What makes the world’s most successful children’s TV programmes so addictive – and so strange? Linda Geddes explores the research on kids’ TV, what it’s teaching us about childhood development, and how that can help make programmes for the better.
Most people have a favorite TV show from childhood. If you’re a parent, there’s also probably a show that your children adored but you found strange, or even a bit creepy.
Right now, for many parents, that show is Moon and Me. It follows the night-time exploits of a mismatched set of dolls – including Pepi Nana, a soft pink onion called Mr. Onion, and the milky, clown-like Colly Wobble – who come to life whenever the Moon shines.
My 1.5-year-old nephew doesn’t share this skepticism. As the episode we’re watching unfolds, he moves closer and closer to the screen, smiling, cooing, pointing and saying “Wow”. My eight-year-old daughter stares in slack-jawed wonder at it all.
What is it about these pre-school TV shows that makes them so captivating for young viewers, but so strange to adult eyes? As a mother, I’ve worried whether watching television at a young age is a healthy childhood experience or a mind-rotting activity stunting my children’s development. The fact that I don’t understand these shows hasn’t helped.
But weirdness, it turns out, can be a good thing.
Young children’s minds process information differently from adults’; what’s weird for us is often highly engaging for them. A better understanding of these differences could help create healthier, more engaging television programmes, boosting children’s understanding of the world as well as keeping them entertained. And it could also help parents and caregivers like me to make better decisions about the type of television we let our children watch.
Moon and Me, it turns out, is a product of research, informed by a collaboration between the co-creator of the hit show Teletubbies – Andrew Davenport – and Dylan Yamada-Rice, a researcher specialising in children’s education and storytelling, to study how children interact with toy houses.
Such direct collaborations between academics and children’s TV are not new. Sesame Street, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, employed developmental psychologists and education experts as part of the production team from the outset. Co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney thought television might be used as an educational tool to better prepare kids for kindergarten.
By January 1970, just a few months after it first aired, roughly a third of two-to-five-year-olds in the USA regularly watched the show, with estimates of two million households and upwards of five million children tuning in to each episode. And although it was entertaining, every episode was – and still is – planned with specific learning objectives in mind: “The Sesame mission is to help children grow smarter, stronger and kinder,” says Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop and a developmental psychologist.
Has it succeeded? More to the point, how do you design a study to reliably test whether it succeeds? “The question you really want to ask is: if you had the equivalent of kids who were randomly assigned to watch television and another group that didn’t, would it change the outcomes?” says Phillip Levine, an economist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
As it turns out, the rollout of Sesame Street in 1969 did almost exactly that.
By the late 1960s, most US households owned a television set, but whether they could watch Sesame Street depended on where they lived, because in some areas it was broadcast on Very High Frequency (VHF) channels, in others on Ultra High Frequency (UHF) channels. UHF signals were weaker, and some TV sets couldn’t receive them, which meant only around two-thirds of Americans had access to Sesame Street.
“Just the act of being exposed to the show and watching it routinely increased school performance among the children who were able to view it,” Levine says, citing the results of a study he and Melissa Kearney at the University of Maryland published. Yet the study found that children who watched Sesame Street were more likely to be academically on track, and less likely to be held back, than those who didn’t. Crucially, access to a VHF signal wasn’t contingent on parents’ wealth or education – factors which might have affected children’s later school performance. In fact, the study showed that children growing up in “economically disadvantaged” communities benefited the most from watching Sesame Street.
Not all television is as concerned with children’s education, though.
In the late 2000s, Angeline Lillard, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, was looking at how children’s behaviour might be affected by the ways television characters behaved. Her team had been watching a lot of SpongeBob SquarePants – an American cartoon about a talking yellow sea sponge living in a pineapple at the bottom of the sea. The show is eclectic, to say the least, something that has helped it attain a cult following with children and adults alike.
“We were watching a whole lot of SpongeBob in lab meetings, and I felt I just couldn’t get any work done afterwards,” Lillard recalls. “I thought: ‘If that happens to me after watching it, I wonder what happens to four-year-olds.’”
