There are a lot of cartoons and animations out there just waiting for your child to consume them. Many are good but fall short of the mark. Is there a cartoon or animation that is actually perfect? Is there one to rule them all?
Well, I don’t know about that as taste is always subjective, but I’ll say this:
Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most inspiring cartoons ever made.
Unfamiliar with it? Have a look at the clip below:
During break time with most of my classes, the kids and I will watch an episode together. It is just such an amazing series. It is action-packed, it has a fantastic storyline that ebbs and flows masterfully for three seasons, and best of all, nearly every episode has a teachable moment for its viewers. There really aren’t many shows like that, much less cartoons.
There is a reason why it was the most watched show on Netflix back in May 2020.
So, now that I’ve piqued your interest, follow me as I tell you about one of the greatest cartoons ever made.
What the series is about
The show is set in a pseudo-East Asian world comprised of four nations: the Water, Earth, Fire and Air Nations. Each has its own cultural and geographical features that parallel ancient Korea, Japan, China, and even the indigenous Arctic tribes. Each nation also has its own “benders”, gifted individuals who can control their respective elements to their will.
The story follows a few main characters, including:
- Aang, a young boy who is destined to bring balance to the world;
- Katara and Sokka, a brother-and-sister duo from the Southern Water Tribe who become Aang’s closest friends;
- Toph, a blind girl from the Earth kingdom who is also one of the greatest Earthbenders;
- Zuko, an exiled prince from the Fire Nation.
Over the course of 3 seasons, characters become more powerful as they make new friends, master new skills and meet new enemies. There is a lot of fighting in this show, but it’s tastefully done and well-choreographed. For example, Earthbenders are (figuratively and literally) earthshatteringly powerful, and it’s a lot of fun watching them stand off against a horde of tanks from the Fire Nation.
However, this isn’t just a show about action. There is a lot of character development. New backstories are constantly revealed. We learn about what makes our heroes act in a certain way; we see them change in their temperament, in their motivations. It is a character-driven drama as much as it is an action-based cartoon.
Why Avatar: The Last Airbender is a gem for children and adults alike
Having used Avatar in my classroom, I’ve seen the effect it’s had on my students. It’s more than just a piece of entertainment. With every episode, I can find new things to teach or talk about. It’s a fantastic medium from which students can draw inspiration.
I daresay even adults can learn a thing or two from it!
So, let’s break down Avatar and discuss: what makes this cartoon series so special that I highly recommend it as a teaching tool?
It helps children build character
As mentioned earlier on, the series is all about character development and self-motivation. We watch as Aang grows from a naive young monk to someone more assured of his own abilities. Likewise, Sokka gradually finds his own footing as a warrior despite being the only main character that isn’t a bender. These are lessons that can be applied to children who are often insecure about their shortcomings.
In fact, Avatar brings a strong sense of empowerment to the table. It talks a lot about failure, but at the same time emphasises how virtues like resilience and empathy can help characters to overcome their personal demons. One lesson that I keep driving home with my students is that any insurmountable obstacle can be overcome with patience and perseverance. It’s interesting to see students change for the better, especially those with anger management problems or who don’t connect well with others.
This is also possible because Avatar’s characters are very relatable. Most of them are children or teens who are flawed or broken in their own way. Despite being powerful individuals, they often feel insecure about themselves, their families, or even their friends. They feel emotions like angst, jealousy, etc. You know, the typical stuff that youths feel.
As such, there is a lot that children can learn from the main characters of this show, and if you don’t believe me, try watching the first two episodes with your child. See what he or she can pick up from it!
It sets the gold standard on what a good story should be like
Hands up if your child likes to write overly violent stories, ending in the gory death of one of their main characters; or perhaps they are on the other extreme, writing stories that are mundane and unexciting to read.
One solution? Let them watch Avatar: The Last Airbender.
It raises the bar on what constitutes to a good story. Many episodes in Avatar follow an arc that looks like this:
Set the stage
Introduce a minor conflict
Partially resolve the minor conflict
Introduce a bigger conflict with a few complications
Have characters overcome the whole conflict and reflect on the episode
This structure resembles the “Story Mountain” that is taught in schools (albeit at a more advanced level). Furthermore, every episode starts out promising and wraps up satisfactorily. You might say that it looks formulaic, but that’s the point. A good story doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to be entertaining. It is what children should be exposed to to understand what a good narrative structure entails.
It also avoids convoluted plots. Children like writing exciting stories, but may go off-topic when they introduce too many elements. Often this is influenced by shows or stories that don’t have coherent narrative structures. In contrast, every episode of Avatar reveals something new about the world. It doesn’t trip on itself and is easy to follow, so that even the really young kids in primary school can keep up. It highlights the axiom of “less is more”.
Watch an episode with your child, then talk to them about its flow. See if it helps them to visualise the “skeletal frame” of a good story. That’s what I do with the kids at Swords & Stationery to help them weave tales fluently, in conjunction with our RPG sessions.
And, speaking of RPG sessions, this brings me to my next point….
It introduces young people to the fantasy genre
Many students are not exposed to fantasy-based stories when they first join Swords & Stationery. Furthermore, there is a shortage of age-appropriate fantasy shows (i.e. ones that are not violent) for children under 10. Without moving visuals, it can be difficult to explain fantasy settings in detail.
With Avatar, it is the perfect gateway to the fantasy genre. Although it is closer to wuxia than Euro-medieval fantasy settings like Dungeons & Dragons, nonetheless it is a good alternative. It has cool-looking ancient weapons, magic, monsters, strange animals, combat scenes and exploration of the unknown. Most importantly, it is age-appropriate for younger audiences.
“Why would I want my kids to be exposed to the fantasy genre?” I hear one of you asking.
Well, why wouldn’t you? Fantasy is great for escapism. Many good books also belong to the fantasy genre (e.g. “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K Le Guin). Being exposed to it helps children to develop a greater appetite for such books as they level up–… er I mean develop.
Case in point: many of our students (past and present) started to write short stories on their own after being exposed to the fantasy genre. Amazing, I know.
There is no genre more capable of inspiring children than fantasy, in my humble opinion.
Watching it as a family is fun
Okay, this one is going to get a bit more personal. I was 17 when I watched this on Nickelodeon (it aired in 2005). I was not very interested in anime though I did follow a few, like Flame of Recca (kudos to anyone who knows that one).
Thus, when Avatar: The Last Airbender was announced as a new series on Nickelodeon, I was skeptical. Nevertheless, I gave it a shot and right after the first episode, I got hooked. I even got my younger brothers to watch it with me.
You know how you sometimes look back and wax nostalgic about things you did with your siblings? Well, for me, watching Avatar together with my brothers was one of those things.
That is how wholesome the show is. It highlights the importance of family and friendship. Let’s not forget that it’s a really well-made animation without a single dull moment.
It’s a masterfully executed show that can appeal to everyone in the family, and that is a rarity. How often does one get a show like that?
Avatar has everything that one looks for in a kid’s show: it is child-friendly, ponders deeply about its subject matters, has a straightforward but brilliant fantasy story, and is filled with lots of action. I highly recommend watching it with your child (if they haven’t already). Currently it’s available on Netflix, but you can get it on Amazon too.
Then, when your child is done with Season 1, come back here and let me know what he/she thought about it 😉
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