Blaze and the Monster Machines: Getting Fired Up About Physics
Last week, my partner and I took a short vacation to Halifax to visit some relatives and their almost-four-year-old daughter, Fin.
As someone who studies Children’s Media, but has very few chances to interact with kids, this was a unique opportunity to observe TV habits. When she came home from preschool, she was all about fort-building and pretending to be a fairy.. but closer to bedtime, she plopped herself in front of the TV. Blaze and the Monster Machines was consistently demanded.
Blaze and the Monster Machines, an engineering-y show about trucks, is on right before bedtime, but Fin stayed wide-awake, while her mom told me some of her own observations of Blaze’s influence.
“She knows what a lever is now, she knows that you can use one to lift heavy things.” I was impressed, since I’m sure levers were beyond what I understood at 4 (or 5, or 6). I asked Fin if she could tell me about levers, but she just looked at me like, who are you and why are you on my couch. Which is fair.
Blaze is an anthropomorphic monster truck, who has a human friend, AJ. They have other truck and human friends, both male and female. Some of the trucks are very truck-truck, and some are dinosaur-trucks or animal-trucks. I found this a little confusing because I kind of thought if you’re going to have a truck-dinosaur theme, you should stick to it. But I’m biased when it comes to dinosaurs.
(AJ and Blaze. Photo: Business Wire)
The main conflicts, often caused by another truck, Crusher, are usually resolved by a clever physics-based mechanism or machine. The main characters involve the viewers by discussing the reasoning, questioning the audience, then pausing, as though hearing the answer. With parental coaxing, Fin was shouting the answers… and so were we!
Now, anecdotal evidence (Fin’s mom) says that this show is legit educational. By comparing the show against the Ontario Educational Expectations for kindergarten, we can see whether or not this is true.
The curriculum expectations are mostly centred around getting kids to ask questions and learning to communicate and record the answers they find. At this age kids are learning how to explore, inquire, plan, observe, predict, and use tools to find answers (or maybe more questions?)
Kids should “conduct simple investigations through free exploration, focused exploration, and guided activity, using inquiry skills (questioning, planning, predicting, observing, communicating, select and use tools, equipment, and materials to connect things using the design process).”
Generally, this means they’re figuring out what the questions are that they want to answer and how they can do that safely. This is pretty important since the first thing you ask yourself as a scientist is:
“what question am I trying to answer?”
In Blaze and the Monster Machines, questions are asked and solutions are investigated. The show uses outlines to trace the trajectory of ramps, pendulums, and levers, which helps kids (and adults) visualize the movement, mass, and angle of objects. Viewers are instructed to observe specific things in the environment and the way they move to predict their behaviour. When an object or machine needs to be built, a 3D blueprint appears as Blaze and his friends design it.
(Blaze and Starla using a lever. Photo: Nick Jr.)
There is also an emphasis on teamwork, for example, when a group of characters is required to solve a problem, instead of just one character saving the day.
The characters work together, communicate results, and build off each other’s experiences.
Overall, I think this show does a fantastic job of making physics and engineering accessible and palatable to preschoolers, as well as giving them a good basic understanding of words and concepts that will be addressed in elementary school.