This prompted her to start a new study, looking at the impact of television viewing on children’s executive function – a set of cognitive abilities that include focusing attention, planning, deferring gratification and managing emotions. Compared to watching a different children’s cartoon, called Caillou (about the everyday life of a four-year-old), or simply doodling on paper with crayons, watching SpongeBob impaired four-year-olds’ performance on various tests, including reciting a list of numbers in reverse, and learning to touch their toes when being instructed to touch their head.
At the time, Lillard thought it might have been the fast-paced editing that was to blame. In the SpongeBob clip they used, the scene changed roughly every 11 seconds, whereas in Caillou it was every 34 seconds.
Four years later, she published the results of a more thorough follow-up study. It wasn’t the speed of cuts that was problematic, but how much fantastical, physics-defying content they contained.
“Very early in life, if not innately, babies have a folk understanding of having things fall, or that if something pushes against something else, it is going to fall down,” Lillard explains. But what happens is that a car flies through the air, then it winds up in outer space, then suddenly they’re skiing down a slope, they’re under the sea, they pour cat food out of a box and what comes out is far more than could possibly have fitted inside the box… It’s just one thing after another that can’t possibly happen in the real world. “Our brains aren’t set up to process all of that,” says Lillard. “My inkling is that the prefrontal cortex is working hard to figure all that out and then POOF! It can’t do it. It’s just not realistic.”
Lillard stresses that they have only observed a short-term effect – there’s no direct evidence to suggest that watching highly fantastical content will harm your child in the long run – but children as old as six were affected (they haven’t studied older children).
And it wasn’t just SpongeBob. Martha Speaks – a programme about a dog who gains the ability to speak English after drinking some alphabet soup, intended to teach children vocabulary – had a similar effect, as did a relatively slow-paced cartoon called Little Einsteins, about four pre-schoolers helping a fairy put the Northern Lights back in the sky. Even well-intentioned educational programmes can backfire if their content isn’t age-appropriate.
A series of photographs appear on the screen: two yellow wooden ducks against a white background; two turtles swimming underwater; two lion cubs in the African savanna. Soothing classical music plays in the background.
This is a short clip from a DVD called Baby Einstein: Numbers Nursery, which aims to introduce infants to the numbers one to five, and I’m watching it with Tim Smith, a developmental psychologist at Birkbeck Babylab in London.
Smith tells me his colleague showed this video to six- and 12-month-olds, tracking their gaze to gauge their interest in the images and whether they were looking at both objects, which is obviously important if you’re trying to teach the concept of ‘two’. After watching the clips, they would ask the parents what they thought of them.
The parents would say, “I really liked the bits with those lion cubs and the turtles, those were really cute. My little one adored those bits as well.” But the researchers noticed that the children seemed uninterested in these scenes.
Smith thinks this is because toddlers’ immature visual systems struggle to pick out the creatures from their backgrounds. He shows me a second sequence developed by another colleague, who worked with a television company called Abbey Home Media.
A 2D cut-out of a lamb spins down onto a plain green screen while the narrator says: “It’s a lamb.” The same thing happens twice more. Then the whole sequence repeats again, only this time the narrator says “One, two, three,” as each lamb lands. It’s boring. It’s repetitive. But when the same babies who watched Baby Einstein were shown this, their eyes tracked the arrival of each lamb, suggesting that they were engaged and following it.
A memory floods back to me: sitting on the sofa, trying to get my own young kids to watch the BBC nature documentary Blue Planet. At the time, it seemed relaxing, educational – surely real porpoises and polar bears are far better than endless repeats of Peppa Pig? But they seemed completely uninterested. Now I know why.
Smith pulls up a different video. A three-year-old girl in a pink patterned cardigan sits on her mum’s lap watching TV. Another window shows what she’s looking at: Waybuloo – a British-Canadian children’s TV series, featuring four CGI animated characters with unnaturally large heads and eyes, floating around a fantastical land called Nara.
The girl is hooked up to eye-tracking equipment, and, as the freakishly cute ‘Piplings’ float around, her eyes precisely track their movements, confirming that it’s these creatures, rather than the mountains or trees in the background, that have engaged her interest. Smith tells me Waybuloo is so effective that Babylabs around the world now use a clip from it, or similar children’s cartoons, whenever they need to draw the attention of a child back to what they want them to look at on the screen.
