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.
Many broadcasters and parents are pretty savvy when it comes to violence on children’s television, some areas of Europe in particular being very strongly against it.
And it’s fantastic to see so much positive preschool content on children’s television out there at the moment ‘ there are many shows that I’m very happy for my girls to watch and quite a few I enjoy myself (for research purposes obviously).
But there’s much more to it than violence.
Everything in a child’s environment contributes to their newly-forming world view, a sense of self and our perception of others. Television and other media exposure is a big part of that. That is something parents and anyone involved in children’s entertainment need to be very aware of. When children are learning at such an accelerated rate, everything they are exposed to teaches them something. All content is educational, whether intentional or not, and we are not always going to agree on what should be taught. So it’s important that parents know what their children are watching or playing and important for us as content creators to give children and parents the absolute best to choose from, always trying to keep in mind just what contribution our content is making to the lives of our audience.
What type of adult will watching Planet Cosmo contribute towards? Or Fluffy Gardens? Or Batman? Mickey Mouse Clubhouse? Bratz?
If we can offer children and parents a positive experience, enriching content, messages that build up a child’s sense of self and confidence, all while making children laugh and smile, we’re doing something wonderful. We’re giving gifts through our content that could turn today’s children into tomorrow’s happier adults. Isn’t that something worth striving for?
We really aren’t ever just entertaining, we’re contributing to a whole world view.
One little extra on today’s post…
I’d like to thank everyone who has got in touch about Planet Cosmo (which is airing here in Ireland on RTE right now). The reaction has been absolutely fantastic. Children are singing along to the songs, dancing, shouting out at the television screen and, best of all, laughing. More than that, all the feedback I have been getting tells me that this show works – children are learning about the planets and they’re asking more and more questions. I couldn’t possibly be happier about that. So thank you so much to everyone who is watching the show and especially to those of you who spread the word. You’re all awesome!
Imagine a child in a hallway full of vending machines.
Each vending machine has a big colourful picture of a topic ‘ Pirates, Planets, Dinosaurs, Reading, Geography, Princesses, Building and so on. A child gets briefly curious about a topic, let’s say Pirates, and runs to the Pirate vending machine and presses the button. Out pops an exciting Pirate adventure story.
Now the child may love that story and press the button again, hoping to get another Pirate adventure. Or they may decide they want to see what this whole Geography thing is all about. Either way, their interest was nurtured, rewarded, and given a chance to grow.
But what if, when they press that Pirate button, nothing happens?
They press it again. Nothing.
What do they do? They move on. They’re clearly wasting their time and there are many more vending machines to try. The chances of them bothering to try that particular vending machine again are slim to none. If a child has an interest and that interest is not fed very quickly, they will move on.
One problem we face right now is that not all of those vending machines work for all children. A girl might try the Building vending machine and get nothing. But if she even walks passed the Princess vending machine, it unloads sparkles and unicorns all over the place. That’s an interest that is fed instantly, one that is constantly rewarded. So of course lots of girls are going to be into Princesses. We don’t need to push them in that direction. We simply reward that interest while not rewarding others.
It’s not just Princesses of course, I use that as an example because it is one many of us are familiar with. Boys have their own limited vending machines to deal with too.
During the week, Harrods took a beating on Twitter for having two books side by side in their reading room. One was a book clearly for girls on how to look gorgeous. The other was a book for boys on how to be smart. Neither of these books were forcing anyone down a particular path. They don’t have to. Just as we don’t have to force a plant to grow or not grow. Water one plant and not the other and the result is obvious.
Just as if there is only one working vending machine in that hallway – that’s the one the kids will come back to.
So to give children a genuine chance to explore their interests, we need to fill all our vending machines with goodies. We need to make sure they work and are well maintained. And we need to make sure they are attractive to both boys and girls without limiting either gender.
For me, I have spent the last few years filling a little space/science vending machine called Planet Cosmo. And originally, I set out to do that because my girls had an interest in space and I wanted to feed that interest. I saw so many children too who had an interest in space but their parents didn’t always know enough about the subject to feed that interest quickly, just as I imagine there have been many brief moments of interest in a particular subject that passed by my girls because I didn’t know enough to feed that initial curiosity.
