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FORMULA FOR A SUCCESSFUL PRESCHOOL SERIES: ENTERTAIN FIRST, EDUCATE LAST

A Dragon Tale: How an Emmy-nominated PBS preschool series almost died at birth...

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“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” - Thomas A. Edison

Failure is not an end point, it is a stepping stone to success. I learned an invaluable lesson about how to create a successful preschool series by first failing to do so.

Twenty years ago (I can’t believe it’s been that long), producer Jim Coane hired me to develop a series for him based on the artwork by Ron Rodecker. Thus, Dragon Tales was born. 

But it was a difficult birth.

The development went smoothly. Writers Cliff Ruby and Elana Lesser were brought in to make some changes to the bible. And to the delight of all of us, PBS bought the series and ordered just over 60 eleven-minute episodes. I was assigned to write and story-edit half of them, Cliff and Elana the other half. 

Then, as is PBS’s wont, they sent us a three-ring binder full of curriculum information, psychological research and policy directives. One of the documents was titled “FUN AND LEARNING IN DRAGON LAND: A Writer’s Guide to Dragon Tales Educational Content”.

Yikes! This was the proverbial “oil” to a writer’s clear, fresh “water”. 

I don’t know about other writers, but I like to create out of whole cloth. I like freedom. I like to let my imagination run wild. If there’s a lesson that must be conveyed I’ll find a way to get it in. All this focus on curriculum and psychology went against my creative grain. But I'm pretty good at following orders, so I did what I was told.

One of the directives was to ensure that curriculum was paramount. There were four curriculum subdivisions: social challenges, emotional challenges, physical challenges and cognitive challenges. And there were several sub-divisions under each challenge. For example there was

social challenges > maintaining friendships > coping with a friend threatening to end a relationship

And there was 

emotional challenges > understanding other people’s emotions > recognizing and labeling feelings in others 

Now multiply that times 30 and you’ll get a partial idea of the content and complexity of the curriculum.

We were instructed to choose curriculum elements and write our stories around them. The prime directive was

CURRICULUM IS PARAMOUNT!

So off we went to our writer caves and started hunting and pecking.

A few weeks later something very interesting happened. After everyone read the first batch of scripts the writers got together with the producers and PBS and everyone was in complete agreement:

The scripts STANK!

More precisely, they weren’t fun or funny, they were flat and boring. The curriculum had killed the entertainment. 

It was an awesome thing to witness when the consultants and educators and psychologists at PBS all agreed that their directive was misdirected. We explained to them that children watch TV to be entertained, not educated. They go to school for that. If you want to educate, and keep the kids watching, you must entertain them first and foremost.

So we got a new directive: “Come up with entertaining stories and shoehorn in the curriculum wherever it fits!”

Voila!

The result was a smash hit series that ran for 11 years on PBS and garnered three Emmy nominations.

Moral of the story: If you want your educational preschool series to succeed, focus on entertainment first and education last.

©Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved

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