Netflix is all about choice: parents are able to select what they want their child to be exposed to, but many of the children's series available are more suited for slightly older kids. It's the two- to three-year-old demographic that is underserved, meaning toddlers are often stuck watching what their older siblings are streaming on the platform.
However, now, Netflix and the Jim Henson Company have teamed up to offer a new educational and entertaining series targeted specifically for toddlers.
Called Word Party, the new Netflix original series from the Jim Henson Company features four baby animals that help young children learn and master vocabulary skills.
Each episode of Word Party is about 11 minutes long, just enough time to keep toddlers engaged, introduce a narrative, characters and teach vocabulary without them feeling overwhelmed. The episodes teach one "category" word, such as "vehicles," along with three or four other related words like "train" and "boat" to provide a mix of aspirational words that might take time to master and those that are easier to reach.
The series features characters that are also in the spirit of toddlers that have same range of emotions and could express them in narratives that are relatable to young children.
While the series is animated, Word Party was produced at the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio using the technology from Henson's Creature Shop that features puppeteers performing the animated characters in real-time.
"Because the digital puppetry system captures real-time performances from our puppeteers, it's able to capture a really nuanced emotional reality in the characters. You can really see what they're feeling and what they're thinking," series creator, producer and writer Alex Rockwell (Pajanimals, Bear in the Big Blue House) told Tech Times. "It's very authentic and it feels like it's actually happening in real-time as opposed to animated series where there is a little bit of distance, so I thought this was the perfect medium to explore toddler emotions and through that access to actually also teach vocabulary, which is such a fundamental learning piece for a toddler."
At Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, four puppeteers on the sideline performs the facial movements and voices of their character. Simultaneously, four other performers on the floor of the studio wear suits that capture the movements for the bodies of the characters.
"We try to create great characters; a lot of that has to do with how the characters come to life," Lisa Henson, Word Party executive producer, CEO of the Jim Henson Company and daughter of the late, great Jim Henson, told Tech Times. "With the digital puppetry — because the animation is done by puppeteers — the characters look animated, but the actual animation was controlled by puppeteers using their physicality of their hands or their body movements. Our animation does have a different look and feel and a lot of it is coming to life through the artistry of Henson puppeteers, which also keeps it close to our legacy."
Because they are capturing real-time performances, the performers can do things like improvise or change the dialogue in that moment, much like when filming a sitcom.
"What's fantastic about the digital puppetry is it doesn't have some of the limitations of traditional puppetry," Rockwell said.
Traditional puppetry is not only "old fashioned"-looking, but it also has shortcomings like not typically revealing the lower half of the character's body or having the character be able to do certain actions.
"One thing about this technology is that our characters have bodies, they have feet. And unlike hand puppets, a digital puppet can run around the room," Henson said. "In the case of these characters that are toddlers, their body movements are really funny and [it's] charming to see them walk or stumble or play a game in the ways young babies play."
"I really wanted to deliver the sensation that there are four real baby animals on the other side of that screen that do everything the audience does: running, jumping, dancing, twirling around in their environment in a three-dimensional way, but at the same time have that heart and that immediacy that puppetry delivers because the puppeteer is right there performing it," Rockwell added.
While Henson and Rockwell both believe there is still a place for traditional puppetry, using digital puppetry to create the animation allows the Jim Henson Company to provide something new for young audiences — especially since kids are used to the look of animation.
"Kids love animation. We as a company, took a long time to move into animation. When my father was alive he did have Muppet Babies, but animation was a very small part of what the company did," Henson said. "I think that since we moved into animation we've been able to expand the reach of how we interact with kids."
Netflix is also playing a role with viewer interaction for Word Party that further brings the show to life.
"I designed a lot of interactivity into the show in that call and response fashion that Dora the Explorer was so innovative with, but Netflix wanted to take that one step further and build in an actual real-time interactivity into the show," Rockwell said.
Word Party features that same Dora or Blue's Clues approach where the characters speak to the audience when they are sad or need help learning something. Netflix enhances this by displaying icons that appear in the body of the show during teaching moments so that the child can tap and choose the meaning of words, making it more of a game-playing interaction.
"Kids really buy that fantasy that they are actually talking to the characters. They go all in as Mr. Rogers so brilliantly originally demonstrated, and in addition to that they are in a world where they are used to tapping on a screen to make things happen," stated Rockwell.
Studies show that children learn more when in relationship with someone and when they are engaged instead of having the TV experience being a more passive experience.
Parents may also be scared that some children can work an iPad before they can speak, but "instead of being scared by that," Henson said, "why not embrace it and say, well, if it's happening, how this can be turned to a good effect?"
"And if they can use an iPad before they can speak, well they can then learn how to speak," she laughed, "or rather build their vocabulary that way."
Henson also pointed out that the company has followed research about the correlation between kids having educational success when they enter preschool based on the amount of vocabulary they already know.
"I think it [educational shows] is vital. This is where I took a page from Jim Henson, who took the responsibility of taking television very seriously," Rockwell said. "He very much recognized that television was changing childhood development because it's everywhere and they [children] are going to be exposed to it. So it's sort of our moral obligation to make television worthy for them. What's great about young children is they are open to learning from television. This age doesn't recognize it as educational."
The new children's animated series Word Party, which focuses on vocabulary building, premieres on Netflix on July 8 with episodes 1-12, with episodes 13-26 premiering on Oct. 21.