Story is drama. Drama is conflict. You need character conflict. And so on.
One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is applying what they have read about writing adult screenplays to preschool cartoons. Children are not little adults and one of the most important messages I would give to anyone in media is to stay audience aware. If your core target audience are adults just like you, great. That means you write what appeals to you. But if not (and preschool children are not like you), then audience awareness is of paramount importance.
And those adult screenplay tips and tricks no longer apply.
So what happens when people approach preschool with character conflict as a goal? We end up with story catalyst that leads to grumpy, angry characters snapping at each other. They get annoyed easily, often at things that have no relevance to the lives of preschool children. Very soon what we have is a harsh, unpleasant story that feels far too grown-up.
And the person reading the script thinks, this is not a preschool story. This is not a preschool writer. Not the desired outcome.
Part of the reason this happens is that we all tend to misremember our childhood. We have memories of how we felt that we assign to a much younger age by mistake. And all the while, we’re interpreting those memories with the thoughts processes of an adult, not the child we once were.
The lives of preschool children are so small. Their environment is tiny, they have fewer relationships and those that they have are usually with a trusted group of family and friends. Even in preschools and Montessoris, the atmosphere is much more controlled than later in life as they get into the school system. Those harsh conflicts don’t happen in the same way for preschool kids and, when they come close, they are diffused and forgotten about almost instantly.
So conflict for a preschool child is on a different level. Striving for victory, overcoming their shortcomings and conquering the world means being able to stand on one leg for five seconds, being able to brush their own teeth, being able to clump around the house in daddy’s shoes without falling over, getting their turn on the swing or successfully putting a plaster on an injured teddy bear. It is in ways like these that good preschool stories find conflict and even character conflict too. But not in the same way that stories for adults do.
In fact, the conflict in a preschool child’s life often wouldn’t even be considered conflict to most adults.
So try to ease up on the conflict. Keep the story small, even if it is set in some fantastical dreamworld, because the world of your audience is small. Give kids something to relate to. And keep it fun. Give kids something they’ll enjoy watching. There’s a reason Peppa Pig is a huge hit with kids and Breaking Bad isn’t quite so appropriate for them. Let’s see fewer sulks, angry exchanges and sad faces and, instead, give us more fun, more laughs and more smiles.
There were two subjects I was fascinated with as a child – space and dinosaurs. I thought perhaps that they were locked to their time (especially space with much more attention being given to space travel in the ’70s and ’80s) and that they were a boy thing (especially dinosaurs).
I was so wrong.
My daughter Daisy became curious about dinosaurs at around three years old, initially from Peppa Pig’s Mr. Dinosaur (or, more correctly, George Pig’s). A conversation with me on what a dinosaur was led to a genuine interest.
She became curious about space at around the same age, when she noticed the Moon one evening. Again, a conversation with me about it led to a genuine interest.
I learned two important lessons:
Lesson 1: Talk to your children. Lesson 2: Girls in this day and age find dinosaurs and space fascinating.
So I aimed to feed Daisy’s interest. Looking to books, I found a bunch of baby books (‘this dinosaur has a purple tail’) and quite a few very technical books for older children… but, at the time, pretty much nothing in between. Very little that was aimed at preschoolers and yet taught quality information on either space or dinosaurs.
Talking with other children and parents, it seemed my Daisy wasn’t alone. Other children had these interests too. But, when interests aren’t fed, they quickly fade. And the world wasn’t offering what I needed to feed those interests in an age-appropriate way.
So I decided to take action and do what I do – create.
And the choice became simply: planets or dinosaurs?
You know which one I chose. Several years later, Daisy was six years old and watching Planet Cosmo along with her younger sister Alice and, of course, with children across the country and soon the world. Today, I have added to my gallery some images showing the visual development of Planet Cosmo. I hope you find it interesting.
And dinosaurs? Well the end of this particular story is still to come…
I have mentioned before that, for young children, television is not one-way communication. No matter the form, even with traditional stories, kids love being involved and the more you can do to help them feel involved the better.
