Tune into any preschool block in most countries and you’ll see series after series aimed at teaching numeracy, literacy and life sciences to the five-and-under crowd. Undoubtedly programming steeped in academic curriculum helps teach young children the core skills they need to succeed in the classroom, but broadcasters are increasingly balancing their skeds with content that skips the three Rs altogether. Instead, this new wave of socio-emotional content is focused on cultivating critical-thinking skills among wee viewers.
Anarchy in the UK?
CBeebies head of production, animation and acquisitions Alison Stewart says the growing demand for this type of programming is being driven in the UK by the country’s early-years educational initiative in which teachers role play and ask kids open-ended questions that encourage them to share their thoughts and think for themselves. Part of the program’s mandate is to go beyond lessons that teach specific knowledge of numbers and introduce broad-based critical-thinking skills.
“The idea is that if children get a little more teaching along those lines, it gives them more inquiring minds as they grow up,” says Stewart. She also points to a growing appreciation for engendering the notion of community in society, which has led to the creation of TV programming that gets children to think about each other, work together and share.
“There is some beautiful content coming through that is all based on diverse communities learning to live together,” says Stewart. Fitting the bill is CBeebies’ new 2012 show Tilly and Friends (Walker Books/Jam Media) that’s based on a series of children’s books about a little girl and her six animal pals who all live together in a cozy yellow house. Every once in a while a problem bubbles up and the roommates must collectively find a way to overcome it, such as when Pru the hen’s lipstick goes missing.
“Children get upset if somebody takes their stuff, and Tilly finds a way of putting them all back together at the end,” says Stewart. “It really models preschool behavior in a sweet and simple way.”
Child development expert, consultant and former BBC education editor Jacqueline Harding, who’s involved in developing the series, says the show promotes social and emotional competence by helping children make sense of their world and their friendships. Harding explains that young kids are naturally very ego-centric and understand the world only from their point of view, so that perspective has to be safely established before exploring other emotions.
“It’s actually different aspects of Tilly’s mind and personality that are reflected in each one of the characters she encounters,” says Harding. “Every child sees themselves through her world of emotional highs and lows.”
The channel also debuted Mr. Bloom’s Nursery this month, an original Beeb live-action series that features a gardener who shows a group of kids how to grow and care for plants and vegetables. In the second half of each episode, the children move from the field to the nursery shed, where they find a group of baby vegetable puppets that need their help to resolve an issue that’s, er, cropped up. “It’s all based on nurturing and care of your environment and care of younger things,” says Stewart.
Disney Junior gets social
The demand for emotionally focused content isn’t exclusive to the UK. After conducting intensive market research with parents and teachers, new preschool channel Disney Junior, launching internationally in 2011 and in the US in 2012, is positioning itself around programming that imparts emotional skills. Besides regularly monitoring mommy blogs, Playhouse Disney Worldwide SVP Nancy Kanter says the company carried out research over a six-month period between 2008 and 2009 that included a mix of in-home ethnographies, focus groups, in-depth parent/child interviews and online surveys involving more than 2,200 parents.
“We found that, inspired by a reflection of the world we live in today, the social and emotional learning and well-being of their children is top of mind for parents,” says Kanter. Parents and caregivers who took part in the research said they wanted their child to be confident, to be a good friend, to be part of a group and to have the self-confidence to ask questions.
Though social development has always been part of the House of Mouse’s preschool offerings, Kanter says Disney Junior now has a stronger mandate to create richness in social skills, which it is doing through classic storytelling.
“There has been a huge emphasis on academic curriculum, and if you look at shows for preschoolers over the last two years, good storytelling has actually receded a bit in favor of some of these elements,” says Kanter. Watching how a character handles a problem, deals with conflict, uses his or her moral compass and differentiates between good and bad are key storytelling elements Kanter says are built in to the preschool channel’s new original series, Jake and Never Land Pirates. A strong adventurous narrative sees Jake and his crew using teamwork to battle with Captain Hook for the stolen treasure. However, Kanter explains that the series has a strong focus on the emotional, personal side of conflict resolution. “We address what you do when someone is a little mean and misguided and show that you need to have a certain amount of empathy and generosity.”
The channel has also picked up Doc McStuffins from Dublin, Ireland-based Brown Bag Films. The CGI series features a six-year-old girl nicknamed Doc who communicates with and heals stuffed animals in her backyard clinic. “There’s an element of fantasy and storytelling that will resonate with kids,” says Kanter. And besides softening kids up for those scary doctor’s visits, Doc is a nurturer who can’t help but care for those around her.