skip to main content

3 Instructional Design Lessons from Awesome Children's Television

In: Design

One thing that a lot of people don’t know about me is that I watch a lot of children’s television. From classics like Looney Tunes and Rocky and Bullwinkle to more contemporary classics like Peg + Cat and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom, it’s almost become an informal area of study for me. I often find myself musing about the difference between the nice, neat, boringness of something like Barney and Friends or even Ni hao, Kailan to the equally innocent but infinitely more watchable cleverness of something like the Backyardigans or Blue’s Clues (most especially the seasons with Steve). Believe it or not, I think that the best children’s television has a lot to teach us about instructional design.

No. 1: Give it a little Personality

Interestingly, I think that one of the things that differentiates bland children’s television from the best examples is the inclusion of what I like to call a little “sincere quirkiness.” Take a show like Sesame Street that continues to be innocent but has developed recognizable, likeable, unique personalities for many of it’s iconic characters: Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Elmo. They’re all different. They all make mistakes sometimes. They’re authentic and a little flawed in a way that the perfectly adjusted parents and children in other shows aren’t. Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom is another notable example. In this show about fairies and elves, the adult fairies and elves don’t necessarily respect each other fully (the elves think the fairies are lazy and silly while the fairies think the elves are self-important blowhards [literally the elves blow horns all the time]) but Ben and Holly are able to maintain their friendship because they don’t yet subscribe fully to the mindsets of their parents. In this show Holly is constantly screwing up her magic, the nanny has made jelly floods at least twice, the wise old elf deflects questions, and problems abound. And that’s kind of the point. These aren’t perfect creatures and they don’t react to upsets perfectly.

This authenticity allows you to engage with characters and situations in the best shows. Yes these characters are “scrubbed” in a sense to maintain their innocence for their child audience but they aren’t perfect. Their diversity and relatability is one of the major reasons that they are and continue to be so engaging.

No. 2: Perfection isn’t the Point

Rocky and Bullwinkle is on Amazon Prime and I found myself binge watching it one weekend. I love the episodes (minus the racism, of course). I love the fact that the writers often came up with two clever puns for for each next installment. I love all of the different features: fractured fairy tales, Dudley Do Right, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Aesop’s fables. And then I get to the credits. In the credits there’s this notable glitch where Bullwinkle’s animation is not smooth. It’s not a playback thing, it’s a product of the actual cartoon. And though I notice this. I don’t care. It in no way distracts from my enjoyment of the cartoon as a whole. Sometimes, instructional designers (and others) get so caught up in the myopia of minutiae. Don’t get me wrong, details matter but it’s the right kind of details. Rocky and Bullwinkle gets the important stuff right. Edward Everett Norton is the perfect voice for the narrator of Fractured Fairy Tales. The puns on the titles are so bad they’re great. Rocky and Bullwinkle’s characters are sincerely quirky and strangely naive. That’s the stuff that matters. The fact that sometimes there’s only one voice when there should be two, the glitch in the animation at the end. Those things don’t matter. Perfection isn’t the point.

No. 3: Simple Works Just Fine

In fact, simple can be really interesting. Peg+Cat is one of my favorite new children’s television shows. One of the most interesting things about it is that the drawing is deceptively simple (Peg doesn’t even sport a nose) and in many of the scenes the background is overlain with the grid of graph paper. But this simplicity is ingenious. In the fiction of the show, Peg often takes advantage of this feature of her world and draws out math concepts on the paper.

I know that I’m sometimes guilty of trying to amp things up to 11 when 10 would do the trick. This isn’t about laziness; it’s more about taking your constraints (lack of media resources is a big one for most of us) and turning those into strengths.

Weird? Yes. But valuable, too.

Do you learn lessons in odd places? What are some of the strange epiphanies you’ve had from non-learning and design activities? Let me know in the comments.