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Teaching with Disney Classics

Having trouble homeschooling your children or keeping them occupied and educated this summer? The Mouse House can be of assistance.
Donald Mathmagic
By  · Published on June 11th, 2020

Welcome to Cinephile Summer Camp, a new column dedicated to introducing children to classic movies as well as learning about film history and other subjects through cinema.

One of the hardest parts of the COVID-19 lockdown for many people has been homeschooling. For a lot of families, the parents work full-time, and that’s still been the case during the pandemic. Fortunately, for some of us, digital learning programs have kept the kids busy as well as educated without too much expectation for moms and dads (and grandparents, guardians, etc.) to lead the lessons. My household was able to maintain a certain routine and structure that fit with our schedules (my wife and I both already work from home full-time during normal business hours). It was hard, but we got it done. And then our kids’ school decided to end the academic year early, by nearly a month.

On the positive side, we would no longer have to worry about the assignments that came in; we’d have more flexibility and freedom. But, on the other hand, we’d have to figure out some sort of plan to keep the children occupied without them just watching television and playing video games of their choosing all day while my wife and I work. We’d also want to make it fun, so as to avoid a lot of complaining and the stress that comes with that. Typically, after school let out for the summer, our son and daughter would go to day camps during our work hours. In the age of the coronavirus, we needed to get creative. We also needed to adapt new work schedules around whatever we came up with.

The personal arrangements aren’t important (to you, anyway), but on the weekdays since the last day of school, my kids have spent their morning and early afternoon hours at “Camp Quarantine.” The idea began with my desire to further their education in some way. We’d do simple science projects or something that they could learn from. On the second day, though, I showed the kids a favorite of mine from childhood: Donald in Mathmagic Land. My son, aged 7, loves math; my daughter, 5, could take it or leave it; but this would make it fun for both of them. The Oscar-nominated short, released in 1959, features Donald Duck learning how math is found in everything we love, including nature, music, art and architecture, and sports and games.

Afterward, the kids wanted to have a scavenger hunt inspired by the film’s spotlight on both natural and manufactured instances of such concepts as the pentagram and pentagon, the golden rectangle, and the spiral. Between the brief running-time of Donald in Mathmagic Land and the single accompanying activity, the day’s lessons were rather short. And unfortunately, unless we settled on overly-anthropomorphic nature films, Disney doesn’t really have a lot of great documentaries for kids with which to maintain such an easy, educational, and entertaining program for learning. There’s Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, but both of those require some set up for context and maybe disclaimers.

The idea that we’d need to explain some things before showing the kids a Disney movie filled with problematic stereotypes and other cultural simplifications of the time made me realize, though, that it goes both ways. Those two films specifically were produced to inform about the countries and people of Latin America as part of an effort of goodwill from the US during World War II. They still could, to a certain degree, provide a foundation for geography lessons. Or, better yet, geography lessons could provide a foundation for their enjoyment. And as it turns out, that’s something that’s possible with a number of the Disney animated classics. From that realization, “Camp Quarantine” has depended a lot on one particular studio and its library.

After watching Donald in Mathmagic Land, which spotlights Pythagoras, my son wanted to know more about Ancient Greece. So, that became a theme one day, as we donned bedsheet togas, created two-sided comedy/tragedy masks, competed in Olympic games (well, throwing a frisbee “discus” and running a short relay in the yard), made up and drew gods and goddesses, and learned of the Trojan horse. After all the fun educational activities, aided by a handful of YouTube videos, we all watched Disney’s Hercules, which none of us had seen before. As it turns out, the 1997 animated feature references just about everything we’d studied that morning, from the muse holding the tragedy mask to a line about the Trojans betting on the wrong horse.