So if you are creating, developing, producing content for children, be it television, books, apps, anything, how about picking a vending machine and filling it? Let’s spread those interests, give each one a chance and try to restore some balance for both boys and girls. Perhaps pay special attention to those interests that may one day make our children into better adults, with all the opportunities they deserve, not one single child excluded. Let’s get those machines working for everyone.
Nurture. Inspire. All while entertaining.
My vending machine, Planet Cosmo, starts on RTE2 here in Ireland on Monday, the 18th of February, with other countries to follow. And just wait until you see the goodies we packed into it!
If we present our children with sweet sugary preschool worlds where everyone is lovely to one another, is real life just going to be a real kick in the crotch? Worse still, are they going to be totally unprepared to deal with tough situations?
Could heaping the sugar on actually be really damaging to children?
The reality is, life is not sugary sweet. Children can be mean. That’s just children finding out who they are, reacting with instinct and learning how to be among other children.
And the world can get much worse going into adulthood.
So is there a good case to be made for presenting children with fictional demons, wicked witches or bullies in order to prepare them for life? That young children actually need to see the darker side of life?
Possibly. As a parent I find that, at the right time, certain stories can really help children understand with or deal with why things happen (like when I had to explain why my scooter was stolen). Or at the right time they can even help children find the strength to overcome their own problems (like when I invented ass-kicking fairies to help my girls beat their bad dreams). Useful.
At the right time. Like medicine, to be taken when prescribed.
And yet all the research I have read indicates that violent television leads to increased aggression. Heavy viewing can scare children, leading to a paranoid world view which then leads, yet again, to increased aggression under the guise of self-defense. And some studies seem to indicate that children who have been watching more age-appropriate content rather than content outside their age range are actually better equipped to deal with life’s problems as they get older.
It seems to me that, while television isn’t to blame for children being who they are, for people being who they are, presenting the darker side of life too early will actually compound problems. In telling children that there are demons, wicked witches or bullies out there, we’re not just preparing them for the worst. We’re presenting the worst as normal. We can make them fearful, more likely to strike first or, worse still, have some aspire to be that which we’re desperately trying to defeat in our fictional worlds – certain preschool demographics were shown to aspire to being Swiper the Fox, for example, and who didn’t want to be Darth Vader?
I think, no matter which way I look at it, by presenting those tales of demons, wicked witches and bullies, we are more likely simply to end up with more demons.
Mild peril. A staple in much of children’s entertainment. Then a big happy ending. But what stays with a child? The peril or the happy?
I first observed this personally when my eldest girl, Daisy, was still pretty small. A funny and mild as mild can be episode of Pingu was on. Something bad happened to Pingu (probably because he did something a little naughty, that rascally penguin!) and then it all turned out fine at the end. All Daisy took away from the episode was that Pingu was sad.
Much later, the same effect was observed with Happy Feet. The one part that registered? The scary seal. The happy ending was totally wasted on her.
I was reading some research into educational television that said children take in information best when they’re emotionally invested in the show. It seems so obvious.
So, applying that to general entertainment whether with or without any educational value, when are children going to be most emotionally invested in a film or show? During the ‘relax folks, the world is great and everything is okay’ parts? Or during the ‘OMG run, something is going to eat us!!!’ parts?
You might be looking at your child (or indeed your audience) thinking, this is great, they’re really hooked by this show, whereas what they’re seeing is effectively a horror film for kids. The ‘mild peril’ parts may be the only parts that stay with them when they go to bed that night. I am not saying with this post that peril should be avoided or your show must be toned down into nothingness. Not at all. In fact, the more inventive among you may find ways to use this positively somehow. But what children take away from your show at any given point in the episode is always something to consider. Especially when you’re dealing with a younger audience, who might not effectively verbalise what they feel about the show.
More often than not, children remember the scary stuff.
