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Diverse ideas from on high

With a giant tree at its center, PBS' 'It's a Big, Big World' offers basic science concepts and a positive message.

January 02, 2006|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, children's television producer and father of three Mitchell Kriegman started thinking about how to tell children there is another, beautiful, side to the world.

Kriegman (creator of the popular shows "Bear in the Big Blue House" for Disney and "Clarissa Explains It All" for Nickelodeon) eventually came up with the World Tree, a noisy, lush animated setting, full of exotic animal friends that dance, sing and revel in the natural environment.

The tree is the center of an ambitious new series, "It's a Big, Big World," that debuts nationally on PBS Kids this week. Set in a flowering rain forest, the series teaches basic concepts of life science and geography, a novel television curriculum for the 4- to 7-year-old group, along with the notion that we can all get along, even if we're as different as tree frogs and marmosets.

"The idea is you're not preaching about diversity. You're just being diverse," said Kriegman, 53, founder of Wainscott Studios on Long Island.

What's more, the show's messages are wrapped in a new look that Kriegman calls Shadowmation, a combination of animation and bunraku, traditional Japanese puppetry.

"It's an audacious thing to do," he said. "There have been very few things since 'Sesame Street' that have tried to do something big," he said. The show's first 40 episodes took three years to pull together.

The daily series is hosted by Snook, a dancing giant sloth, laid back and funny. Children are always looking for adult figures in their shows, he said. "I think they secretly see us as giant, lumbering creatures."

Snook's neighbors include Madge, an ancient turtle with a map of the world on her back, Ick, a braggart fish, and the marmoset siblings Smooch and Winslow.

In the first episode, the marmosets learn about metamorphosis when they lose their friend Wartz at the pond. Following something akin to a scientific method, they decide to find out where he's not, since they can't find out where he is. In the process, they discover Wartz, the tadpole, has turned into a singing tree frog.

In another episode, Bob, a worried anteater, is concerned when he hears his own voice bouncing back to him, until he learns it is an echo.

Kriegman said he has tried to model his shows around the sort of trust that Fred Rogers had with his audience as well as the ideas embedded in Philip Pullman's children's trilogy "His Dark Materials."

"If you want to give children these big ideas, especially the important quintessential thoughts about the world, there needs to be these sort of positive expressions of the world," he said.

Children also need emotional release, he said, which is why the show features catchy dance music from reggae to samba to Hawaiian slack key guitar

Kriegman specializes in shows that encourage co-viewing by parents and children. In his favorite scenario, Kriegman imagines parents and children watching "It's a Big, Big World" together. The parents are semidistracted, but the children are so engaged that when Snook holds up his paw to the camera for the children to give him five, they run up and slap the screen.

"Out of the corner of their eye," Kriegman said he imagines, "the parents notice their kid is learning something and enjoying it."


'It's a Big, Big World'

Where: KCET-TV

When: 8:30 a.m. today

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