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Ode to Joy: How kidcos can bring joy to tough topics

Kids TV shows typically steer clear of serious topics, but some creators are using joy to keep kids engaged in issues like climate change and gender identity.
December 21, 2021

After nearly two years of lockdowns, social distancing measures and worrying statistics around anxiety and mental health, kids are looking for things that make them happy. In this new three-part series, Kidscreen is exploring the concept of joy—who’s demanding it, and how producers are delivering it. Today, we look at how to bring happiness to difficult topics. 

More than ever before, families are looking to learn and talk about challenging subjects together. When it comes to climate change, for example, 74% of US parents surveyed in a 2019 NPR/Ipsos poll said they want their children to start learning about it early. And regarding diversity and inclusion, roughly half of Hispanic and Asian kids and close to three-quarters of Black kids say it’s important that they see their own race reflected on screen, according to a 2019/2020 US study from Nickelodeonand they don’t agree with how they’re often presented.

This gives content creators license to shine a light on big issues in their shows and movies, and really delve into some thorny topics they might have historically steered away from.

The biggest challenge, though, is the kids themselves. Just because these shows exist and parents are on board, doesn’t mean audiences will tune in. So several kids producers are creating fun, happy shows and touching on issues like climate change, gender identity and wellness—sort of like sneaking some broccoli into their mac and cheese.

There are two things to consider when taking on issue-based content, says Ellen Doherty, chief creative officer for Fred Rogers Productions. First and foremost, the age of the audience must determine how content will be delivered. Secondly, creators need to think about balancing viewers’ emotions. Shows shouldn’t exclusively make them  sad or frustrated because kids have to feel like there is something that can be done to make things better, says Doherty.

In 2020, Fred Rogers Productions created a special 24-minute COVID-19 episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to helps kids cope with some of the pandemic’s biggest challenges, like virtual learning and social distancing, while demonstrating that they could still find fun in those moments. The episode followed each fearful moment with something happier. For instance, Daniel was upset that social distancing meant he had to see his friends online, rather than in person. Then he learns that virtual meetings can be just as fun. “For the characters in our stories, joy is something that comes from learning,” says Doherty.

Obki Productions founder Amanda Evans says her series Obki (15 x two minutes, pictured) also taps into happiness through learning. The main character is a brightly colored alien who journeys to Earth, where he learns that small changes can make a big difference when it comes to saving the planet. The show, which launched a few months ago on Sky Kids in the UK, aims to educate children about the danger that climate change poses to the planet, while at the same time letting them know there is hope.

“While they’re learning about climate change, they’re also learning that there are little things they can do to create change,” says Evans.

Australian drama series First Day (four x half hours) taps into joy as it explores the topic of gender identity. The show premiered on ABC Me in March 2020, and follows a 12-year-old transgender girl as she navigates through life. But just because it deals with difficult subject matter doesn’t mean that warm-fuzzy feelings aren’t baked in. In fact, the show is full of joyful moments, says creator Julie Kalceff. 

“First Day is very realistic about the ups and downs and unpleasant times of life, while showing that there still can be incredibly happy moments,” says Kalceff.

For instance, the main character Hannah is bullied by another girl about her gender identity. But Hannah comes to learn that her bully is also experiencing her own struggles, and the episode ends on a joyful moment as the two begin a friendship.

Bringing joy to even the most difficult topics comes down to showing off a rainbow of emotions, but making sure that there is ultimately a happy ending, says Fred Rogers Productions’ Doherty.

“If you experience sadness and frustration and being mad, it’s OK,” she says. “Those emotions are what really let kids celebrate the good times.”

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