While I stumbled through the beginnings of Fluffy Gardens with a very limited amount of knowledge, it became clear early on that I could only benefit from studying all aspects of creating content for children and, since then, I have made it my business to find out everything I can about other shows, what has worked and not worked and why, and I have sought out the research – and there is a LOT of research out there. This is a well worn road and so, even for those of us determined to find our own path, it makes sense to see what we can learn from others. Not just the odd line we pick up browsing through an industry website. Real research and understanding. Would Fluffy Gardens have been a better show had I done my homework? Absolutely. And Cosmo is going to be a far, far better show for all the experience I have gained and research I have done since diving into Fluffy Gardens for the first time.
With that in mind, I thought I would recommend a few books that I think could really help those creating, producing or directing shows, or hoping to one day make a show. To start with, here are three books I think will help you -
Animation Development From Pitch To Production by David B. Levy
As the name suggests, this book covers animation development from the idea stage all the way to the screen. It uses industry stories to illustrate each part of the process and offers a huge amount of practical advice. Like so much of the most useful advice, much of it is stuff common sense would tell us and yet, in the midst of a busy life, we need to hear again and again. Within industry quotations are many different points of view – you don’t have to agree with all of them but there is plenty to consider and thoughts that may lead to you producing better work.
It should be pointed out that this book is based around the US system of getting shows off the ground. Things work very differently over this side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of value in knowing why things work that way in the US.
Mind In The Making by Ellen Galinsky
This is not a book on moulding shows. It is a book on moulding better people. Recommended by David Kleeman on Josh Selig’s Kidscreen blog, I found this book to be incredibly valuable. As I have said on this site before, a show needs something special to justify its existence. What can your show give children that will be of real value to them? This book will provides many suggestions. It takes you through seven essential life skills and shows how we can better nurture those skills in children. It is a reminder of the importance of we do, of what we can offer children that will contribute positively in their lives. This book is for the people who are serious about giving children something good.
I recommend building a show with your contribution at its very core, not shoehorned in at the end. This book can help suggest ways to do that. Not the easiest read in the world – I find academics seem to write like, well, academics. But informative and valuable.
Children And Television Fifty Years Of Research by Norma Pecora, John P. Murray and Ellen Ann Wartella
There is over fifty years of research into children and television. You might think you will do fine without knowing any of the results but why would you want to? This book is a gold mine of information. What works, what doesn’t work, what content affects children in what ways, how educational television affects children as they grow older, the effects of violence on your audience, how children process ads and so much more. This book summarises all of the results and, in doing so, provides a guiding voice for what to do, and what not to do, if you have the well being of your audience in mind and want to engage them positively.
This book is like the anatomy of what we do. With drawing, for example, you can copy a drawing of a person and it might look okay, but not great. But if you have a working knowledge of human anatomy and structure, your drawing will be so much more solid because you aren’t just copying lines – you have a real understanding of what you are doing. Many people making shows just copy the surface of what they see on TV (I was guilty of this myself at one point). But the great shows often had years of research to get where they were at. You won’t get the same results copying the surface. You need to know how they reached all their decisions.
This book is the starting point. From here, you can look up the studies and dig deeper and deeper and I guarantee you that it will make your work better.
So there you have it, three books to start with. If they sound interesting to you, seek them out. Read, take notes and make your work excellent.
The rules are different in cartoons. Nobody really gets hurt. They can’t get hurt. They’re not even real and have little or no bearing to anything in the real world.
But when it comes to how they affect children, that doesn’t seem to really matter.
Studies have indicated that children are emotionally responsive to cartoons (no surprise to parents there) and cartoon violence and exposure to violent cartoons are associated with increased aggression in kids*.
Now I watched a lot of Road Runner and I haven’t once blown anyone up with dynamite or caused them to run off a cliff and fall until they were a mere puff of dust so we have to be careful about overhyping the ‘dangers’. But I guess the thing with our own experiences is that we don’t have a proper test scenario. We don’t have a control. We can’t fall back on the “well, it didn’t do me any harm” thing because we can’t possibly know just what parts of our personality, reactions or world view were affected (even if in a very small way) by what we’ve watched.
That is, unless you’re a twin and you watched violent cartoons and your twin didn’t.
I don’t have a twin.
The good news in that is that, just as some cartoons can have a negative effect, we can (and do) work to make a positive contribution. Good content is key.
But it seems the old ‘only a cartoon’ thing isn’t backed up in tests.