In an early segment of Sesame Street, James Earl Jones recited the alphabet at a slow, deliberate pace. The letters appeared before he spoke each one. Heavily studied (as always with Sesame Street), the producers identified what they then called “The James Earl Jones Effect”, which was a result of the beautifully clear, powerful voice combined with the long gaps. Watch the segment below…
What the team found was that children would readily take up the invitation to join in as James Earl Jones recited the alphabet and, on first watch, would say the letters along with him. But as children got more familiar with the segment and the alphabet, they would say the letters before James Earl Jones could. So it was clear that the segment did its job and children were learning the alphabet but what also came from that is that children love knowing what’s happening and they love getting in there first and getting it right.
There is a real sense of empowerment that comes from knowing what the next letter is and that’s a thrill for kids. It is one of the reasons young children love a favourite story or will happily watch a favourite episode over and over. They adore knowing what comes next. They love the repetition. And it really engages them in communication. They aren’t just watching – they are taking part.
This is the James Earl Jones effect.
You can apply this no matter what form you are creating. For example in Planet Cosmo we engaged the audience directly and asked them questions, making them a part of the experience. Fluffy Gardens had a much more traditional straightforward narrative but, right from the first episode, there were sections written in that would repeat so children would begin to know the rhythm and know what’s coming. Even on first watch, there would be parts of an episode where the young audience already knew what was coming because we set it up deliberately for that to happen. And I knew those episodes could run and run. Far from getting boring, within our target age group, each repeat would become even more enjoyable.
This is something that comes with audience awareness. It happens when you’re not asking ‘what story do I want to tell?’ but instead asking ‘what experience do I want children to have or be a part of?’
So we’re all about Facebook these days. Twitter. Google+, anyone using that? They all eat up a lot of time but they’re fun and, at times, really useful. The speed at which news travels over Twitter is astounding and it’s not just that we’re there as readers – we’re participants. We’re involved. We add our views, they get retweeted and now we’re part of a growing story.
It’s audience participation.
In fact, it’s more. Because in many cases, the audience IS the content.
While much of this is relatively new, audience participation certainly isn’t new to entertainment. I’m a big games fan, for example. I remember many years ago watching a whole bunch of dull horror films in a row and thinking, these wouldn’t scare anyone. Then I played Silent Hill on the Playstation and it terrified me. I actually had to play it in short bursts because it creeped me out so much. And the reason? I was in control. I was the one leading that character through those hideous places. I made the decision to turn that corner.
Interactivity changes the entire experience. It is real personal involvement and very powerful.
And I liked that even back in the Pac-Man days. We’ve come a long way since then. It’s now not just games, it’s games with friends all being part of the experience. And now, with Facebook, Twitter and so on, it’s like life is this big interactive game.
It’s all about the audience participation.
The passive experience for me, like with those old horror films put against Silent Hill, often has a hard time comparing.
Applying that to children and, with Blue’s Clues and Dora, interactivity has became the standard across a lot of children’s television. It’s not real of course. It’s faux-interactivity but it does the job well enough that children can feel a part of it. Going back further to when I was a child in the ’70s, Playschool on BBC spoke directly to me and I was a part of that. Sesame Street too. And you only have to look at the tradition of pantomime and how much children enjoy that to see the power of audience participation has for kids. Like I wrote in a previous post, good children’s entertainment is not one-way communication. It is a conversation.
And now we create websites and apps that offer genuine interaction. Not the fake stuff. And while there are many questions that comes with that, it seems to me like such a natural step.
The current generation of children are being brought up with faux-interactivity all over their television screens and genuine interactivity on every other screen. From birth. They are connected to media, stories and each other in ways we never were. This is standard.
And I wonder, in fifteen or twenty years time, will those children be satisfied with passive media? A TV show that doesn’t talk back? A movie with a character you don’t control? When everything can be a pantomime with you as one of the stars, what place is there for just sitting down and watching or listening to a story?
