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Play-Along Learning Curve Is Heading Up

WASHINGTON POST

If you think “Blue’s Clues” is just a cartoon for little kids, think again. It’s a carefully researched and designed television program with a mission. It’s also a billion-dollar business with a strong brand that offers lessons for adults as well as preschoolers.

The mission of the show, which launches its fifth season on Nickelodeon with a special prime-time episode Monday at 8 p.m., is “to empower, challenge and build the self-esteem of preschoolers while making them laugh,” said Angela C. Santomero, executive producer and one of the creators.

Her role is strategic, “to maximize what we are doing, turning things on their head. For preschoolers, their work is their play. They love to play, love to learn. We want to extend their learning in play and are always asking how best to do that.”

Questions are an important part of “Blue’s Clues” as young viewers are invited into an animated world with a human host--originally Steve, now Joe--who tries to figure out the day’s puzzles with help from a puppy named Blue. For example, the puzzle might be to figure out Blue’s favorite snack or story.

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The animated Blue puts her paw prints on three clues. The host talks directly to the camera, asks questions to get help from the audience and pauses for several seconds to allow preschool viewers to respond aloud.

The host draws the three clues in a “Handy-Dandy Notebook” and, at the end of the show, sits in the “Thinking Chair” to review the clues and solve the puzzle with the audience.

“We feel we broke the mold for breakthrough interactive television,” Santomero said. “It’s such a huge responsibility, the way we tell stories and use educational learning theories.”

Each episode starts at an easy level and gets harder, she said. The same show is aired all week because it allows young children to master the concepts. “They are responding more verbally by the end of the week, which helps them retain the information,” she said.

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The show, which debuted in 1996, featured Steve Burns as host. When Burns decided two years ago that it was time to leave, the producers auditioned about 1,500 actors before choosing Donovan Patton, 24, as host.

In a three-part special that aired in April, Patton was introduced as Steve’s younger brother Joe, who came to visit and stayed on when Steve headed to college.

Monday’s prime-time episode, “Joe’s Surprise Party,” is designed to get children to think beyond themselves, Santomero said. Preschoolers will be able to think about preparing for a party and have a sense of cooperation with the show’s characters as well as doing something for someone else. The episode also will have animated characters speaking directly to viewers, she said, a responsibility usually borne by the host.

“Blue’s Clues” is one of the most-popular television shows for preschoolers, Nick said. The show averages about 4 million viewers each week on Nick and CBS, said Nielsen Media Research.

“It’s one of the best programs on the air for preschoolers,” said Ranny Levy, executive director of the Coalition for Quality Children’s Media, a nonprofit children’s advocacy organization headquartered in Santa Fe, N.M. “Kids respond well to it. It’s well thought out with colorful characters and music and is effective in encouraging interaction.”

This year, “Blue’s Clues” won a George Foster Peabody Award, administered by the University of Georgia, which cited the show as “a play-along, think-along animated series for preschoolers that continues year in and year out to respect its very special audience.”

Alice Wilder, “Blue’s Clues” research and development director and producer, said, “Every episode is carefully designed with an approach to learning--whether it be beginning reading skills or creativity or life skills or math--that will enhance the life of a preschooler.”

Episodes of “Blue’s Clues” are tested on three levels--for scripts, animation and content--with children in public and private schools in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, she said. Sometimes the tests show that something isn’t clear or that it might be too easy, in which case changes are made in the program.

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The season premiere of “Blue’s Clues” airs Monday at 8 p.m. on cable’s Nickelodeon and will repeat Tuesday through Friday at 10 a.m. in the Nick Jr. block. The series airs weekdays at 10 a.m. on Nickelodeon.


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