“Mom, does Dad have the virus?” my daughter asked me from the back seat of the car. My husband was isolating after a high fever, chills, and a negative flu test.
“I don’t know,” I told her as we drove. “We’re waiting to find out. But if he does, remember his immune system is keeping him protected.”
I wasn’t sure of this, knowing that thousands of people have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But I wasn’t about to tell that to a 5-year-old. Instead, I started to sing.
“And the first stage is….” I began.
“…when cells called macrophages, chew the virus till antigens abound!” she continued.
We kept going, belting out the anthem we’ve sung dozens of times since the pandemic shut things down in the U.S. in March: the “What is a Virus?” song from the Netflix show Ask the StoryBots.
We’re not alone. The video for the song, published online on March 12, 2020 (which I cannot believe is a coincidence), has over three million views. As it should, because it’s a bop. “What is a Virus?” is a pandemic earworm I can get behind. It’s upbeat, and scientifically accurate without being scary.
Certainly, a macrophage, a type of white blood cell, has never looked cuter than the one in Ask the StoryBots. It’s teal and slobbery, an elongated Saint Bernard-esque figure, prowling the nasal passage looking for intruders. The StoryBots travel through the immune system, learning how it fends off intruders, culminating in a battle royale against a virus that looks remarkably like our current worldwide nemesis.
In that moment in the car, signing about how the immune system worked was a way for my daughter to acknowledge her fears and deal with them. It was also a tool she could access at any time. When it turned out my husband didn’t have coronavirus, we all breathed several sighs of relief.
How do you help a child cope with a pandemic? This is a question that billions of parents are asking themselves, in addition to trying to cope as adults. Very young children in particular are still learning how to name the emotions they’re feeling. My daughter is old enough to notice that school is canceled and her favorite places are closed, but too young to fully comprehend the danger of the illness. In trying to help her process her feelings, I’ve relied on children’s media that supports social and emotional learning, namely Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street. I’ve also conscripted “What is a Virus?” for its fun accuracy about a complicated and highly relevant subject.
have become increasingly mainstream since the concept’s inception in the late 1990s. New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Caranza mentioned it repeatedly during a call with parents about school reopening plans for this fall. At its most basic, the idea is the children and adults benefit from being able to recognize and manage their feelings. Doing this successfully , sometimes called emotional literacy. Both essentially refer to naming and articulating the emotions we feel. This can be a nuanced concept – think of the subtle differences between sad and lonely, or frustrated and angry. Children’s shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street have long been a way to help children learn about new situations and manage the emotions they inspire.
“We’re squarely focused on social emotional needs of children,” said Chris Loggins, senior producer for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, referring to the show’s audience of preschool-age kids.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the spiritual successor to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, has always patiently mined the drama inherent in the lives of its young audience. The 4-year-old protagonist Daniel Tiger and his friends in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe do many of the same things children all over America do: go to school, play with friends, help their parents. For children, everyday changes like caregivers leaving at dropoff, or a friend not wanting to play with them, are big deals. DTN treats these issues with the same amount of gravity as the children themselves would, and uses strategy songs to give preschoolers tools to empower themselves during difficult moments. If I’m being honest, I have sung a song or two myself during stressful situations.
But is the gentle tenacity of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood any match for coronavirus-fueled disruption? The short answer is yes.
Image: courtesy pbs kids
As part of the show’s latest season, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood will air a sing-a-long special on August 17th that deals with themes familiar to most families right now, including staying away from friends and grandparents, working from home, and dealing with disappointments. The special, “Won’t You Sing Along With Me?” draws on the show’s back catalog of strategy songs and adds a new one to the mix.
“We started talking about doing this in late March, early April and just because of the realities of animation and production we knew that we’d probably have something ready in August,” said Loggins. “It’s hard to know what things would be like. Unfortunately this still feels like a very timely episode and we’re humbled that we’ve been able to do something for the moment.”
Daniel and his stuffed animal Tigey play pretend carnival, which leads Daniel to ask his mother when he’ll be able to go to the Neighborhood Carnival, as he’s looking forward to it. His parents sit down with him and explain that there won’t be a Neighborhood Carnival this year, and why.
Facts without fear
The creators of the episode made the decision to avoid mentioning the coronavirus specifically so as not to induce fear in their young viewers.
“We focused on germs and we did not mention the coronavirus specifically,” Loggins explained.Dr. Yalda T. Uhls echoed this choice. She holds a PhD in developmental psychology from UCLA and is the founder of the , an organization that brings together media creators and child development experts.
When using media to help kids learn about or process information or emotions around the coronavirus, the information should be accurate, but age-appropriate and not too scary, she explains.
