4 great lessons everyone can learn (yes, even grownups!) from the PBS KIDS show “Elinor Wonders Why”
Photo above courtesy of PBS KIDS.
When Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson began creating the children’s TV series “Elinor Wonders Why,” they were excited to teach kids about science. Whiteson is a physicist and Cham is an engineer. They were eager to share fun information about the natural world and how it intersects with the designed world humans have created.
But by choice, they created a show that goes way beyond sharing those cool science-related facts. Their adorable protagonist Elinor Rabbit, along with her animated friends and family, teach viewers much more — including the importance of asking questions. Ahead of this year’s Remake Learning Days Across America (RLDAA) festival, Whiteson and Cham sat down with the festival’s organizers to talk about the importance of kids and parents wondering, questioning and learning together – experiences that lie at the heart of RLDAA.
Here are some powerful takeaways from the creative team behind “Elinor Wonders Why”:
1: We can all feel comfortable asking questions and gathering information to seek answers.
“One of the things that get us the most excited about this whole project is this idea that we are encouraging curiosity and wonder in a whole generation of kids,” Cham says.
“Every human being is born with this innate curiosity and wonder and a need to know about the world and how the world works,” he says. But as they grow, kids may feel awkward asking questions. What if they sound silly? At the same time, adults may feel uncomfortable not having immediate answers when kids ask.
“Not every parent out there has a scientific background or engineering background,” Cham says, and that’s totally OK – and even valuable.
“One of the things that’s really important to us in this program is to model that mindset for adults,” he says. “If your kid comes up and has a question, you don’t have to know the answer. You can explore the answer with them. You can kind of reflect it back on them. You can let them take the lead on how to think through it and what kinds of things you can observe together to answer those questions.”
2: Questioning and wondering don’t end with childhood
“We don’t want kids to think you ask questions and then you grow up and then your questioning day is done. It can continue forever, and hopefully it’s a lifetime of learning,” Whiteson says. “It’s sort of our job to wonder. I’m a scientist and every day my job is basically driven by asking questions about the universe and wondering how it might work. So the questions never end.”
Cham and Whiteson grew up in households where asking questions was encouraged, and was practiced by the kids and the grownups.
So they made a conscious choice to create a fictional world where the adults don’t always have the answers. On episodes of “Elinor Wonders Why,” the grown-up characters encourage the kids to do their own exploring and data-gathering. Sometimes they join in the fun of finding answers.
Keep in mind, Cham says: Scientists don’t have all the answers. They observe, collect information and go looking for answers.
“Everyone is a scientist at some level,” he says. “We’re all asking questions. And it’s a skill that is important, not just if you go into science or engineering or some kind of career like that, but it’s important in everyday life.”
3: Make space for boredom: That’s how we all begin wondering.
“One thing my parents did that was really, really seminal for me was that they didn’t set out to actively participate a lot in my curiosity. But they did provide me with a lot of stuff. There were always books around the house. There were always gadgets and tools,” Cham says.
“And then they just gave us a lot of freedom to kind of hang out, and a lot of time to just basically be bored and to wonder and have thoughts and tinker with stuff.”
4: Wondering can get all of us excited about learning – and help us discover more about ourselves.
“An important part of wondering is not just exploring the universe around you, but figuring out who you are,” Whiteson says. “One of the biggest challenges in life is figuring out what it is that really excites you. What is your passion? Is it creating fictional universes? Is it creating treatments for diseases? This kind of wondering and curiosity and exploration, I think, is really important to encourage kids to get to know themselves.”
Creating an atmosphere where it’s OK to ask questions can be the first step toward putting kids – and ourselves – on that path. The more we ask and wonder, the more comfortable we get.
There’s even science to back that up: A research study explored whether parents and other caregivers felt more comfortable talking about scientific questions after they and their kids had watched “Elinor Wonders Why” together.
“We were pleased to see that there was an uptick there – the folks that actually watched the show felt more comfortable talking about science with the kids,” Whiteson says. “And that’s really important to us.”
Coming up soon: There are three new half-hour episodes of “Elinor Wonders Why” premiering on April 18, along with a special event: called “Elinor Wonders Why: A Wonderful Journey.” During this special, Elinor and her friends have a curious and fun adventure while camping and hiking with Ranger Rabbit at Hidden Lake. Parents can learn more about the show right here.