There’s no denying current concerns in education over children’s literacy skills and that, generally, children are reading less for pleasure.
So, where does that lead a huge media conglomerate such as Disney that, for generations, has had children glued to the big and small screen?
Nancy Kanter, Senior Vice President of Disney Junior, was in London recently and told MFM that, sure, we all want our kids to read, but we have to accept that children watch TV and films and play on all sorts of media and that there are different ways of telling stories.
Nancy, who has 3 children of her own as well as a full-on job, is the first to admit that, with busy family lives, it’s hard to find time at the end of the day to tell our kids a story. “But different types of media can be just as rich in stories,” she says.
Disney pride themselves on the fact that they’ve always carried out research into what children enjoy watching (happy endings, apparently). Now, they’re drawing on a growing body of research that shows that, universally, storytelling has a huge impact on how children learn, what they take into their own lives and inspires them to become what she calls “lifetime learners”.
Disney Junior, aimed at 2 to 7-year-olds and rebranded globally from Disney Playhouse a year ago, has vowed to go back to the art of storytelling that, Nancy admits, may have been overlooked in recent years, particularly for pre-schoolers, with the emphasis on interaction,
“With all our new shows, storytelling is where we start. We find a story that is exceptionally engaging for kids and that takes them to an exciting, storybook type of place but also relates to their real lives.”
So there’s Doc McStuffins, a little girl who is a doctor to her stuffed animal toys who may have lost an eye, need stitches or just “got a little melty left outside in the sun”. All kids talk to their toys, says Nancy, so not only can they relate to the story but it also teaches them aspect of their real life, such as health, hygiene or visiting the doctor.
Then there’s Sophia the First, launching in 2013, who goes from being poor to moving into a castle when the King falls in love with her mother, the local cobbler. Sofia gets to become a princess, with all the fantasy and ballgowns that entails, but what she learns is that what makes someone special is what not what’s on the outside but on the inside – kindness, compassion and independence.
Isn’t that what Disney has always done, though, with stories such as Cinderella? Nancy agrees but says that what is different is that rather than the princess being a young woman, Sofia is a little girl and is going through all the things that little girls go through, learning their life steps and coping with blended families.
“Look, the tent poles of storytelling have stayed the same, so we use the same classic genres based on fairytales – pirates, princesses and Westerns – but we’ve adapted them for a pre-school audience that is way more sophisticated than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
“Ultimately, good storytelling is good storytelling. Great stories, great characters, great worlds, and that’s what we’re aiming to create.”