It’s another one of those phrases we hear a lot these days: Education by stealth. I heard it most recently at the Children’s Media Conference last week (which was fantastic) and sometimes it just doesn’t sit right with me. I can’t help feeling that there is another phrase we should be using.
So what’s wrong with education by stealth? Well first let’s look at how it is used. I usually hear it in two contexts:
1) When someone wants to dress up a non-educational product as educational. They reverse-engineer some sort of educational aim into their description. For example, making all these children smile in this game where you feed them Happy Meals helps your child’s hand/eye co-ordination! It reminds me of Josh Selig‘s term, to curriculate – to retrofit your content with education. To me, I rarely buy that this does anything for actual education.
2) Much more positively, I hear it used by people who genuinely want to give children content that will be good for them but they appear to doubt that their audience actually wants to be educated. So the idea is that you hide the education among entertainment and slip it to children that way, so they don’t even know they’re learning stuff.
Now chances are if you have ever used it you have done so in the second context. And there is something to be said for the idea when you have content that is not meant to be educational but you’re hoping to add value in some way.
But let’s examine it further.
Education by stealth makes the actual learning out to be some undesired ninja that must stalk your children and find a way into their brain when they least expect it. It denies the idea that the educational material may actually be interesting. It’s like it says the last thing we would want to do is have a child realise they are learning something, as if it would turn them off completely.
I reject that idea.
Firstly because how can we possibly inspire a love of learning that will stay with children if we make it our business to hide from them any knowledge of that learning? And secondly, because some of the best shows on the planet don’t hide their educational content. They put it right out there in front and let kids soak it up and love it. Do they entertain? Absolutely they do. But it’s not education by stealth because they don’t try to slip in that education without anyone realising.
Sesame Street does not hide its educational material. Deadly 60 does not hide its educational material. Horrible Histories does not hide its educational content. Quite the opposite. These shows revel in what they can give to children. By embracing the educational content, they don’t have to hide it because they can work with it to make it fun, make it exciting and make it interesting. These are some of the most entertaining children’s shows and they all inspire a love of learning in their own way. This is not education by stealth. It is something else entirely. These shows all embody the phrase I think we should be using instead:
Education by total awesomeness.
Learning is not something to be hidden. It is something to be celebrated, made exciting, presented as an adventure. Because that’s exactly what it is. The truth is, children love to learn. We just need to want to teach them. Not all children’s content needs to be educational but, if that’s what you’re going for, then really go for it.
Education by total awesomeness. It’s what the top shows do and it works.
I am pleased to announce a newGirls Will Be Girls t-shirt in partnership with the awesome Pigtail Pals! A fun, colourful, playful t-shirt with happy little girls being anything they want to be.
Limiting gender role models are everywhere and what I have found having two girls of my own is that it is much harder for girls to aspire to something if they don’t actually see it.
I wrote an article on this subject some years ago after I realised that my girls just weren’t getting the role models they needed or deserved. Sure, many girls will grow up to do amazing things but they have to take on a battle of gender perception on top of all the other challenges we face when we want to achieve.
The first hurdle is simply the idea that we can actually have these aspirations.
That is why I created this image. Girls will be girls. They can be anything they want to be and I wanted to show that in a fun, loving way that kids will really enjoy. Teaming up with Pigtail Pals to make this available as a t-shirt made perfect sense. Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies specialises in providing better role models for children, girls and boys, and is very active in this area, working towards creating a better reality for our children. A reality in which gender is not a challenge. I have been a big fan of the Pigtail Pals mission and I am so happy to have partnered with Melissa on this t-shirt.
You can purchase the shirt here on thePigtail Pals site. I particularly recommend it on the Baby Blue, Sea Blue, Baby Pink, Lilac, Sherbet, White, Lemon or Lime colours. And you should hook up with Pigtail Pals on Facebook here.
Really hope you all like the shirt! And yes, there is a boy’s version on the way!
I have previously stressed the importance of visual simplicity when creating content for young children. But rather than taking that as a given, it is better to get familiar with why this is important.
The answer is not that children are simple.
