Wombats help pre-schoolers think through problems in new PBS series

When you want children to learn problem-solving, you immediately think “wombats,” right?

Actually, the folks behind “Work It Out Wombats,” looked at a variety of animals and settled on one that hadn’t been overexposed.

“We wanted the show to really embody an energetic and joyful spirit,” says Executive Producer Marcy Gunther. “We stumbled on wombats and learned that they are fast. They run 25 miles an hour and roll into balls. And we thought, ‘Aha! That’s the character for the show.’”

In the new PBS series, pitched at children 3 to 6, three wombats live with their grandmother in a treehouse apartment complex filled with slides and passageways. In the episodes, they learn how to solve problems using a toolkit of skills from computer science.

“Preschoolers are not naturally systematic in their thinking,” Gunther says. “So we take a big idea – like computational thinking and break it down.”

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In the series, Zeke loses his stuffed animal and he and his siblings need to figure out how to retrace their steps and find it.

In another episode, they have to help out at restaurant. There, they learn order – greet the guests, seat them, take orders, deliver food, hand them the check.

To engage a younger audience, producers have designed the show so the characters are involved in an adventure. “In this ecosystem of the Treeborhood, there are plenty of problems to solve and plenty of intergenerational opportunities,” Kareem Edouard, the creative producer says.

To make the stories real, writers bring experiences from their adolescence, then funnel them through the wombat characters. “We really want these stories to reflect our children’s lives and lived experience,” Gunther says.

A script can take four months to create, a year to turn into an episode. “It looks simple on screen but it’s quite a process to get to that final, elegant, simple story,” Gunther says.

To play Zeke, the youngest wombat, producer auditioned a number of young actors. Rain Janjua, who got the part, says he just tried to remember how he sounded at 5 and latched onto a voice.

“I knew very little about wombats when I auditioned,” Janjua says. “I had no clue what they were. Now I know a bit more about them and I’m like Zeke because he loves to draw. He’s very chatty, which I am.”

Zeke asks a lot of questions; Janjua does, too. “My parents even call me a mini-encyclopedia.”

To augment the series’ episodes, producers have created a suite of games, an app and a podcast.

The first game will involve shapes. Players will find holes in the Treeborhood and have to find shapes to fill them. While searching, they get to interact with others in the world.

The goal: Children can apply knowledge gained from one area to another.

And, if they want to learn how to draw Zeke and the other wombats, they can do that through “Wombats'” social media channels.

Produced by the company that created “Arthur,” “Work It Out Wombats” is also designed to bring parents and children together. While children are watching, parents can find some element they can relate to.

A “Silver Spoons,” theme, Eduoard says, can be found in one of the episodes.

“We really want to create shows that reflect the ‘lived’ realities of the kids in our audience,” Gunther says. “We felt it was really important to show families of all different family structures.”

The wombats live with their grandmother; Louisa, another character, has two moms.

“One thing we like to model on this show is that adults don’t have all the answers,” Gunther says. “By being an intergenerational community, the adults in this world give kids a lot of agency.”

“Work It Out Wombats” airs on PBS.

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