By Ben Travers | Indiewire May 22, 2014 at 3:16PM
With the studio's first ever original kids' shows debuting this summer, Amazon is trying to launch their children's programming from a groundbreaking new angle: long-term education. Two of Amazon Prime's three new shows -- "Tumble Leaf" and "Creative Galaxy" -- are targeted at educating preschool-aged children, while "Annedroids" targets children from five to seven years old. Both encourage learning through arts and sciences, but with the new educational intiative from Amazon's streaming service comes a question that doesn't factor into their adult programming: can binge-viewing TV actually be good for kids?
"Kids can come back to our program whenever they want because of the subscription service," said, Tara Sorensen, Head of Kids Programming at Amazon Studios. "We're not asking them to sit in front of the television and tie them to a block of programming [like with standard broadcast television]. They can pause it. They can rewatch it. It offers up a nice amount of flexibility, so I don't think it's just about keeping them in front of a 'screen' for us."
"I think that we have built our programs around thinking and doing and being active," she added. "In 'Creative Galaxy' and 'Tumble Leaf,' there are calls to action afterwards that say, 'What are you going to play today?' 'Go be creative.' 'What are you going to go make?'"
Amazon Studios also employed Dr. Alice Wilder as their Educational Advisor. The choice is as much as creative hire -- Wilder played a key role in making "Blue's Clues" the massive success it was -- as it is a move to promote education and make parents feel good about letting their kids watch TV (she holds her doctorate in educational psychology from Teachers' College).
"One of our strong ethos was to have shows that inspire kids to think and do and ask questions," Wilder said. "So I was in a school showing an episode of 'Tumble Leaf' about shadows and afterwards a four-year-old watching the show curiously asked how we get big shadows in the afternoon if the sun is still so high in the sky. So we really see through our formative research testing that kids are asking more questions. They're thinking about the content we're putting on the screen, and they're wanting to make art projects."
Wilder approaches children's programs and the educational curriculums implemented in them ("curriculum" being a word often used by Wilder and Sorensen) from a familiar angle to all fans of Tom Hanks '80s nostalgia.
"I saw the movie 'Big,'" Wilder said when explaining how she approaches her job. "I saw that movie and I was completely inspired by Tom Hanks' role, which is basically playing the part of a kid brain in an adult environment. When I saw that, I set my career path towards how do I become Josh, that character in the movie 'Big.' How do I represent the kid point of view?"
To implement her Hanksian approach, Wilder has learned "from preschoolers by sitting on the floor with them for 20 years." She and Sorensen then accept pitches through the site and from professional creatives. If a show comes in without a curriculum, they discuss ways to implement one and brainstorm with the creators. “Sometimes a curriculum is already embedded within a story and the creator doesn't even realize it," Sorensen added.
"I think with kids' programming there's an opportunity, and I think a responsibility to do something important," Sorensen said. "Now we're able to give mom tools so she can extend the learning, and that's kind of where I think the real magic happens. I think kids will connect with the characters, but we hope five years from now they'll recall, 'Wow. I didn't realize I actually know this stuff because it was part of my favorite shows.'"
When asked whether or not the educational experience will prove long-lasting, the Amazon team is cautious but optimistic. After all, binge-viewing has become an accepted and even encouraged practice among adults now more than ever. Having access to Amazon's streaming services could very well be breeding another generation of screen-addicted viewers.
"I think viewing patterns for kids have changed for kids so drastically ever since tablets were introduced," Sorensen said. "They're accustomed to getting stuff when they want it, where they want it, and if they don't they'll find something else. Again, for us, we wanted to create those messages at the end so it wasn't just sitting in front of a screen, but it was more of a call to action. Like how could this program inspire you to be out in the world and think differently about it?"
Sorensen then told a story about her daughter asking to rewind a television show while they were in a hotel without those capabilities. The child didn't recognize rewinding wasn't an option because she'd become so accustomed to life with DVR and streaming capabilities.
"I think we're doing a lot to inspire curiosity, too," Wilder added. "One of our strong ethos was to have shows that inspire kids to think and do and ask questions. All the shows I've made in the past were designed for long-lasting positive impact. So we're definitely thinking of long-term impacts, and with each show we have different goals around our lifelong creative learning approach."
"One of our goals is for kids and parents to walk away with, 'When you play, do you learn something?' And we would love it if the answer to that was a resounding, 'Yes.'"