Quite the opposite. The answer is that children are incredibly complex and, at certain ages, interpret visual information differently. And knowing more about this answer will inform your design choices.
On top of learning new things at a ferocious rate, children are very quickly processing what they see based on what they already know. This can greatly affect how children perceive design. One thing young children try to do, and usually succeed, is put form to abstract shapes. They ace Rorschach tests. They will see monsters in dark corners, faces in patterns, and a whole zoo in their drawings where we adults see nothing but scribbles.
Simply put, they often can make something out of nothing.
So if you have a detailed rock texture, for example, you see it as adding richness. To a young child, you are potentially throwing a whole set of new pictures you never intended. While your characters are busy telling the story, a young child could be staring at that rock texture and seeing snakes, or a clown, or socks, anything, and completely missing your story. Does that mean you shouldn’t use texture? No, not necessarily. But once you start getting detailed, you have to become very aware of the clarity. The edges and shapes become all-important to make sure your audience really put the right forms to what you are showing them. You have to work harder to make each visual element clear to children, while being careful not to overwhelm them.
Another interesting part to this is that children often process their visual information in a certain order. They can work their way through that order and stop when they have enough information to process what they are seeing. That order may well vary from child to child but I have found that shape, silhouette, is usually much more important to the younger end of preschool (two, two and half) than the colour and details within that shape.
So what does this mean for design? Well, it means that if you are using the same character model for more than one character and are relying on colouring and details for kids to tell them apart, you could be in trouble when it comes to the youngest children in your audience. They may well have already categorised the characters before getting to your details, leading to confusion over which character is which.
Varying the silhouette of your characters is really a must for young children.
This really just scratches the surface of things to consider when putting a visual form to your preschool project but even keeping these in mind will help your audience take in your content. You don’t want them confused. You don’t want them looking at one thing while you’re trying to show them another. You do want them to enjoy your story and soak up the entertainment and whatever goodies you are offering them.
What is important to realise is that, by getting more familiar with how your audience thinks, you will be better able to approach your project in a way that makes that easy for them.
Would it be overly dramatic to compare working in children’s media to having a superpower? Well, when you create content for kids (be it shows, apps, marketing), it’s like being able to get into their houses, sometimes all at once. That is a power and, as Spider-Man says, with great power comes great responsibility.
Last weekend, the 8th international Consuming Kids Summit was held in Boston and Erin McNeill has posted some of the important takeaways from that here. Especially interesting to me is the comparison to the tobacco industry. Firstly, because it comes from Alex Bogusky, a modern day Don Draper who famously quit and said that it was immoral to advertise to children and, secondly, because who wants to wake up and realise they are today’s tobacco industry?
Another point well worth considering is the last one on the page, about responsibility. We can try and try to shift responsibility to the parents and, sure, parents are responsible for what they do. But, as a parent myself even being very aware of media messages, it is so hard to compete with the millions spent on marketing, whether targeting my children or not (my kids know all the TV heroes ‘ Mickey Mouse, Peppa Pig, Cilit Bang’s Barry Scott).
Ultimately, we are responsible for what we create. We are responsible for the choices we give to parents and their children.
So where does that leave us as content creators, writers or producers?
We want children to watch our shows, don’t we? Of course we do. I know I do. So am I marketing to children? I guess with promos for my shows going out, I am. Would I love it if a Planet Cosmo toy hit the shelves and children wanted it? Yes, I would. I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t.
But that’s where that Spider-Man quote comes into play.
We can also do a lot of good with media. As I have said so often in this business ‘ children are going to watch television. They are going to play games. They are going to play with toys. So we may as well make sure they’re getting good television, good games, good toys. Content that enriches, educates and, yes, entertains too. Content that works with parents.
Not everyone is going to agree on what good content is and so we need to draw our own lines. To do so, I think it’s important to keep up with things like the Consuming Kids Summit. Hearing the criticism is key. Listening. We may not always like what we hear but that means we need to listen even more. And then we can create better content or, if one day we find we don’t like where we are, choose not to make it at all.
