When Barbara Gaiser started working with 4 year olds several years ago she was dismayed to discover how few words they knew.
"They were coming in at age 4 with the vocabulary of a 2-year-old," said Gaiser, who at the time was working for Head Start, a school preparation program for low-income children.
Seemingly simple concepts such as "under," "over," "near," "far," plural words and conjunctions such as "and," "but" and "or" frequently eluded them. As a result, they did not understand teachers' instructions and lessons.
The culprit? Too much TV and too little adult interaction. Too many caregivers, Gaiser said, communicated with commands rather than conversation and generalities such as "thing" and "that" rather than specific nouns and adjectives.
Gaiser started telling stories. She came armed to classes with flip charts illustrated with her own childlike drawings. Her tales stressed the concepts and words children lacked.
She took her stories to Michigan Montessori International Academy when she became the school's reading coach. There, Gaiser met Jeff Morrison, a speech and language pathologist who helps students correct speech impediments, language gaps such as the ones Gaiser encountered and other speech disorders.
The two agreed that more children needed to hear Gaiser's stories. The question was how.
Gaiser wanted to videotape her storytelling. Morrison thought they could do even better. As the two talked, The Princess and the Pirate was born. With the help of Sandi Agle, Lee County School District media services director, Gaiser and Morrison began to produce a series of 13- to 17-minute stories that could air on the district's internal television network.
"I thought I'd just read in front of the camera," Gaiser said. "Pretty soon we have a recording studio, we have makeup people, we have camera people, we have lights, and I have a magic garden."
"All the girls wanted to be princesses," added Gaiser, who turns into a pink and silver princess, complete with sparkling scepter. "All the little boys wanted to be Power Rangers. Well, we didn't really want to have Power Rangers."
Morrison, the friendly pirate, seemed a good alternative to the punching, kicking action figures.
The Princess and the Pirate is the first district-produced feature show, Agle said. "I thought it was a great idea. I just didn't think we'd get that extensive," she said. "It's grown exponentially."
With a folksy, almost Mr. Rogers-like feel, Gaiser, the princess, tells her tales. Morrison sings the opening song with a parrot on his shoulder. He makes special appearances in some of the stories, too, like the one when "He" and "She" learn to sort, categorize and share their toys.
Agle later adds sound effects like the gusting wind that blows Kyle's kite "far" from him and carries it to the city and farmyard scenes Agle adds in one episode. The little kite later decided it was nice to be "near" his friend.
Students often can sound out words, but they don't know the meanings. He and Gaiser take special care to explain scenes, objects and situations that students may find unfamiliar. The duo has big plans for their little show.
Morrison is trying to win grant money that will allow them to produce CDs of the show that teachers can order. He said educators in other counties have shown interest in the series as well.
The series, 44 episodes in all, examines a host of literacy skills from vocabulary building to understanding past tense, time sequences, possessive nouns, pronouns, cause and effect and predictions.
Elizabeth Karas, the district's Head Start director, said she's seen the benefits of such careful instruction. Lee's Head Start students, for example, scored on average 50 points higher on school readiness tests than children from similar backgrounds, Karas said.