Parents need to be careful with fear as an emotion, Uhls continued. If things are too scary “they’ll focus on the fear rather than what the story is about.” Turning away or having trouble sleeping are signs the material is too scary for your child. If these behaviors escalate or persist, speak with a pediatrician.
Loggins explained that the creators chose to focus on questions children might have around the effects of the virus, rather than the virus itself.
“Some of the social-emotional things, getting into the mental health area of wanting to see friends, feeling sad, dealing with changes in routine, increased family time,” Loggins said. “We hope that children will appreciate seeing Daniel go through some of the same things that they are facing.”
One of DTN’s underrated strengths is how it depicts negative emotions on the part of the adult characters. Early in the episode, Mom and Dad Tiger are visibly uncomfortable and distressed trying to answer Daniel’s question. If this is a show that wants its preschool audience to feel seen, it hasn’t forgotten about the adults in their lives.
One scene shows Daniel’s dad needing to work from home, and encouraging Daniel to find something else to do. Even though Daniel successfully finds an activity to do independently and leaves his dad to work, it’s not a rosy scene. Dad Tiger is clearly stressed out.
“That’s a credit to the animation team for pulling out that emotion on the part of the character, and it is an intentional choice,” said Loggins. “Part of what Mister Rogers did so well, and what we want to do with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, is acknowledge the range of feelings that everyone has.”
After two viewings, my 5-year-old daughter has started asking more questions about what’s going on, which leads me to believe that she’s now verbalizing things she had been previously thinking on her own. For my part, I’ve been cribbing from the show’s dialogue, offering a heartfelt “I don’t know” as an answer, even when it feels uncomfortable. She seems amused that there are things adults don’t know.
I worried watching something that acknowledged sad feelings about missing friends and family would make my daughter more sad, even as I know it doesn’t work that way. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by how it gave her more room to notice things she appreciates about the time we’ve all had together.
“We wanted kids watching and parents watching to know that it’s OK to have these feelings, and feel like ‘this is hard but we still care for each other and we’ll get through this together,'” Loggins said.
Image: courtesy pbs kids
The hope that gets you through the day
One unpleasant side effect of our pandemic times is the difficulty of exercising reasonable caution without , or even telling the difference. Young children regularly get ill, as do adults, and that’s continuing against the backdrop of COVID-19. There will be strep throat and colds and food poisoning and ear infections and croup, now with an .
Even as we assiduously wear masks and wash hands, I’ve tried to focus on how generally, after we get sick, we get better. And learning how your body protects you from germs on Ask the StoryBots has been soothing. We feel empowered knowing that your immune system actively protects you.
Of course, this isn’t always true, and for many thousands of people, it has not been true in this time. Sometimes the people who get ill die, and there’s no strategy song that can blunt that pain. The special also doesn’t depict any of the economic fallout that many families are facing, though we do see Mom Tiger at home rather than working at her job.
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But parenting during coronavirus, like parenting generally, is about committing to hope over despair. Not blind fantasy, of course. But the hope that helps you say to your children that you’re wearing masks to be good neighbors, that washing your hands helps keep you healthy, that your body is strong and resilient. Telling them that while you might not know what’s going to happen, you know you’ll meet it together and that you can rise to the occasion. The hope that gets you through the day.
Certainly, no children’s show will fix the ever-widening wreckage of this pandemic. But when dealing with confused or scared children, it’s not a bad place to start either.
For young children, parents should ideally co-watch the shows with their kids to reap the full benefits of the content. Kids “need help connecting what’s on the screen to the real world,” said Uhls. “They also want to see their lives reflected, the way their lives are,” she explained.
Watching the Sesame Street special “Elmo’s Playdate” when it first aired on April 14, 2020, felt like a relief. Here at least was our collective reality reflected back to us, minus the constant soundtrack of sirens.
A recent viewing of the same special felt like watching a time capsule, where everyone was happy and making the best of the situation. Cookie Monster has ingredient shortages that affect his cookie baking. There was a frenetic energy to the show, reminiscent of a time before Zoom fatigue when we all thought our dark tunnel had a light at the end of it.
When I invited her to watch it again, my daughter wanted to know if this Sesame Street was like Daniel, where everyone was staying inside. I couldn’t tell if that was good or bad. We turned it on and she laughed maniacally at Grover’s tech mishaps. She’s since wanted to watch it twice more.
Sesame Street: Elmo’s Playdate is available to watch on HBO Max. You can watch the upcoming season of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on TV on PBS Kids (check local listings) and on Prime Video with the PBS Kids add-on channel. Ask the StoryBots is available on Netflix.