (from June) pound;17.99; teacher's guide pound;3.95. Stage Two video (from August) pound;12.99; teacher's guide pound;3.95; resource book pound;6.95; science cards pound;5.95. Available from Channel Four Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 01926 436444