When it comes to children's entertainment today, parents & carers can choose from a smorgasbord of videos, DVDs and televised programs. But how much of the content is fun and how much is structured learning? KidsLife paid a visit to the set of Hi-5 to talk with their production team…
For a young child, the medium of television can be very attractive. Colour, movement and sound all combine to stimulate a child's imagination and depending on the program content, children may either sit quietly watching or choose to be moving and part of the action.
But there's more to children's programming than meets the eye. A scheduled program, video or DVD that may appear to the parent/carer to be an all singing, all dancing series designed simply to entertain, is in reality a program underpinned by educational theory and developmental research. In addition to entertaining, children's programming can also provide unique opportunities for learning and creative expression; communication through fun and play; stimulation for interaction, inquiry and knowledge; and the chance for young children to develop motor skills and self-confidence.
Helena Harris, Creator and Executive Producer of the currently popular Hi-5 series, has been concentrating on children's programming since 1992. The producer of shows such as Big Square Eye, Cushion Kids, Play School and the phenomenally successful preschool series Bananas in Pyjamas, Harris is not only passionately committed to excellence in children's television, but also to demystifying the idea that children's television is a haphazard half hour of fun. "Of course we need to entertain, and this is fundamental", emphasises Harris, "if we don't entertain we're not going to have an audience…but the difficulty has always been to explain to parents exactly what goes into programming for kids."
So what does go into programming? Helena Harris oversees all aspects of Hi-5 production and believes that excellence in children's programming relies on a creative combination of educational theory (including core values), script, original music, set design, camera work, appropriate props and empathetic and energetic performances by the presenters. But she also highlights the importance of flexibility and currency. "We make changes if we think some aspect is not going to work for children and we have enough resources to do a special segment at a moment's notice. It's also crucial that we reflect what is actually out there in a child's life today." A case in point is the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. The producers felt it was important to address the issue of conflict, so brought in an expert to discuss this issue with the writers and subsequently integrated conflict resolution through the scripts for that particular series.
In the case of Hi-5, the show targets an audience of preschool and early primary aged children (2-8 years), acknowledging the span of talents, interests, cognitive abilities and learning styles of this age group.
Helen Martin is Hi-5's Principal Early Childhood Producer and has worked on various children's programs including Bananas in Pyjamas and Play School. A former lecturer with the Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University, Helen's role includes theme selections, intensive script consultation and advice at technical rehearsals. "My job is to apply developmental milestones to a script. From the first draft, I read from the point of view of whether the average 4-5 year old can understand a concept and follow the steps the writer is suggesting……it's my job to ask if there's a way the script can be made more playful." Helen's expertise in movement also equips her to be the resident 5-year-old who attends the technical run to look at all material being presented. She dances the dances, watches to make sure performances are not too sophisticated and ensures the vision matches the words.
Material always needs to be child-centred and familiar enough for children to recognise and enjoy. For example, a chicken dance is instantly fun and funny for children, whereas a send-up of opera might be funny for adults but it would need to be made accessible and 'non-confusing' for children.
Educational theories and research that have influenced Hi-5 programming include the work of:
The core values that underpin all Hi-5 programming include:
Each core value has a theme, for instance, Curiosity is expressed through the theme of Wondering , which in turn is expressed through concepts such as What If, Creatures, Imagining, Amazing, Dreaming, Wishing, Creativity, How Things Work, Science and Nature. Other themes include Enjoying, Sharing, Travelling, Variety, Doing, Pretending, Growing and Finding.
Based on the core values and their associated themes, each individual program is comprised of segments that focus attention on a specific set of skills and target a particular conceptual area. The use of music, song and dance serves to connect segments and in addition to emphasising specific skills, programs also promote holistic learning.
In the case of Hi-5, there are five presenters (Nathan, Kathleen, Tim, Kellie and Charli). Each segment (listed below) is the focus of a particular presenter and all segments are designed to offer enormous learning potential.
Shapes in Space – The visual and spatial awareness segment. Nathan's focus is exploring shape, space, colour and pattern using the body and all kinds of materials, such as boxes, paints and everyday objects. Learning potential: Body awareness, personal space, objects in space, body proportions, hand-eye co-ordination, self in space, comparison – self and others, colour and design, pattern and form.