The TV screen flickers. Now the little girl is watching a film of three women spaced out in a line, each holding a brightly coloured ball. Smith points out the girl’s eye movements. To start with, she looks at each of their faces in turn. Now, as the women begin to dance on the spot, her attention switches between them. Next, the women take it in turns to throw their ball in the air or shake it from side to side, the girl’s attention drawn to these bright, moving objects.
I watch footage of the same girl when she was just a year old. Her enormous brown eyes show a gaze that is more sluggish, less coordinated, drawn less to faces and more towards any movement on the screen – and to those brightly coloured balls.
It’s a subtle difference, but if you want to attract a young child’s attention towards an object or character, you have to point all the visual information in a scene towards it or they will struggle to follow the story. That’s why children’s TV shows have big caricatured faces, often with things sticking out of their heads. “So when they move their heads, there’s a lot of peripheral motion,” says Smith. “There’s also lots of luminance and colour contrast that guides their attention to it. You’re helping them to find the thing they’re interested in.”
In 2014, he published a study showing how closely attention-grabbing features, such as colour, brightness and movement, matched the location of the main speaking character in frames from children’s TV shows, compared with six adult shows. “We wanted to see whether the producers of these children’s shows have, through trial and error, developed techniques that effectively help infants to understand and process information,” Smith is quoted in a press release at the time.
They had. Paring down the action enables infants’ sluggish attentional and visual systems to keep up. And characters’ eyes tend to be very clearly marked, the outlines of their faces often set against white, or uniform-coloured backgrounds, making them stand out even more.
It means that even with a very primitive visual system, you’re still able to very quickly identify that main speaking character. This makes it easier for children to follow the story and potentially learn from it.
Andrew Davenport – the producer of Teletubbies and Moon and Me – studied speech therapy at university, but his real passion was drama.
Upon graduating, he and a friend set up a theatre production company, and it was through this that he landed a job as a writer and puppeteer on a Ragdoll Productions show called Tots TV. The show, which featured three ragdoll friends, their pet donkey and a mischievous dog, won two BAFTA awards, finding audiences in the UK, US, Central and South America. But it was nothing compared to what Davenport did next.
1997’s Teletubbies was the TV equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, going on to air in over 120 territories in 45 different languages. Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po were inspired by a trip to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington with Anne Wood, founder and creative director at Ragdoll. They wandered into an exhibition about space and Davenport said, “Isn’t it weird how they put all this technology into the spacesuits, and when you see them walking about in them, they look as much like babies in nappies as anything.”
The Teletubbies were conceived as technological babies, set in a technological superdome. Even the windmill on the hill is a nod to one of the first pieces of technology children encounter: a pinwheel on their pram. Their bodies were painted bright fluorescent colours, because that seemed to fit with the technology theme, as did putting the TV screens on their stomachs – TVs that showed videos of children doing simple activities out in the real world.
“For me, Teletubbies is entirely around that early stage of life when the child is coming to grips with their own body and their own physicality: walking, talking, running, falling over – all of the things that the Teletubbies did,” says Davenport. The green-hilled set was designed to accentuate the depth of the physical space they inhabited, and much of the show simply involved the Teletubbies coming and going and popping up and down, playing with those physical concepts.
Some adults, however, didn’t get it. The show was accused of “dumbing down” children’s TV and criticised for its constant repetition, poor plots and lack of sense of place. But that was exactly the point. Teletubbies was perhaps the first TV show specifically designed for one-to-two-year-olds. One Norwegian TV executive has described it as “the most market-oriented children’s programme I’ve ever seen”.
Davenport and Wood had learned the visual equivalent of babytalk. If the Teletubbies are weird, it’s because – visually and developmentally – so are infants.
For Wood, the design of shows like Teletubbies is intuition combined with years of trial and error. “I think the only skill I have, if I have one, is being able to watch a screen like a three-year-old might. It is about knowing when to pause, how long to pause for, how to make that comic, how to use anticipation.”
Although children live in the same world as us, they perceive it differently. A little girl with a baby brother might posit that all babies are born boys, and then turn into girls, for instance. Or that houses fall down to Earth and then walk into position, using their legs. “You can see how young children will often say things that we think are funny because their perception is that X is the case, when in fact Y is the case. That difference needs to be respected, but equally it can be the stuff of content,” says Wood.
