The first thing Angela C. Santomero thought when she got wind of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order in March was how to protect her staff. The chief creative officer of 9 Story Media Group and creator of successful children’s programs including the animated “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” spinoff “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” made sure all 1,100 employees were safe. Then the company’s tech department got teams in New York, Toronto, Dublin, Bali and Manchester, England, up and running remotely within three weeks. Not only did Santomero want people to be able to work from home, but she also knew it was a critical time to get quality content out there.
Preschoolers, and their overburdened parents, depended on it.
“Knowing that kids and parents are relying on us and that they’re using our strategies, that’s what keeps us going,” Santomero told HuffPost, explaining that, although young children most likely don’t pay attention to the news, they can sense when something is off. “We need to be able to give them more than handwashing, right? We want to address feelings they might be having or why they’re having more temper tantrums right now. How do we support parents to understand that this is a hard transition? Even if we’re shielding [our kids], even if we haven’t told them what’s going on 100%, they feel it. They can feel some of the stress.”
Children are processing confusing information about our new reality every day, and parents are attempting to explain it all in the right ways. They’re grieving, Santomero said, and most likely are distracted or in denial. That’s why her crew of storytellers is on top of releasing videos from their programs “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” “Blue’s Clues and You,” “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum” and “Doc McStuffins” on everything from germs to canceled birthday parties, and are continuing to workshop “Daniel Tiger” programming that may address pandemic-specific topics.
9 Story is not alone in its mission. Sesame Workshop, Fred Rogers Productions, The Walt Disney Co. and Nickelodeon Animation Studio are just some of the children’s media production houses trying to put families at ease during a time when adults are not only financial providers but also caregivers, teachers and playmates. Some parents are balancing work and guardianship duties at home. Some are sick and self-isolating. There are pregnant mothers worried about delivering at overrun hospitals and parents rushing off to jobs at health care facilities, grocery stores or shipping warehouses. Everyone is exhausted; everyone is looking for the helpers. So educational media creators are working hard to produce content that not only entertains the younger generation but also informs them, in turn rescuing worn-out parents from the added anxieties of a new normal.
“We want to be able to send messages of hope to kids and parents at home,” Santomero said, “and I really do think it becomes more of a united front with all of the shows that feel that sense of responsibility.”
The stress of undertaking an array of household responsibilities has surely made screen time a little more prominent in living rooms across the country. Lesli Rotenberg, chief programming executive and general manager of children’s media and education at PBS, told The New York Times that downloads of the PBS Kids video and game apps have increased 80% in the last few weeks. And “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” had 56.4 million streams in March, up 15% from the previous month, according to the show’s publicist.
Networks including PBS Kids, Disney Junior and Nick Jr. are focusing on short-form videos, activities and social posts that spark informative learning, whether that be on “Sesame Street” or in the worlds of “Blue’s Clues and You” and “Mickey Mouse.” PBS Kids teamed up with Penguin Young Readers and Random House Children’s Books for “Mondays With Michelle Obama,” a four-part storytime series that kicked off April 20. Nickelodeon and CNN, which partnered with Sesame Workshop, also hosted their own “town hall” segments to answer families’ questions concerning COVID-19. And for some added excitement, Disney+ released “Frozen 2” earlier than expected and ABC aired “The Disney Family Singalong” last month. The special, which featured virtual celebrity performances of Disney classics, is set to run Volume II on Mother’s Day.
“All of the messages of togetherness — apart but together — are such a testament to why we do what we do,” Santomero said, noting that she’s recently spoken with others in the children’s media field about how to approach content amid the pandemic. “I’ve always felt more aligned with ‘Sesame’ and ‘Mister Rogers’ and the shows that really are the pioneers for what we can do with media — really reaching out to both parents and kids with specific strategies that they’re going to be able to use in their lives.”
Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of curriculum and content for Sesame Workshop, reiterated to HuffPost that “Sesame Street” has a 50-year history of creating programming that helps kids grow stronger and kinder during difficult times. When the show returned after the events of 9/11, for instance, ”Sesame Street” aired an episode in which a fire breaks out at Hooper’s Store, leaving Elmo traumatized. Although he’s initially afraid of the firefighters, Elmo soon meets Bill, a member of the New York City Fire Department, and begins to understand his job during a trip to the fire station. It made tough conversations about fear and recovery truly accessible to children and their parents. And, of course, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was known to tackle the aftermath of world events head-on. Following the death of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Fred Rogers aired a segment on assassination in his first year on the air, becoming a voice of empathy for children and a permanent shoulder to lean on.
But addressing the global coronavirus pandemic is more complex, Truglio said. It has completely interrupted children’s daily schedules and changed the way we live our lives. “The difference here is the long-term nature of what we’re experiencing,” she said. “We are all trying to figure out what our new normal is going to be.”
Sesame Workshop’s goal is to create content that gets parents involved, urging them to talk with their children, support their feelings and give them ideas about how they can integrate these skills into playtime. “Even during these everyday moments, like cooking and setting the table and sorting the laundry, these are all visual learning moments that make it much more explicit for parents,” Truglio said.
