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Making a play for the young set

Times Staff Writer

A batch of new puppets, some dynamic young adults, adorable computer-animated critters, a miniature vintage car with personality and a long-running staple of educational TV are plunking TLC and Discovery Kids Network smack dab in the middle of the quality preschool programming territory occupied by Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and PBS.

“Ready Set Learn!,” their new weekday block of commercial-free programming for young children, kicks off at 6 a.m. today with a known quantity -- Scholastic’s highly regarded animated encyclopedia of discovery, “The Magic School Bus” -- followed by four new series.

Introducing each half-hour show is an eight-minute segment featuring “Ready Set Learn!” host Paz, a little penguin kid based on Irish writer Mary Murphy’s children’s books. Representing 5-year-olds as they discover their world, Paz is seen as both a cuddly puppet and an animated character.

All the new shows are colorful, watchable and scrupulously created with the principles of child development firmly in mind. Several feature characters who talk directly to viewers, in the tradition of the best children’s programming, from Fred Rogers and “Sesame Street” to “Bear in the Big Blue House” and “Blue’s Clues.”

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But two of the series stand out: “The Save-Ums” at 7 a.m., created by Dan Clark, and “Hi-5" at 7:30 a.m.

The eccentric, computer-animated Save-Ums (little alien tykes named Noodle, Custard, Jazzi, BB Jammies, Kachung and Foo) are a crew of good-deed doers -- in a sort of secular “VeggieTales” way -- who zip off to various worlds when the alarm sounds.

A few of their rescue missions: helping two baby-sitting ants change a dinosaur baby’s diaper; easing a short-sighted whale out of a tight spot; and teaching an octopus to tie her shoes.

Back at Save-Ums Central, their activities include making music by petting some furry little creatures until they trill melodiously in contentment. (All together now: “Awwwwww.”)

“Hi-5,” an American version of a hit Australian kids’ show, is a refreshing change from puppets and cartoons, although it has a bit of both too. Mostly, though, this show, with different educational themes each week, is driven by the exuberance of five hip-looking young adults who come off like the best teen baby-sitters you could imagine, singing smart and catchy pop-style songs to boppin’ little kids in a playhouse-studio setting, performing skits and interacting with a few puppet characters.

The other two shows are well-produced and likable. “Jim Henson’s Animal Jam,” at 8 a.m., offers lessons about emotions and motor skills in a dance-party setting inhabited by several Muppety characters, including Edi the zebra and a cowboy monkey.

“Brum,” at 6:30 a.m., is an offbeat live-action comedy from Ragdoll Productions (“Teletubbies”) featuring a tiny vintage car that communicates with headlight eyes and flapping doors.

The show’s theme song is a trial, but the limited, British-accented narration is charming, as the little car helps the human and animal residents of Big Town out of silly jams (such as a bride’s skateboard mishap -- she can’t stop). Each situation sparks a mild escalation of slapstick before Brum saves the day and retires to his garage for the night.

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‘Ready Set Learn!’

What: The three-hour block aimed at preschoolers consists of “The Magic School Bus,” “Brum,” “The Save-Ums,” “Hi-5,” “Jim Henson’s Animal Jam” and a repeat of “The Magic School Bus.”

When and where: The block airs weekdays from 6 to 9 a.m. on TLC and the Discovery Kids Channel. The latter channel then repeats the block from 9 a.m. to noon.

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