Puzzles and Patterns – The logical thinking and mathematics segment. Kathleen is particularly interested in numbers, puzzles, mazes and sorting things. She finds fun and imaginative ways to solve perplexing problems. Learning potential: Counting, ordering, classification, structural dynamics, dimensions, comparing, analysing, problem solving.
Making Music – The musicality segment. Tim focuses on musical concepts such as beat, rhythm, pitch and melody. He aims to introduce children to great new musical sounds, songs and rhythms, using a variety of home-made and real instruments. Learning potential: beat, rhythm, melody, lyrics, actions, mood, listening skills, aural discrimination.
Word Play – The linguistic and aural skills segment. Kellie explores the world of language and sound. Through stories, rhymes and word games she encourages awareness of language use. Learning potential: word recognition, vocabulary acquisition and word development, awareness of writing, recording of data, literacy and numeracy, rhyming and repetition, evaluation.
Body-Move – The physical/motor development segment. Charli specialises in fun movement and coordination skills. Songs and rhymes in her segment encourage children to stretch, hop, skip, jump, balance, clap, throw, crawl and twist. Many activities involve crossing the mid-line of the body, stimulating left/right brain integration. Learning potential: gross motor movement, fine motor development, perceptual motor development, balance, stretching, coordination, pleasure of movement, mastering physical skills, brain buttons.
Sharing stories – self-awareness and social skills – is an additional segment. In this segment, the Hi-5 cast work together, exploring emotions and interpersonal interactions through light-hearted story and drama. This is a time for reflective entertainment and humour, when children can identify with the feelings and situations presented. Learning potential: cooperation, teamwork, responsibility, social awareness, likes and dislikes, inclusiveness, acceptance of difference, non-judgmental attitudes.
Hi-5 employs six writers and two editors (who alternate in any one series). Each series is comprised of 45 episodes (9 weeks of programming), all of which is completed within 12 weeks. The writers are the foundation of Hi-5. Their imagination, script-writing skills and understanding of children are vital to the show's integrity and success.
Catherine Martin is Hi-5's Script Producer. "A writer will take charge of an individual segment so that they are responsible for that segment (for instance, Shapes in Space) for a particular series. This way the writer can get on top of the concept and style and build their relationship with the presenter". Martin also maintains that ownership of a segment also ensures that a writer develops a consistent 'voice' for the presenter.
The working relationship between producers and writers needs to be rock solid. Helena Harris (Executive Producer) insists that all writers employed on Hi-5 have children in the age group that the show is targeting. Catherine Martin believes there is room in the television industry for writers who are passionate about their ideas, but they also have to be flexible, as the process is collaborative. Mutual trust and respect for each person's judgment, evaluation and input is essential.
"At the beginning of a new series", says Martin, "the producers sit down and discuss how the next series is going to make a difference…we raise the bar…push boundaries… and choices as to content and theme are not made lightly."
Writers then attend a pitch meeting with producers, where everyone's ideas are brainstormed and writers go away to prepare a first draft. First drafts are read and critiqued from an educational, creative and developmental perspective. In any one week writers pitch ideas for one block (5 ideas for a week's worth of segments on a particular theme), receive feedback from the previous week and produce a second draft. Time lines are tight and the work intense.
Scriptwriters are also responsible for writing words to songs. Songs need to relate to content and ideally, songs should be a discovery or playful way of 'physicalising' what is being said.
All music for Hi-5 is original and composed specifically for each series. There are two types of songs within a show – songlets occur within the segments and a major song of the week is repeated at the beginning and end of each show (throughout the whole week) to tie the theme together. This repetition is designed to give children the opportunity to gain familiarity with a song as well as empowerment and reinforcement to move and sing along. Songs are always used within segments to explore a particular theme.
Hi-5 intentionally presents positive, happy energy and the set design reflects a bright, colourful world. Sets are clear and simple, mostly painted in primary colours and/or colours that studies have indicated lift the emotional energy of a child. Helen Martin (Early Childhood Producer) believes there has been a shift in children's visual literacy. "Children are exposed to so much visual stimulation that they are more at home with the brightness and pace of the show than adults." She went on to say, "At Hi-5 we make sure there is a visual distinctness about a key concept or idea, so that children don't have trouble focussing on that concept". Cameras, props and performers must all be in sync so that a particular concept is explored clearly. Hi-5 is fast paced, but in doing research with children, Martin realised that this modern energy meets a need in many children.