Often, her programmes are designed as a conversation between the television and the children watching it. “When people objected to Teletubbies, we used to say: ‘Look, Teletubbies understand babies, and babies understand Teletubbies. If you’re watching Teletubbies without a child, you are only getting one half of the conversation.’”
She cites the start of the show, where a boat goes out of frame, then comes back in, then goes out of frame again. “That sequence is virtually playing a peekaboo game with a very young child: Where’s the boat gone? Here it is, coming back again.” A recent survey found that a game of peekaboo is the surest way to make a baby laugh.
Wood is a firm believer in taking material out to children and watching how they respond, so perhaps it’s no surprise: “Very often, a good response is when they say nothing, and they are absolutely absorbed. But the most important response is do they smile – because that always signifies understanding.”
After the success of Teletubbies, Davenport and Wood moved on to In the Night Garden, which Davenport describes as a “contemporary nursery rhyme” aimed at two-to-three-year-olds. “It’s that stage where the child has come to grips with the physicality of the world and is now fascinated with the idea of turning what it knows on its head in an abstract way – the time when nursery rhymes, language play, symbolic play, toy play start to become the thing.” Each character is designed to stand alone, just like Humpty Dumpty or The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe do in a book of nursery rhymes.
The central character, Iggle Piggle, represents a kind of ‘every-child’, who lollops around trying to make sense of it all. Davenport says he was inspired by a little girl who used to say “Iggle Piggle Iggle Piggle Iggle Piggle” whenever she was excited. There’s also Makka Pakka, a beige, round-bodied creature, with a penchant for collecting piles of rocks and washing things with a sponge – his face, Iggle Piggle’s face, his rocks, his scooter…
Davenport is fascinated by the idea of accessing his audience through their own preoccupations and interests. Rock-collecting was a childhood hobby of his, while the obsessive washing is not about cleanliness but engaging with an activity that many young children find challenging: washing their faces and getting ready for bed. “The idea is that you can create these little nuggets of action, routine, rhyme or song which become something that parents and children can share together to get through something that might be tricky or difficult,” he explains.
I remember In the Night Garden’s opening sequence – which involves a rhyme about a little boat no bigger than your hand circling round and around in the ocean, while an adult traces circles on a child’s palm. It was a failsafe way to put my son to sleep. When I tell him, Davenport sounds genuinely moved. “When these things are working, they do become components of the relationship between the parent and the child”.
Davenport has seen his godson using Makka Pakka’s song as a way to wash his hair and face. “When you find that something is useful, that’s obviously incredibly satisfying and rewarding,” he says.
This is what led him to approach the University of Sheffield during the development of Moon and Me. He’d read a study where two groups of children were taught a lesson including either standard materials or some involving the Teletubbies. Those working with the Teletubbies material seemed far more engaged than in their normal lessons – in one case a child who barely spoke and hardly took part in class activities returned their completed task asking for another one.
“If you approach children through their own culture, rather than imposing your culture on them, they are much more motivated and more interested,” says Davenport.
Moon and Me is aimed at a broader age range than either Teletubbies or Night Garden. It’s a tale about a toy house coming to life at night, of the sort that were popular in the 1940s and 50s. Having read about the work with Teletubbies, and becoming intrigued by the idea of child culture, he approached the researchers about doing a study to learn more about how contemporary children play with toy houses. The result was his collaboration with Dylan Yamada-Rice, now at the Royal College of Art in London.
“There is still a general assumption that stuff can be made for adults and just dumbed down for kids without looking specifically at the needs of that young audience,” she says. But if you want them to learn anything from it, you need to find ways of engaging that young audience.
“If you can’t believe in the depth of the character and that one character deeply cares about another character, then you’re not going to be very effective in maintaining children’s interest. And if you don’t believe in that character, then you’re not going to care that they are writing a letter to the moon.”
Yamada-Rice joined together two large toy houses from the department store John Lewis, and fitted them with tiny cameras, pointed not at the children but at the toys within the houses. They then assembled a group of one-to-five-year-olds from different cultural backgrounds and set them loose on the toys, recording how the toys were moved, what the children were saying as they played with the characters and what voices they were giving them.
One thing they noticed was the children’s preoccupation with transitions: going up and down the stairs; in and out through the front door; into bed for sleep and back out again; and the importance of sitting down for tea. Another observation was how the children often had multiple scenarios occurring on different floors of the houses. “Maintaining them all was a bit like spinning plates,” says Davenport. “So, a shot which recurs a lot in Moon and Me is of the whole house with all three floors exposed, so you can see the characters on the different floors and stairs”.
