As a mother of two girls, I know firsthand how technology impacts the everyday lives of our children. In fact, my oldest doesn’t talk on the phone anymore-e-mail seems to be the preferred method of communication. But no matter how enticing this high-tech medium becomes, it’s still true that using your own imagination is one of the most fulfilling means of play. As any parent knows, you can invest in the latest computer toys and a plethora of interactive software, and your kids will be entertained for hours. But give them a plain cardboard box, and it’s amazing to watch children use their imaginations to create their own environments.
As networks scramble to meet FCC guidelines, confusion about what constitutes educational programming has left the market flooded with what the press has dubbed ‘broccoli TV.’ Unfortunately, using the same vegetable analogy, children won’t watch a program just because it’s good for them, just like they won’t be forced to eat steamed vegetables. But if you deliver the vegetables as part of a pizza, kids will gobble them up. In programming, kids are looking to be entertained by characters that relate to their lives. Surround the educational component with humor (it’s got to be funny), a compelling story and something to spark their imaginations, and they’ll come back for seconds.
Drawing from many experiences with my own children, I know that a paper bag, an old sock and other ordinary stuff can evoke seemingly endless hours of fun and exploration. Developing a program that children can interact with, whether or not an adult is there to help them with on-screen activities, was the notion behind the creation of Big Bag.
As a parent, I have another distinct advantage-watching my kids’ reactions to works in progress. My kids especially enjoy being part of the process, whether it’s watching character designs slowly evolve into a new muppet, or listening to an audition tape and picking the best dragon voice-they think it’s all pretty cool. When I am carpooling or doing errands, there is a cassette playing in the car and I ask my captive audience, often a van full of children, to listen to the latest song or story. Since they are older, they can articulate their gut reactions, which are often the most helpful. They are likely to say, ‘preschoolers would like that,’ or ‘they wouldn’t like that because…,’ but my favorite response is when they notice that a character’s voice or song is a rip-off of something currently on television (OK, I admit it, my kids watch a lot of TV, but it comes in handy). Their input has sometimes sent us back to the drawing board! Of course, Children’s Television Workshop does extensive testing, but this less formal approach keeps me personally in touch with my audience.
Our newest series, a co-production with Columbia Tri-Star Television, is a fantasy-adventure series for preschoolers called Dragon Tales that centers around a land where the dandelions roar and fairies doodle to communicate. Kids learn that anything can happen, you just have to try! Striving to create programs that children will interact with and laugh about is what should drive the creative vision. Next time you are watching a show with your child, wait to see what happens when it’s over. Do they want to draw a picture, start singing a song they just heard, act out a story, ask a question or tell you a joke? If so, the program was a success.
So, let’s learn a lesson from our children and make it our mandate, fully exploit our imaginations, develop innovative children’s programming and refuse to be daunted by reports of limited opportunity for creative independents, large studio dominance and the saturated animation environment. Let’s practice what we preach to our children: be true yourself, use all available resources and don’t be afraid to try or to ask for help. If we can still access our inner child and creative core, we just might be able to develop concepts that will make it through the clutter and on to an appropriate outlet.
Nina Elias Bamberger is a long-time Sesame Street producer with many executive producing credits under her belt, including the Sesame Street Stays Up Late one-hour special and two home video series, Sesame Street Visits and Sesame Songs.