There’s no place quite like the Treeborhood, a massive treehouse with secret passageways, gondolas and rope swings. The residents—wombats, snakes, moose, kangaroos, iguanas, fish and eagles—bring that fantastical world to life in the new GBH Kids series Work It Out Wombats!, which premieres this month on GBH 2, on pbskids.org and PBS nationwide. A playful trio of marsupial siblings—Malik, Zadie and Zeke—introduce preschool viewers to “computational thinking,” which enables them to solve problems in systematic ways, using a toolkit of skills from computer science.
“Preschoolers are passionate about meeting their goals, but they don’t always know the best way to go about achieving them,” said Marcy Gunther, executive producer with Marisa Wolsky. “Computational thinking gives children a powerful toolkit for self-expression, for solving problems and for getting out of messes.”
“It is crucial for all children to be able to develop competency in computational thinking,” said Wolsky.
”Our goal is to equip children with the skills that will help prepare them for the classroom and careers of the future,” said Terry Fitzpatrick, GBH vice president for children’s media. To develop the series, GBH worked with content director Dr. Marina Bers, a leader in the field of preschool computational thinking and professor of child development at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.
Six years in the making, Wombats! ushers in a “new chapter” in children’s television, said Dr. Kareem Edouard, Ph.D., creative producer, who with his partner Dr. Darlene Mortel Edouard, Ph.D., also creative producer, brings expertise in cultural and visual studies, intersectionality and STEM engagement from underrepresented communities.
“Overall, there is a long way to go in children’s television for Black and Brown producers,” he said. “But there is starting to be a critical mass around representation, which brings a real level of proud.”
Conveying a multicultural world with animals is a special challenge, said Dr. Kareem Edouard, who is an assistant professor of learning sciences and STEM education at Drexel University.
“The animals are not a proxy for race,” he said. “Their names, the way they dress, their holiday celebrations, the foods they eat—all of these are ways to represent diversity.”
Guided by the GBH-developed Wombats! Culture and Inclusion Plan, the producers designed 40 episodes along with a a website, games, apps, a podcast, hands-on activities and support materials for parents and educators.
All incorporate diverse narratives and tell stories for children of different abilities, ethnicities and linguistic backgrounds. “I was very excited by the GBH Kids team’s passion and dedication,” said Dr. Darlene Edouard. “The conversations we had about culture and inclusion weren’t a one-time thing but happened constantly throughout the making of the show.”
In creating the characters in JunJun’s Filipino family, capturing cultural details is critical. “We worked really hard as a team to ensure that the cultural nuances are ingrained,” she said. “We conveyed that in the environment or through background images—for example, JunJun wears a shirt with the Philippine sun on it.”
The Edouards created two matrices that the scriptwriters used as tools to develop cultural nuance in characters and stories. To support new, diverse writing talent, the producers established a scriptwriters’ fellowship, modeled on one developed for Molly of Denali, which engages promising, early career BIPOC writers. GBH Kids is also working with media scholar Dr. Fashina Aladé of Michigan State University to document the program’s approach to culture and inclusion and investigate how children and families respond to it.
“I do this work for the younger version of myself, the little Kareem who didn’t get to see as many creative and diverse television productions,” said Dr. Edouard.
Starting in February, Work It Out Wombats! airs weekdays at 9:30am on GBH Kids and 10:30am on GBH 2.