This post was written by Angela Santomero and Rachel Kalban. Angela C. Santomero is the Creator, Head Writer and Executive Producer of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood as well as Blue’s Clues and Super Why. Her personal blog, AngelasClues.com, approaches parenting from her unique vantage point as a childrens’ media creator. Rachel Kalban is the Director of Research for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood at Out of the Blue Enterprises.
We set out to create a new show to honor Fred Rogers’ legacy. We believe that Fred Rogers was irreplaceable, born a very special teacher and not someone you could just hire, so we decided to animate the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and make Daniel Tiger, the son of Fred’s first puppet, the star. All of the beloved characters of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe would grow up and have preschoolers of their own, who would play and learn together.
Staying true to Fred’s curriculum, we determined, with the Fred Rogers Company, the critical socio-emotional skills to focus on. We then decided our very first episode would be about disappointment.
You may be asking yourself, why would we create a very first episode of a new series about disappointment?
Well, two reasons: First to be fair it is also Daniel Tiger’s birthday, and, as we all know, having a birthday is an exciting theme. Second, while no one would tell you that they like to be disappointed, having things not go your way is actually a tremendous learning opportunity, especially for preschoolers. If nothing ever spilled, how would you learn how to clean up? If it was always sunny outside, when would you get the opportunity to jump in puddles? If you always get the toy you want, what opportunities are there for imaginative play?
The Empathy Approach to a Socio-Emotional Curriculum
Our hope is to make the tenets of our socio-emotional curriculum as clear and straightforward as singing the ABC’s or counting to 10. Socio-emotional skills are intertwined with cognitive skill-building that children need for life.
• Cognitive, emotional and social capacities are inextricably intertwined throughout the life course.
(The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2012)
• Although there are times when learning is more cognitive than social, or more emotional than cognitive, when children are fully engaged in learning, they are engaged on all of these levels.
To truly teach these, we needed to make sure that we showcased feelings vocabulary, problem solving skills, and an overall sense of empathy for our characters. At the end of 40 episodes, we want preschoolers to have seen the world through Daniel’s eyes and feel what he is feeling, learn the words that he uses and care so much for their animated friend that they want to help him.
When creating the pilot for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, we wanted to drive home the message that life is full of teachable moments, opportunities to stretch our perceptions of what is good and bad and maybe even turn them on their heads a bit. The series, as a whole, takes on this goal in full force.
Although "disappointed" is a big word, it is a teachable moment. We know that kids who can label their emotions are better at regulating them, so why not give them a label for how they feel so often? We decided to write the word into the script, label it, have Daniel express it. We see the problem causing the emotion and showcase how he creatively problem solves it. Then we took the first script to our audience through our formative research process led by Rachel Kalban, M.A., to see if our hypothesis was correct.
The key to creating a show that effectively reaches and engages children, is to involve the young audience in the process. We test our episodes starting very early on in the scripting stage, reading a script with storyboards to our most honest critics: the kids.
Here’s how it went:
It was Daniel’s birthday and he went to pick out a beautiful tiger cake for his party. He even got to decorate the tiger cake! But when he made a glop with the icing, Daniel was very… disappointed.
Mom helped Daniel express his feeling, and then learn that when something seems bad, turn it around, and find something good!
This little musical strategy is one of the tools in our socio-emotional curriculum tool belt. We know that kids will learn it, understand it, and use it. Parents will have it as one of their tools when their preschooler is feeling disappointed. For Daniel, he turned the situation around, turning the glop of icing into a mouth for the tiger cake! Phew.
Baker Aker wraps the cake up in a pretty box with a pretty ribbon and Daniel insists on carrying it home on Trolley.
Well, you can imagine what happened to that cake. Daniel was SO disappointed when he opened the box and saw that the cake he had decorated himself was now a smushed birthday cake.
At this point in viewing, our preschool home viewers were really feeling for Daniel. The kids at home, with our interactive television model, had helped Daniel put stripes on the cake. They had helped Daniel turn the glop into a smile. So, by the time the cake was smushed, our preschool viewers were very empathetic.