As opposed to some other early childhood programming, where camera work is often full frontal shots of a set, Hi-5 establishes the background and then comes into focus. This camera technique is designed to help children with awareness and perception, as do top shots that are designed to add interest and perspective.
In addition to the five presenters, Hi-5 makes use of additional props (puppets). Chatterbox (Chats) lives in a box and inhabits Kellie's Word Play segment. Jup Jup is a mischievous creature that lives in the wonderful wall of boxes in Kathleen's Puzzles and Patterns segment.
Both puppets are specifically positioned in those segments and are invaluable to the promotion of language and discussion as they can talk one-on-one to the presenter and model conversation. Jup Jup in particular is designed to be empowering for the child, as the child sees the puppet doing intervening things that Kathleen is unaware of, so the child is in the position of knowing something the presenter doesn't. Kathleen may set out to achieve a task but Jup Jup will create havoc so that she has to think about another way of solving the problem and achieving her goal.
In addition to the ability to sing and dance at a professional level, presenters are chosen for their empathy and ability to communicate with children. As opposed to presenters who are grown adults and become a child's friend in play, the Hi-5 team is perceived by children to be older brothers and sisters. "They are neither adult nor child", emphasises Helen Martin, "but they play in a playful way and it's a different relationship for a child…children perceive themselves being like the performer, but still aware that the performer is older".
The producers are very careful that scripts don't make the Hi-5 team appear like children, unless they're supposed to be acting like a child. "We're always aware that they are the age they are and not pretending to be kids", says Martin, "but they are still in touch with what it's like to be a child".
The philosophy driving Hi-5 programming is a passionate advocacy for the imaginative world and each performer has the ability to become someone else and go on a journey, as opposed to some other early childhood programs, where additional props are used to achieve this concept. Helen Martin stresses the importance of programming that gives children the conceptual key to enter a world of imagination with the performer. "You can imagine worlds and you can become whoever you want to be and it is a safe and beautiful thing to do. As long as a child returns to the known self, they are not limited by their imagination".
The Hi-5 philosophy also promotes the ideal of all people being equal and each person unique in their own way of responding and being in the world. Presenters intentionally celebrate difference, affirm self and acknowledge achievement. The program also emphasises a discovery approach to learning and presenters become explorers to find new ways to do things, as opposed to knowing in advance. Consequently children are given the chance to learn with the presenter, rather than being taught by them.
Hi-5 is only one of a number of excellent children's programs being produced for Australian television. Standards for Australian children's television programming are required to be developed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The objective of the children's television standards is to ensure that children have access to a variety of quality television programs made specifically for them, including Australian drama and non-drama programs. For more information, visit http://www.acma.gov.au/ The ABA website also hosts a section regarding content regulation for children's television. For more information, visit: http://www.acma.gov.au/WEB/STANDARD/pc=PC_91869
Additional websites of interest include:
The Australian Children's Television Foundation: http://www.actf.com.au
Young Media Australia: http://www.youngmedia.org.au
The New Zealand Television Broadcasters Council: http://www.nztbc.co.nz
The Hi-5 series has helped to bring song and dance back into popular culture - as something that every child (and adult!) can do. But as KidsLife discovered, Hi-5 is also a finely tuned learning tool. For Helena Harris (Executive Producer), children's programming should be about innovation and new directions. "There's nothing that Hi-5 hasn't interrogated when it comes to theory, creativity, new ideas and concepts, because in the end, everything we do is about ensuring that the child who sits in front of Hi-5, will get every worthwhile experience from the program…watching, dancing, moving, singing, learning and interacting at all levels, especially physical".
"But", she smiles, "we don't just want to entertain the 2-8 year olds. We also want to entertain older siblings, parents and carers who may also be watching, so that they too, can enjoy the show from an entertainment level….and that's very empowering for the child".
Article written by Leigh Hay, KidsLife Editor.