This month, we sat down with Dr. Alice Wilder, who was Director of Research & Development and producer of Blue’s Clues. She is also co-creator and head of Research and Education for Super Why!, currently airing on PBS Kids, and a co-creator of Think Ink It Publishing. Dr. Alice spoke with us about her passion for children’s media and literacy and how her approach to research and education has impacted the landscape of children’s educational media television.
How did you get started in children’s television?
And I always really liked kids. I babysat a lot and worked at day care centers and camps growing up. I had no idea that these two really strong interests as a kid would later become what I do as an adult – but they did! And the play research actually suggests this is true for most people: How you play as a child is often who you become as an adult!
When I got to Skidmore, where I went to college, I was ‘found’ by a psychology professor, Mary Ann Foley, who changed my life. She is my mentor and became my guide for all things psychology and research and interviewing kids.
At the same time, I saw the movie Big, which crazily enough, also changed my life. After I watched that movie I realized that I wanted to be Tom Hanks’ character (Josh). I wanted to be the person in a boardroom full of adults thinking like the kid/‘end-user.’ And when the room full of adults passed around what they thought was going to be the next ‘hottest’ toy on the toy store shelves, I wanted to see it from a kid’s perspective and say, unequivocally, “What’s so fun about that?” or “I don’t get it!” if the product did not consider the kids’ point of view. This led me to the base all of my subsequent work in formative research on the philosophy that the only way to understand what children are capable of doing, what appeals to them, and what they know, is to ask them!
Once I found these inspirations, I looked for jobs and companies and an educational program that would get me closer to being Josh by applying my skills in psychology, research and interviewing kids.
You’re also a co-creator of Think It Ink It Publishing. Can you tell us a little more about it, and how you came up with the idea?
Think It Ink It Publishing are professionally illustrated wordless picture books in which kids write the story and become authors. The concept is designed to promote creative writing for children from the ages of 4-12 years old. As the importance of writing is being equated with the importance of reading, our professionally illustrated wordless picture books provide an entertaining and motivating platform for children to practice writing and be published.
The idea for Think It Ink It Publishing was created when my business partners, who are agents and illustrators, had an illustrator who created a beautifully illustrated book walk into their offices looking for a writer. At this moment there were two options on the table: 1) find a writer; 2) publish a wordless picture book. With this choice they connected with me for referrals to writers and/or to think about kids’ perspectives and thoughts about wordless picture books.
Two things quickly came to mind. The first, when I was a student at Teachers College I was part of a program that helped parents learn to read to and with their children. I vividly recalled one of the sessions we did was with wordless picture books. Kids love them and can quickly and easily catch on to the creativity and storytelling that goes along with these books. When asked to tell the story, they tap into whatever comes to their minds and sparks their interest as they look at the pictures. They can tell stories all day long, making up new ideas or repeating the same ideas – it’s all literacy!
But for many parents wordless picture books are not a fun experience at all. As adults, we worry about getting it ‘right’ or we have stifled our creativity and imaginations and feel intimidated to ‘make things up.’ Wordless picture books that empower kids to be the authors seemed like a great opportunity to let kids actually be the storytellers and be published, and for parents to see and value their child’s creativity and get an opportunity to empower and listen to their children.
The second idea that quickly came to mind is that a blank page can be intimidating. Kids are often given writing assignments or a blank page to write but without the scaffolding provided by a clear topic or illustration.
And even though we thought it was a great idea, we knew we had to talk with the experts. So we brought mock-up books to a classroom of kids who happily offered their opinions. Even better, once this group of second-graders had our Think It Ink It Publishing creative writing books in their hands, they wouldn’t let go. They wanted to keep on writing!
Let me first say, I am very lucky. I have always worked with people who care about kids and who care about providing entertaining educational experiences. I met Angela Santomero, one of the creators of Blue’s Clues, at Teachers College where she was getting her Masters in Child Development and working at Nickelodeon. She and her co-creators were invested in the kid point of view. They wanted to know what kids thought of the show from an appeal, attention, comprehension and learning point of view. This is/was unusual. So together, we created a formative research process that would account for the mission of the series, the curriculum of the show, the goal of the writer for each episode and the point of view of the kids in the production of every episode.
Research was not about the researchers – it had to be egoless and ultimately about the viewer. This philosophy almost always met with little resistance because of its intention. In addition, whenever possible we tried to give the production team direct interaction with the kids. Writers were always welcome and often encouraged to come to research sessions with kids. And animatic tests were always videotaped so that we could show kids’ reactions to groups of designers and animators. This always helped get everyone as invested in the kids’ POV as the research team was.
Don’t let me make you feel as if it is easy! There is some resistance – it’s hard to make something from someone else’s perspective and make it entertaining and educational. But it is that push-and-pull that is the creative process and ultimately makes the end product better.
How would you describe your approach to designing programs for youth?
Play to learn!
How did you get interested in The LAMP?
I was lucky enough to attend an event by The Girl Scouts Research Institute about self-image in the 21st century. During questions and answers, D.C. Vito, from The LAMP, asked a very insightful and thought-provoking question. I went home and did my research on The LAMP and immediately started tweeting about the organization and their mission and work! I was immediately inspired. I feel like this is the media literacy organization I have been looking for, for years! Finally, critical thinking about media in a way that is teachable, fun for kids and incredibly empowering. I have always been interested in helping kids (and adults too) dissect and think about their sources of information – their media.
And now, it has become even more important because media is so prolific. If we don’t think about who is making this media, why they are making it, what the messages are, how people use techniques to guide consumers into thinking about something in a particular way, we are in trouble! The LAMP is the real deal. It is authentic media literacy that can be used in schools and at home to encourage people to both create better media and become better consumers of media.
We need more people to know about and use The LAMP!