How To Make Good TV for Kids

Tips for Making Children’s Content That’s Great Fun to Watch, Yet Not Totally Brainless  

Akili Kids! launched at the end of March 2020 and is already a favorite in homes across Kenya. We run a variety of programs, some animated, some live action. Our vision is to grow our offering of local programs over the next three years. We expected to have at least 40% local programming by the end of 2023. 

Our programming is designed for children from 2-14 years old. As a learning channel for children, we ensure that each program we air has a teaching moment. The learning outcomes cover a wide scope of themes that build social and emotional development, introduce math and science, enhance literacy, encourage reading and most importantly—promote curiosity and creativity.  

With a curious mind a child can approach any subject and creativity helps everyone navigate towards great solutions.  

Animation or live-action programs are great tools to teach any of these topics. Writing for children, especially very young children, may seem daunting but it can be so rewarding and lots of fun to create. Here’s how. 

Keep it Simple 

Children have so much to learn as they grow. It’s amazing how much information they are required and able to take in. When designing programming for the very young, take your time and deconstruct the idea or concept you have in mind. Then break it down to its simplest form. It really is amazing how any topic can be broken down for children. 

In one of the early episodes of Boom Na Wabi, a continuity program on Akili Kids! the host Wabi lays out three items on her table. A slice of watermelon, a tomato and a red bell pepper. The program is targeted at 3 – 6 years old and the first part of the segment runs just under 60 seconds. In this segment, the young viewer is invited to observe the items – they are all red – and then to compare the items – they all taste different.  

“Observation and comparison are fundamental skills for children to learn,” says Jesse Soleil creator of Boom! na Wabi, “Introducing comparative thinking to young children at an early age helps them with comprehension, math and science when they start school.”  

The language throughout the segment is kept simple. ‘Observe’ is a big word. ‘Comparison’ is a complicated concept. Wabi only says ‘the same’ and ‘different’ —repeating these words to demonstrate what they mean. Some things are the same, but different.  

“You want to create an ‘Ah-Ha’ moment later in life,” explains Soleil, “Years later, when faced with an assignment in school, a child might access the concepts they learnt watching a TV program like Boom and breeze through the task in front of them. That’s the magic we want to create.” 

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. 

If you have spent any time watching children’s programming, you will have the same frustration most adults do. It’s so repetitive! It’s difficult for adults to sit through these programs, but—observe the child. Children love repetition.  

Remember, children have so much to learn. Good TV programs for children will keep themes simple. A good program will also present the theme several times in each episode. The repetition helps enforce the concept for the young viewer.  

Repetition might not be entertaining for adults, but it is for children. Watch a child’s delight when they predict what will happen next on the program they are watching. When structuring your script for a young child’s program, build in repetition. Introduce the topic, demonstrate it in different ways, reinforce it.  

Several episodes of Boom! na Wabi introduce basic shapes like the circle and square. In the episode introducing the square, Wabi shows a simple image of a square. She then builds a square with four straws and concludes by showing items from the real world that are also square. A playing block is square, a box can be square, and a slice of bread is also…? 

“Predictability gives the child a chance to be the expert,” Soleil explains, “When a child can call out the correct answer or what will happen next, they demonstrate to the caregiver watching with them or prove to themselves that they have knowledge. It builds self-confidence.” 

Make it Entertaining 

The approach good TV programs use to teach children is not at all different from the approach many grandmothers and aunties in the olden days used to teach children. African stories for children always have a lesson to teach. What makes them sticky and makes children come back again and again for the same story, with the same ending, is the entertainment value of the tale. The music—there’s always a song, the comedy—always a funny character, the voices, the adventure and the thrill.  

Even if the program you have in mind is not a traditional story, you can borrow from their basic principle —don’t be boring. Make it entertaining. Don’t take the topic you want to communicate so seriously that you can’t have a little fun. It might be science, or Math or a serious topic like bullying… but find a way to keep it entertaining.   

I remember a particular Kimeru story my siblings and I loved to hear when we were young. It’s about how the ant got its tiny waist. Even now, remembering the story I can’t help but chuckle to myself. There is no way to narrate what happened to the ant with a serious face, it’s a hilarious story.  

But even as a child we knew the moral of the story. It was an important lesson. It turns out the ant nearly died trying to impress others. Though we always ended up in stitches halfway through the plot, we got it. Don’t be so concerned about what others think about you that you harm yourself trying to change. Accept who you are and be true to yourself. 

Be Authentic 

My most re-pinned pin on Pinterest is a post that says, ‘Steal like an Artist’. I stole that from a blog I like. Creating doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We borrow from talented artists around us. But there is a danger that in recreating tried and tested approaches that work, we lose ourselves in the process.  

There’s a formula for creating TV soaps – ‘melodramatic storylines with incessant cliff-hangers’? There’s a formula for children’s programming too. We should adopt the formula, but not swallow it whole. We need a strong sense of self in order to keep our work authentic. As Kenyans we have explored ‘being Kenyan’ since independence 50 years ago and we’re still trying to truly define what it means to be Kenyan.  

As we invite people to create content for Akili Kids! we really want our contributors to have fun but also explore the ‘Kenyan-self’. At Akili Kids! we hope that every child in Kenya will grow up watching our channel. With us, they will learn to be curious and imaginative and develop the foundations they need for a strong start at school. The content we co-create, and broadcast will mold children. It’s a great responsibility we and our contributors are taking on. To mold others we must study ourselves.   

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