Playhouse Disney’s Nancy Kanter develops preschooler programming that balances entertainment with education

Unless your little ones are some rare breed of perfect, most kids want choices. From wearing tutus to bed or having macaroni and cheese for breakfast, you can bet your kiddo has a strong opinion.

And, while us parents are all about embracing and fostering that growing sense of independence, letting them choose what to watch on television can be difficult, which is why I was pretty excited about talking to Nancy Kanter, Senior Vice President of Playhouse Disney Worldwide.

In a very large nutshell, Kanter is responsible for the development and production of all the long and short-form live action and animated programming we see on the critically acclaimed channel, and also oversees all of the creative vision and content on a global basis.

Makes the macaroni and cheese breakfast challenge look a tiny bit less hairy, doesn’t it?

How do you choose the programs that our children ultimately see? 

We have a positioning in mind that we want to put forth in terms of what our programming offers and how it might be different from what you’d find on PBS or any of the other competitive networks.

It’s a little bit of a filter for us. We think that some of the things that help define our programming is the sense of great character and storytelling, which are both obviously things Disney is well known for.

First and foremost, when someone comes and pitches me an idea for a show or we go out and talk to producers/writers/creators about the types of shows we’re looking for, we really emphasize the character and story aspects.

We want shows that have characters that kids will fall in love with and will want to tune in every day to see what those adventures and stories are going to be. And then along with that is the sense that mom and dad want some kind of learning value from the programming they let their preschoolers watch. They want to see if good social skills are being modeled, or if it’s emotional issues that they think their youngest kids are working through or going up against, all the way to something like you see with Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, which is very clear math building skills. So we really like to look for that combination of entertainment value and on a deeper level, something where a mom or dad will say, ‘I’m really glad my kid watches that show. I can see what they get from that show.’

How do you find that balance between the storytelling and learning that parents are looking for?

The lucky part about this 2-6 year-old audience is their attitude toward whatever media they consume. They don’t need distinctions for themselves between entertainment and learning.

I think that once you get out of that preschool group and into the 6-11 year-old demographic, they can kind of smell when it’s educational and they really just want to have fun.

The preschoolers are such sponges that they want to soak up as much as they can. So if they learn to count by tens or learn how solar power works or even how to introduce themselves to a friend for the first time, that’s a really compelling story. It’s something they’re really interested in, and they don’t separate it out and say ‘Oh, that’s the educational piece not the entertainment piece. Obviously, it’s a challenge to make sure that we don’t tip the balance one way or another, and that we don’t forget about the entertainment and make it feel too teachy.

There’s a fabulous quote I read once from Winston Churchill who once said, ‘I love to learn, but I do not always like being taught.’ I think that’s what we try and do.

How does Playhouse Disney provide added value to parents who are looking extend what their children watch and learn on TV so they can experience it together?

It’s a big priority for us. We know if mom/dad/caregivers are aware and invested in the programs that their kids are watching, then it helps fulfill our hope that there are things in these shows that kids really do take away into their own lives and expand on it. We have, which has a grownup page where parents can learn about some of the curriculum background and the developmental thinking behind each of our shows.

There are also sites within that have games, suggestions of games for kids, things they can play.. there’s even a a celebration center that will help you create themed birthday party. For example, there’s Handy Manny coloring page that can serve as placemats, and in the last year or two, we’ve started to tap into a lot of social networking of Handy Manny and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. It’s amazing to see how moms are on those pages sharing thoughts, ideas, encouraging other moms to see certain episodes, or saying, ‘here’s a great recipe for a Handy Manny cupcake.’ We’re amazed at the depth and volume of the conversation, so I think these new media opportunities are really ways that our shows are able to connect with our moms and kids in a way we didn’t have before.

Do you have any favorite shows from the Playhouse Disney lineup?

If I asked you if you had a favorite child would you tell me? Actually, I get asked that a lot.

I do think our shows are very distinctly different from one another and there are things about each show that I love. I love the Imagination Movers because I think the music is fantastic and I think it’s great to have four, really warm, friendly, talented guys who are live human beings as opposed to animated characters. I think they model so many important things – they care about each other as friends, they’re fun, they’re energetic, they love to brainstorm and problem solve, and they don’t give up when they hit a road block. I think there’s something really unique and special about that.

And who doesn’t love Mickey Mouse? He’s just an amazing character. And then you have something like Handy Manny that shows a diverse, multicultural landscape, and I think it’s is so important for kids to see a community were all kinds of people from all kinds of different backgrounds and abilities live and care about each other.

Convonista says: Nancy and I went head to head on all things kid related in April 2010. This interview was originally released a few days later.

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