Dad Tiger takes his time talking to Daniel in bite-sized chunks, breaking down the strategy to help Daniel and the home viewer apply it, and then singing the strategy to drive his point home.
I'm sorry, Daniel. Having your cake smushed is so disappointing.
(teary eyed) It is!
But, when something seems bad, turn it around...
(Dad turns Daniel around)
DAD TIGER (CONT'D)
...and find something good! Alright, there MUST be something that's still good about this cake. Come on, let's think.
Which is just what they did. “What’s something good about all cakes?” Daniel recalled, “that they taste good.” And after one yummy bite, Daniel felt much better as he discovered that the smushy cake did taste good! (Or as Miss Elaina would say, a smushy yummy cake!)
Research: Success then Uh-oh
At the end of the first script testing, we asked kids what “disappointed” meant. They knew, after one reading of the story, that disappointed meant sad. This result came from children who didn’t have any knowledge of the word beforehand.
But when we asked the kids, “What would you do if something was disappointing?” Most said, “taste it!” referring to the cake scene.
All we can say is thank goodness for formative research! We knew what we had to do. We went back to the writing-board and brainstormed how to turn this disappointment around (see, the strategy works for grown ups, too!).
When Something Seems Bad, Turn it Around and Find Something Good!
What we decided to do in this episode became part of our series strategy to master the curriculum. We used one minute of the eleven minutes of each story for a full “strategy song”. The song serves as a kind of music video for the show, matching the strategy lines we wanted kids to learn and understand, with visuals of how to “turn it around and find something good.” We included in the song several different situations that needed turning around (in addition to the two in the episode itself).
We brought the story back to kids and they were no longer tasting whatever seemed bad, but rather, turning it around and finding something good.
Excited about our success, we decided to drive the idea home even more. Since we know that repetition is the key to learning, we decided that the second eleven minute episode in the half hour should be about disappointment, as well. A different story, but one focusing on the same theme. At the end of a half an hour, preschoolers would have about 10 instances of “disappointment” in the animation alone. This ensures that all kids, even the youngest ones, would walk away having learned our theme and strategy. And, because preschoolers like to watch shows over and over again, the learning would only multiply after repeated viewings. In fact, when Blue’s Clues launched, the study by Dr. Dan Anderson showed that with multiple viewings, “comprehension improved, and children increased their application of a demonstrated problem-solving strategy to problems both shown and not shown by the program.” (Anderson et al., 1999).
It was important for us to understand how kids were watching the show in their own homes (we already had researched this one episode with dozens of kids in school focus groups) and how the lessons would play out in their own lives. We sent a very confidential DVD to parents of kids ages 2-6 and asked them to watch the episode over the course of one week. Then, they would fill out the enclosed viewing diary, noting how many times their child watched and how they were using the lessons themselves.
We were thrilled to get these viewing diaries back. Kids were asking to watch the episode again and again. And after watching this episode only a few times, kids were applying the lesson into their own lives!
Some of the highlights:
Madison said even though it's raining, it's good because we get to stay inside and play Barbies! (Parent of girl, 5.75)
Zach said he had an idea of how to fix his broken zebra and turn it around and make something good. (Parent of boy, 3.75)
Zachary was upset that the bubble bath dissolved and I started the phrase and he finished it, then discovered he could make more bubbles by splashing. (Parent of boy, 3.75)
When Tamar was drawing a picture she "messed up" something in her picture but then just changed it to something else, like Daniel did in the first story. (Parent of girl, 6.25)
What Daniel Tiger Taught Me
Involving the child in discovering the solution to the problem not only helps them feel less disappointed, but helps them increase their own self-confidence as they can now remedy a situation by themselves more readily. This self-regulation allows the child to cope with challenging situations that we know are an inevitable, maybe even a daily, occurrence. Teaching disappointment was a strong catalyst to propel our desire to enrich children’s lives by teaching many important, but overlooked, emotions such as empathy, resilience, persistence, and unconditional love.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood airs weekdays on PBS Kids starting this Labor Day, September 3rd 11am EST (and check local listings!)
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is produced by the Fred Rogers Company and Out of the Blue Enterprises, in association with 9 Story Entertainment.