I sit down with Tim Smith and watch an episode. There’s the narrator tucking the various characters into bed on the different floors of the house. There’s Moon Baby ringing the front doorbell and Pepi Nana letting him in. There’s a shot of Pepi Nana walking down every step of a staircase.
Smith points out the moonlight lighting up Pepi Nana’s face as she sits up in bed; the use of noises, such as Colly Wobble’s tinkling bell, to cue viewers’ attention and prompt them to seek him out; the adult narrator asking “What’s next?” as Mr Onions lays the table, and then a subtle flash of movement near the cups. All of these, he says, help engage the child’s attention and help them to follow the story.
There are subtle lessons woven into the fabric of Moon and Me, such as the art of structuring a letter, and telling a story – core principles of early-years education – or Pepi Nana climbing into a tub, which rolls away, and then popping out of it again, which helps teach about object permanence. Davenport tells me his shows aren’t intended to be “educational”. His audience, he says, is pre-educational. He strives to provide what he describes as “the unfatiguable exercise of mind”.
Here’s the general rule: before the age of two, kids won’t get much out of TV – unless an adult is sitting with them, helping them to understand it.
“The way we tend to make television for kids is to create stories through a narrative that unfolds over time with characters interacting,” says Heather Kirkorian, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “That kind of traditional narrative format probably won’t work very well for kids under two.” If they watch too much TV, this could even undermine their development by discouraging them from interacting with the real world.
From age two or three to five, children can follow simple plots, but not complex moral lessons, such as a bully getting his or her come-uppance at the end. “Kids at that age are not really able to be like, ‘Oh, here’s this bully, and he’s so mean, and I don’t want to be like him because I’m learning that that’s bad,’” says Polly Conway, senior TV editor at Common Sense Media, an American organisation which tries to help parents navigate this complex maze. Rather, these young children may try to emulate the bad behaviour. “What they need to see is someone like Daniel Tiger [a popular American-Canadian cartoon character] just going through this day and learning to tie his shoes, maybe saying hello to his grandfather.”
School-age children can cope with more complex plots and moral lessons. “Certainly, the eight to 12 age group are able to see that negative behaviour and understand that the message is ‘Don’t do this negative behaviour,’” says Kirkorian. However, they may still struggle with jumps in time, such as flashbacks. In fact, it’s not until around age 12 that children begin to have adult-like comprehension of what they see on the screen. Her research suggests that toddlers may gain more from simple interactive apps, like games or even video chats, than from TV shows.
“All television content is teaching something. The question is what is it teaching?” Joan Ganz Cooney, the co-creator of Sesame Street, used to say. A lot of content still portrays unhelpful stereotypes about, say, what girls and boys can do, or features violence. “It’s very different from an adult brain where you can say, all right, this is just comedy and this is fun,” says Rosemarie Truglio of the Sesame Foundation.
Truglio says the best way for kids to watch the programme – any programme – is with a caregiver. That way you can reinforce the educational messages they are getting from the TV set. Co-watching with older kids can also be can be useful, because if you spot them enjoying something with dubious morals or stereotypes, then you can open a discussion about it.
A lot of studies have shown that standard adult-focused form will lead to very poor transference of knowledge to the real world, Tim Smith tells me. But you can overcome that, either by having the show engage with the young children, for example by asking them questions, or, more importantly, by having another person there. Children can be highly engaged and cognitively active, but their attention is always limited, says Smith. He suggests occasionally pressing pause, giving children the time to engage and discuss what they’re watching.
As a mother of two, all of this sounds good in principle. But sometimes we just want some peace and quiet. Sometimes we’ve got stuff to do. Sometimes we’ve been playing with them for three hours and need a break.
When I was young, kids’ TV was only available for a few hours a day. Then along came Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. Now it’s YouTube and Netflix on demand.
I’m reassured that occasionally employing Iggle Piggle or Moon Baby is unlikely to be harmful. But I’m also inspired – to not necessarily switch off when the TV or iPad is switched on. Because with a little more effort from me, it can be something even better: a weird world that we can explore together.
Images used with permission of Sutikki