The following is an excerpt from Preschool Clues: Raising Smart, Inspired, and Engaged Kids in a Screen-Filled World (Touchstone, 2018) by Angela C. Santomero, the award-winning creator of Blue’s Clues, Super Why!, and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
The main storyline of the very first episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is that it’s Daniel’s birthday (birthdays are intrinsically motivating for preschoolers). Daniel was beyond excited and couldn’t wait for his birthday party, especially for his birthday cake (more motivation). He goes with Mom to the bakery to pick up his cake, and while there, the home viewer helps Daniel decorate it so it’s extra special—a tiger cake with frosting stripes that looks just like him (upping the ante of investment in the cake). Empowered to help, Daniel tells Mom he wants to carry the cake home all by himself. After an especially bouncy Trolley ride (you can see where this is going), they arrive at his house, where he runs in the front door jostling the cake even more. Once inside, Daniel wants to show Dad Tiger his cake. Excitedly, he opens up the cake box only to discover that his beloved cake is . . . smushed. Smushed! Big problem.
So how do we handle this problem? Well, we start by showing Daniel do what most preschoolers would do. His eyes well up with tears and he throws himself into Dad Tiger’s lap for comfort. This creates even more drama—the home viewers love Daniel so much they become even more emotionally invested to help him with his problem.
Then Dad Tiger empathizes with Daniel about the problem and acknowledges Daniel’s feelings. Daniel softens with the affirmation and visibly relaxes even more into Dad’s lap. Dad Tiger then takes Daniel through our musical strategy of the episode by singing, “When some- thing seems bad, turn it around and find something good.” (This is actually the second time viewers have heard this strategy in the eleven- minute episode. The first time was when Mom sang it to him in the bak- ery after he messed up while decorating his cake.) After his dad reminds him of the strategy, Daniel sings it back to him, reinforcing the idea that he is comprehending it. Then, taking the thinking one step further, Dad Tiger talks through the problem-solving strategy with him.
Dad Tiger: “Tell me something that you like about birthday cakes?”
Daniel Tiger: “That they’re not smushed?”
Dad Tiger: “What’s something else that you like about all birthday cakes?”
Daniel Tiger: “That they taste yummy?”
Then it dawns on Daniel . . . a solution to his conflict.
Daniel: “Maybe the cake still tastes good even though it’s smushed?”
Dad reinforces that Daniel has come to a good conclusion by taking out a spoon (yep . . . he happens to have one handy) and offering Daniel a taste. And what do you know? It does taste good! Hurray!
Now, as with everything we try to teach in our shows, the end goal is mastery. We want preschoolers to be able to “own” this conflict-resolution strategy and apply it in their real lives for themselves. So, before we even finalized this episode for air, we conducted formative research with real preschoolers. The director of research for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Rachel Kalban, MA, read the story aloud to the preschoolers, assessed and observed their questions and interactions, and asked a series of comprehension questions after she was finished reading. One of her questions was the mastery question for the purposes of this episode. She asked the children: “What would you do if you were disappointed?” One by one each of the preschoolers replied, “Taste it!” “Yup, taste it.” “It tastes yummy!”
Whoops. Now, this was a conflict for us!
What we wanted the preschoolers to do was revert to our musical strategy for dealing with disappointment and say, “Turn it around and find something good!” We would have even been happy with just “find something good.” Unfortunately, no matter how yummy a cake is, “Taste it” is not a strategy for disappointment. We went back to our research on repetition, scaffolding, and mastery, talked the situation over with Rachel, and devised a plan. I wrote a revised version of the script incorporating some new ideas based on our findings, including making sure it was chock full of purposeful repetition for mastery, added in a one-minute strategy song as well as a second eleven-minute story reinforcing the same strategy. By the end of a twenty-two-minute episode, preschoolers had the opportunity to model and interact with four specific examples of the strategy in two distinct stories and hear two different strategy songs that each had from three to four additional uses of the strategy. That’s ten to twelve times, generalizing across multiple storylines and scenarios. This time, when we tested the script, all of the kids sang the strategy back to us. And, most important, when Rachel asked the big question—“What would you do if you were disappointed?”—they all blurted out, “Turn it around and find something good!” Conflict resolved. And we had a show.
Excerpted from Preschool Clues. Copyright © 2018 by Angela Santomero by permission of Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.