The past year has brought extensive and much-needed attention to diversity in children’s media content. Kidscreen Summit, COVID Zoominars and virtual festivals focused on the need and right for all children to see themselves on screens. Our industry’s make-up is evolving, too, via initiatives to ensure authentic voices come to the fore in conception, development and writing.
But there’s a third leg to the triangle—and that is kids’ reception of diversity. If we build it, will they come? And what are the best practices for introducing young people to their peers across the street or around the world, whose lives may be very unlike their own?
More than 20 years ago, at the PRIX JEUNESSE International Children’s Television Festival, I saw a program that has stayed with me. It was a documentary by Danmarks Radio (Danish public broadcasting) about a boy in Guatemala who breaks stones for a living. Every day, he’d haul a large rock out of the river and use a hammer to break it into small pieces. He wore gloves made from old tires to just barely protect his hands. He’d load the stones into a burlap sack and drag it to the road, where he was paid pennies for his labor.
This work was part of an ongoing effort by Mogens Vemmer, then-head of children’s programming at DR, who wanted Danish kids to know that “children everywhere grow up with equal dignity, even under unequal circumstances.” Every year, DR would send a documentary crew to a country very different from Denmark to return with stories about childhood through the lens of individual kids.
This story, in particular, stuck with me because it would have been so easy for Danish kids to turn away in discomfort, watching a child their age at labor. Instead, the story focused on one small element of the child’s life that would have resonance for kids everywhere: This boy was saving a bit of the money he earned to buy a bicycle. For him, a bike meant freedom—he could work and go to school. The kids in Denmark probably had bicycles, and could likely empathize with the freedom to go wherever they wanted.
Similarly, Là Où Je Dors, a Canadian series from a decade ago, documented where children sleep globally. Some had fancy bedrooms to themselves, while others slept on crowded floors. The kids themselves, though, proudly showed their homes to the film crews, and since all children sleep, that which was common (and loved) overcame that which was strange.
Kids can take in a lot of difference if you just give them a handhold of something familiar. In a digital, connected world, finding that first connection isn’t an end; it’s a starting point for ongoing conversation, discovery and friendship. That came back to me this week as I read When You Wonder, You’re Learning, a new book by Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski. They use Fred Rogers’ insights into child development and examples from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a launchpad into community efforts (mostly in Pittsburgh) to “remake learning” around curiosity and creativity.
An early chapter of the book talks about educational theories and practices built on stretching a child’s existing knowledge about something by giving them opportunities to explore, examine and wonder about it. The authors wrote, “Rogers knew that for kids to learn effectively, the information at hand has to connect to what they’re familiar with, and what they want to know more about. It has to strike that tantalizing balance between familiarity and mystery—the very balance on which the Neighborhood was built.”
This same scale is at work in children’s content choices worldwide. When Dubit asks young people ages two to 15 what factors are key in their entertainment choices, familiarity and trust rank high. The top emotional factors focus on attention-grabbing, imagination-stimulating, comprehensible stories about topics the child is already interested in. This holds true across all the continents Dubit surveys—Latin America (Brazil), Europe (Italy, France, UK), Asia (India) and North America (Canada, US).
Cultivating diversity in children’s content does much of the work of enabling kids to see themselves in popular culture. As the world becomes more interdependent, though, we need to show young people that they are also part of a whole in which all the diverse pieces click together. This doesn’t need a heavy hand; sometimes a bicycle or bed is enough.
David Kleeman is SVP of global trends at Dubit. Dubit’s research and strategy arms work hand-in-hand with its digital studio to help companies and organizations understand their users and build age-appropriate, safe games and experiences that kids love and parents respect.