Bless the Beasts and the Preschoolers
Human beings peak in preschool. The rest is comparatively uninspired. Preschoolers dance to anything. Preschoolers’ currency of choice is love. Preschoolers lie poorly or not at all. Unless you’re a firefighter, preschoolers believe your job is boring (and it probably is). And preschoolers make all kinds of mind-blowing artwork, easily and unselfconsciously.
Picasso once said, “I spent my whole career learning to paint like a four-year old.” Well, I spent my whole career learning to make shows for a four-year old, admittedly with mixed success.
As I’m now making my first comedy for older kids, I thought this would be a good time to jot down some of the things I’ve learned about making preschool shows. My hope is that this list might be helpful to those of you going down this elusive, bumpy dirt road for the first time:
1. Preschoolers do not need to be taught subjects like kindness. Many executives do.
2. A good preschool show has a wider reach than any one culture, including pop culture. I’ve worked in about 20 countries and I couldn’t help but notice that preschoolers are similar. They are mostly focused on their family, their friends, their pets, their community, food and love. For all these reasons, a good preschool show is universal and will outlast any trend or world leader.
3. There is no need for the word “edutainment.” It’s an unpleasant Frankenstein’s monster of a word, much like “ecofriendly” or “coronavirus.” Preschoolers learn from anything that is well made.
4. Money has nothing to do with quality. Good shows have been made on shoestring budgets and bad shows have been made on big budgets. A lack of funding should never be used as an excuse for a lack of quality. And just as kids can be spoiled when raised in a home that has an embarrassment of riches, so can a good and honest preschool show be ruined by lots of cash.
5. Preschoolers love animals because they are deeply attuned to them and to God.
6. Preschoolers do not care about celebrities, unless the celebrity is Santa Claus. If history has taught us anything, it’s that celebrities make for great press releases and mediocre preschool shows. The charms of even the biggest names are happily nontransferable to this audience.
7. If you create preschool shows with an ulterior motive such as selling things to kids or hooking young viewers on your service to establish loyalty, as though preschool were a gateway drug, the kids will sense this and they will reject you. To their credit, preschoolers can usually tell when they are being used as sacrificial pawns in the games that we grown-ups like to play.
8. Preschoolers do not like subplots. Introducing a B story is like asking them to juggle when they are still learning to catch one ball. (They also don’t like reboots as they are still booting.)
9. Due to a combination of hubris and high demand, preschool shows these days are made very quickly and without much formative testing, as if we adults are so clever that we simply know what they will watch. Well, we don’t know, clearly. This is what makes life so interesting.
Everything from a good garden to a good dog requires time and love to become fully itself. 10. If you want to get to know preschoolers, just listen to them. They are very good at telling you exactly what they do and do not like. And they are much better at listening than we are.
It used to be that the few folks who made shows for preschoolers cared first and foremost about young children and their cognitive and emotional development. There weren’t many other reasons to make preschool shows. There was no money in it and it certainly wasn’t cool.
Much has changed since then but, fortunately, there are still some true believers out there for whom making meaningful preschool shows is something closer to a faith than another industry job. These are the good shepherds who truly know and will lay down their lives for their sheep.
I was once one of them.◆
Josh Selig is the Emmy Award-winning creator of many preschool shows including Wonder Pets and Small Potatoes. He and his wife Chen Chen are making a new comedy for kids 6-9, Peaches & Creaminal, the story of an outspoken Asian girl and her big, foul-smelling but lovable bulldog. Selig is the Founder & President of China Bridge Content and is based in New York City.