She is wary of the mental toll everyone is grappling with and wants to make sure families feel supported by “Sesame Street.” That’s why its website contains a slew of resources, tips, videos and activities to help maintain a playful learning schedule at home.
“We know that children look to the adults to see how they’re handling these situations and how they’re managing their emotions,” Truglio said, “so they have to take care of themselves so that they can be there for their children and have the patience for what’s going on with the family.”
Alongside their “Caring for Each Other” initiative and short bits about hygiene and social distancing, Sesame Workshop also wanted to create a stand-alone episode that focused on something specific to what children are dealing with amid COVID-19. They chose to produce “Elmo’s Playdate,” demonstrating how kids could safely use video chats to connect with their friends. But with film and television production studios shuttered, the crew had to get creative when figuring out a way to bring the quarantined characters of “Sesame Street” together. They eventually figured out a way to send puppets of Elmo, Grover, Cookie Monster and Abby to the cast’s respective homes, where iPhones captured footage and editors crafted a sweet, virtual playdate.
The half-hour special, featuring celebrity guests Tracee Ellis Ross, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anne Hathaway, had 2.1 million viewers on April 14 when it aired on PBS and WarnerMedia networks, a spokesperson told HuffPost. There have also been over 1.6 million total streams of the episode on PBS digital since its premiere. (It’s available to stream on HBO, as well.) Truglio said a lot of parents sent positive feedback about their children’s reactions to being a part of Elmo’s video chat, with many calling the viewing experience a moment of joy. According to Nielsen data, 53% of all kids 2 to 5 years old who saw “Elmo’s Playdate” watched it with an adult.
“That’s something we have to focus on, is that these are times we’re spending as a family,” Truglio said. “Yes, there’s stress in this moment, but the playdate was a time for us to bond and to sit together on the couch and to laugh and to sing and to have a co-viewing experience. Children are learning very important messages — academic, social, emotional, health lessons — but when you have an adult join in on an educational program such as ‘Sesame Street,’ they then can extend the learning. It’s sort of like a springboard to help parents do more hands-on learning.”
In other words, wallpaper TV — programming that plays pleasantly in the background of your home for hours on end — isn’t ideal for youngsters who are soaking up new information and habits each day. Albeit exhausted, parents should still be aware of what kind of shows their kids are watching in quarantine and how they can help propel introductory concepts. Sure, “Frozen 2” and “Trolls: World Tour” are fun-filled movies that can give parents an hour or two of peace, but according to both Santomero and Truglio, there are viewing options that can help children excel and adults maintain their sanity.
“The field of children’s educational media — and not just television, there’s a lot of effort in terms of online learning, too — provides many offerings,” Truglio said. “There’s an array of choices for parents to engage in quality educational content. She mentioned the site Common Sense Media as a place to reference a range of solid educational programs.
Truglio also said that Sesame Workshop, which produces shows like “Esme & Roy,” “Helpsters” and “Ghostwriter,” will be releasing COVID-19-specific content on a weekly basis online, including “Sesame Street” videos about missing friends, being a helper or showing gratitude to essential workers. And HBO Max is launching “The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo” on May 27, another viewing option for the entire family.
This is probably one of the first times we’ve spent such a long amount of time together, where parents can really just sit back and observe and see what’s going on.
Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop
In terms of a standalone “Daniel Tiger” episode, Santomero said she has a task force working on how to approach the character’s place in the conversation, knowing that he is an animated representation of Fred Rogers and expands on a significant legacy. For “Blue’s Clues and You,” however, the 9 Story and Nick Jr. teams are moving full speed ahead, working with host Josh Dela Cruz to provide fresh play for preschoolers.
“Josh is a character; he’s not Fred Rogers,” Santomero said, “so staying within his character to provide storytime and play-along and moments of joy, we thought, was the best way to approach ‘Blue’s Clues.’ He’s not necessarily doing what Fred would do in terms of directly addressing adults, but he’s addressing kids in a way that’s very specific to him.”
In light of the coronavirus lockdown, Josh has been filming himself remotely via Zoom and is then superimposed alongside animated dog Blue for fun segments and activities. He even joined former “Blue’s Clues” hosts Steve Burns and Donovan Patton for improvised storytime videos of “The Three Little Pigs” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
“Kids care so much about these characters, and I think that has really come to the forefront amid all this,” Santomero said.
Truglio agrees and hopes that parents can have a better understanding of the role educational media plays in children’s lives now that they’re witnessing the results in real time.
“This is probably one of the first times we’ve spent such a long amount of time together,” she said, “where parents can really just sit back and observe and see what’s going on.”
Quarantined caretakers might need to hide away in the bathroom for a second of silence each day, and that’s all well and good. But although parents must monitor their own mental state during these unprecedented times, it’s also vital to recognize the moods children are absorbing and the important lessons they can learn to combat their own frustrations. As Elmo would say, let’s make sure to care for each other.
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