Non-Fiction Video Thursday: Building Big

Building Big is a five episode series about building big things--bridges, domes, dams, tunnels, and skyscrapers--narrated by David Macaulay. It first appeared as a PBS show in 2000, and is now available on dvd and vhs. The series focuses on the engineering challenges of each type of structure, but it includes so much history, geography, and general cultural literacy that even those who find engineering problems unappealing will find much to enjoy. In Dams, for instance, we travel to Egypt to learn about the Aswan dam, placed nicely in cultural and geographic context, with a look at the ancient Saad El Kafara as well, we explore the Hoover dam, the Itaipu Dam of Brazil and Paraguay, and are alarmed by the description of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania 19th-century dam disaster. Domes might appeal to a kid who likes baseball, because it looks closely at the Houston Astrodome, among others.

At the end of each program is a do-it-yourself presentation for kids. On screen, I think this is great; in practice less so. We did, however, get a kick out of making popsicle stick dams and pouring buckets of water around.

In short, this series is very well presented, eclectic, and informative without being didactic! However, there are lots of disasters (not as bad as a Thomas the Tank Engine episode, but close), so these might not be appropriate for younger kids who are bothered by these things. My six year old loves them, my three year old could care less.

The six year old has been a huge fan of David Macaulay for most of his young life. When he was four, he wanted me to find D.M.'s address, so we could go sit outside his house, preferably for days at a time. So when I stumbled across the videos of his Building Big series in a library far from our home, I knew I had to get them for our own library. Thanks to generous donations from our patrons, we acquired the boxed set of 5 dvds, and check them out every 6 months or so (I hope other patrons are checking them out too...).

If you want to read more particulars about the show, look here; there are more related activities on the website for reading kids. There is an excellent companion book by David Macaulay, also called Building Big.

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