For those possibly thinking this is all very idealistic, I’ll leave you with this thought ‘ more and more parents are becoming aware about the media their children are consuming. Parents want their kids to do well. They want their children to grow up strong, confident, able to think independently, girls and boys alike. Good content for children is good business. You only have to look at Dora to see that ‘ a show with educational content, positivity and a very strong active female main character.
My special area of interest is preschool content and, more and more, I find myself introduced as an expert in that area. After a recent panel discussion on character at which I gave the preschool perspective, someone found me and asked why I specialise. Why preschool? Would I create content for older children or adults?
It just so happens that I have previously given talks warning of the dangers of specialising in such a fast-changing world so it’s something I have considered myself. Although, in those talks, what I am usually referring to is specialising in the technicalities, or the tools. Every year, new tools become available that render old skills redundant. The classical animation world I was trained for no longer exists, for example.
For me, it’s the difference between specialising in the medium or the genre. If I specialise, it is in the genre. The medium is open to change.
But why specialise at all?
For me, the core answer is actually quite simple – there is just so much to learn about effectively communicating with young children that it has to be something you are pretty dedicated to in order to do it well. Preschool is one of those areas that, from the outside, can look very simple and yet every new discovery opens up whole areas you realise you know nothing about. So am I an expert? Is anyone? The truth is that the real experts are preschool children themselves and, even with all I have done to date, they still have a LOT to teach me. Creating good content for a preschool audience requires study, it requires experience, it requires time.
Is the same true in creating content for audiences beyond preschool?
To an extent but, as your audience gets closer to adult age, you can start to rely on your own instincts as an adult and ask, what would I like? You can’t do that for a preschool audience. That question will often lead you astray.
That’s also one of the reasons I love making preschool content – it has a built-in fail-safe to prevent self-indulgence. You have to look beyond yourself and think of your audience. Even with all our other interests and creative outlets (and I have many of my own and, as it happens, have actually written and directed for audiences well above preschool age), creating for a preschool audience gives a wonderful sense of focus. Oh, I love to keep myself amused working for preschool but I know I can never do it at the expense of my young audience.
So why specialise? So that we can do better. So that we can put in the time and work to deliver content not just adequately, but do it really well. So that we can focus on our audience and give them something really good, something enriching.
And if all that isn’t enough of a reason, well, we get to make kids smile.
One question I get asked quite often in various forms is - if we simplify ideas for children, are we not giving them enough credit for how much they understand? In other words, are we talking down to them?
In my experience, there are two reasons people ask this question:
1) They would genuinely like to challenge children, present them with new ideas and help them learn and grow.
2) They don’t want to put in all the work it takes to actually find out just how different children are, how best to communicate ideas to kids and to learn just what is appropriate for their audience.
Now because you are here reading this, I’m going to guess you’re far more likely to ask this question for reason 1 and that’s a great reason to examine how you approach children’s content. But an overwhelming amount of people who have asked me this question actually do so for reason 2. That is a huge mistake. That is how work ends up self-indulgent, not age appropriate and risks children picking up all the wrong messages or being left plain baffled. That’s really not giving children credit for who they are ‘ creative, curious, wonderful kids. Not little adults.
Should we talk down to children? No. But worse than that is talking right over their heads. Ignoring that they are actually children and just blabbing out whatever we think makes sense to us as adults.
Communicating to children through television, games, apps, anything is really not all that different to communicating to a child in person. You don’t talk over them. You don’t stand tall and talk down to them. The best way? You hunch down or get down on the ground so they can look you in the eye. You get down to their level, smile and speak softly. That’s direct communication.
When we take ourselves down to their level, truly try to understand their point of view and how they see the world and tailor our communication with all that in mind, we can present children with new ideas, new words and even some very tricky concepts in a context that children will appreciate, enjoy and really comprehend.
Kids aren’t stupid. And yes, most are very resilient. They’re still kids. It’s not about talking down to them. It’s about getting down to their level and seeing the world the way they do.