Another day, my daughter picked the theme: computers. She wanted to know how they work. She also appreciated learning about the history of computers, which involves a number of women pioneers like Ada Lovelace and Edith Clarke. For the technical stuff, which I couldn’t easily teach the kids, we watched an episode of Netflix’s Ask the Storybots featuring Snoop Dogg that took care of the heavy lifting. Then, we rounded out the day by watching Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet. Sure, the animated sequel is more about the internet, but that’s mostly what computers are for them these days. Plus, it plays with some general computer concepts, such as viruses. Anyway, the kids didn’t like the looks of TRON (which gets an homage in Ralph Breaks the Internet that the kids got after seeing the trailer for that movie, at least).

Perhaps inspired by all the talk of computer memory, the next learning theme was human memory. Lots of TED-Ed, PBS Crash Course, and other YouTube videos were helpful in communicating, as simply as is possible, the ideas of memories both formed and lost, while basic memory games and activities drove home what they’d been taught. At the end of the day, we watched Pixar’s Inside Out, which is known primarily as a movie about emotions but is also a movie about memories. Enough that I’m surprised the animators didn’t slip in a seahorse character to represent the hippocampus.

Pixar movies tend to have more thematic educational material for end-of-the-day illustration than the Walt Disney Animation films. Want to learn about aquatic life, follow up with Finding Nemo and/or Finding Dory. Teaching the kids about the afterlife? Watch Coco. Focusing on physical traits and how everyone is different but helpful in their own way? The Incredibles. For insects, well, maybe watch the documentary Microcosmos early on and then A Bug’s Life later. As for the Disney classics, a lot of them do work for geographical lessons. Learning about Scandinavia? There’s a movie for that (Frozen). Learning about Hawaii? There’s a movie for that (Lilo & Stitch). China: Mulan. The African plains: The Lion King. Indian jungle: The Jungle Book.

Of course, there are multiple Disney and Pixar movies for France, especially Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ratatouille, Beauty and the Beast), and for prehistoric creatures (Dinosaurs and The Good Dinosaur), medieval legends (The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood), and jazz (The Princess and the Frog and The Aristocats). Double features are great for rainy days, or some big topics (like jazz) could be a two-day event. There are also multiple themes that can go with different movies: Ratatouille works for a French lesson or a cooking lesson; Coco can follow themes on death or Mexican culture; WALL-E could be watched after lessons on waste and recycling, robotics, and space travel.

Isn’t it possible to do this with non-Disney movies? Of course. I’m not a Disney snob or anything, but thanks to Disney+, it’s been much easier to just look there for what to stream for “Camp Quarantine.” And Disney and especially Pixar definitely put more substance into their animated features than a majority of what’s being produced. Your best bets from other animation studios are entries in the Kung-Fu Panda, The Land Before Time (and other early Don Bluth films), and Ice Age franchises (the last of which is now technically a Disney property, and the first installment is on Disney+). But what would we teach that leads into the Despicable Me films? Besides the Minions spinoff, which could apply to history or specifically to the English monarchy.

Perhaps after a few weeks, when we run out of Disney features, we’ll just have to teach the kids about satire and parody and show them Shrek, which takes shots at plenty of the Mouse House titles. We’d possibly need to give them some industry context, as well, if they’re going to get all the gags. For that context, we could back up and show the Disney Renaissance documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty and the parallel history of The Pixar Story. A lot of animated kids’ movies can inspire film history lessons. Especially Pixar titles, like how A Bug’s Life evokes Seven Samurai or how Toy Story makes nods to many classic movies. Outside Disney, DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens provides kids with a nice introduction to vintage B-movie horror.

Just as Donald in Mathmagic Land (which is surprisingly not on Disney+) reveals how mathematics can be taught through various gateway subjects that kids love, other lessons can be found through or in service of enjoyable works of entertainment. Kids just want their colorful garbage programs flashing in front of their eyeballs, but it doesn’t have to be that passive and mindless. Not everything can be PBS for Kids; still, most things for children can be turned into tools for their education. Just as long as the complementary learning experiences are also filled with merriment — this is “camp” not school (important to note: I’m not a licensed educator) — or else turning beloved movies into work could ruin them for the kids for the rest of childhood.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.