Flummox and Friends: Making TV for Quirky Kids

BlogHer Original Post

When you were a kid, did you ever wish Schoolhouse Rock taught lessons about playground social dynamics as well as math and science? A socially awkward child like I was certainly could have used something like Flummox and Friends, the new "off-beat, live action television show designed to help kids navigate the social and emotional world." I talked with Christa Dahlstrom, Flummox and Friends creator, about why her show is so needed, why you and your kids should watch its pilot, and what her next steps will be.

What is Flummox and Friends? Who's it for, and why?

Flummox and Friends is a live-action comedy for quirky kids about navigating the social and emotional world. We've just released a pilot episode that anyone can watch for free online. The main characters are a trio of inventors and their next door neighbors. We think of it as The Big Bang Theory meets Pee Wee's Playhouse.

The show is targeted at kids aged 6-11, especially those who struggle with the unspoken rules of social interaction. We see it as a show that parents and kids can enjoy watching together and that education professionals can use support their existing social skills curriculum.

Most people are familiar with the 1 in 88 number (autism prevalence in children in the US) and we see the show as for the "3 or 4 or 5 in 88." What I mean by this is that there are lots of kids who struggle -- to greater or lesser extent -- with social and emotional stuff but who don't have a clinical diagnosis, who aren't necessarily part of the special education system and therefore don't have access to those supports. We hope that we've created a show that's accessible to a wide audience that reaches beyond the identified special needs community.

How were you able to make the pilot of Flummox and Friends happen?

The project is inspired by my experience as a parent of an eight-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. It seemed like whenever I share details about his social skills curriculum (part of his inclusion program at school) with parents of “typical” children, they say, "why doesn’t my child get that? My child could use that." It seemed like there was a much broader audience for social skills instruction. I wondered why there wasn't a fun TV show to teach social skills the way there were shows to teach reading and math and science.

And although it seemed wacky, I decided to try to make one myself. My background is in learning design, writing and media production and I drew heavily on that experience along the way.

I teamed up with Jordan Sadler and Liesl Wenzke Hartmann, experts in social communication with a wealth of experience working with children on these skills. They also had been looking for lively and engaging ways to help families reinforce the learning from therapy sessions and social groups. They were seeing lots of products targeting social emotional teaching on the market but very few that were actually engaging and fun, few that were not didactic and preachy, and that adults and children could really enjoy together.

They helped to shape a curriculum to support the concepts I had already mapped out and the episodes I was writing. We pitched the idea on Kickstarter and raised enough to shoot a pilot episode with a fantastic cast and crew. The grassroots support we got from our core audience - special needs families and the professionals who serve them - was critical to our ability to get this far.

Tell us about some of your collaborators. What kinds of folk did you seek out, and why?

Jordan and Liesl have a developmental, play-based, strengths-based approach to what they do and were really on board with wanting to do something very different from what is currently on the market for teaching these kinds of skills. Besides creating the underlying curriculum, they participated in shaping the script -- both on paper and at read-throughs and rehearsals -- to embed the teaching moments in a natural, non-didactic way.

Flummox and FriendsThe actors are all very experienced professional performers from the theater, film/television and improv world and did such an amazing job of bringing the characters to life and creating an ensemble that really "jelled" immediately. For the music and animation, I wanted a very eclectic mix of styles in the show's short segments. I sought out people whose work had a strong and unique sensibility and gave them a bit of initial thematic direction, but then let them come up with the piece. When I started working with Morgan Taylor, who did the Everybody in the Pond segment and Matt Friedman, who did the segment with "Fuzzy" going to a party, I asked them each to come up with something around the theme of going to a party -- what's fun about that, what might be hard about that -- since the episode has a party at the heart of the plot. What they created is very true to their own styles and very different ways to look at that theme.

I think the common factors for everyone who worked on this show were a sense of fun and play, a philosophy that kids are very smart and perceptive and that you don't have to slow things down or spoon-feed the learning points, and the belief if kids are laughing and having fun, they're going to be more likely to learn, remember and connect to the message.

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