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You may not know her name, but if you were a child in the ’90s, had children then or have young kids now, you definitely know her work. Serving as creator, producer and writer of the hugely popular cartoons “Blue’s Clues” and “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” Angela Santomero has been creating children’s programming for more than 25 years, connecting generations of parents and children with messages of inspiration, education and kindness.
Santomero’s latest work comes in the form of a book called “Radical Kindness: The Beauty and Benefits of Giving and Receiving.” The title aims to teach everyone — regardless of age — about radical kindness, which Santomero defines as “living from a place of compassion.” We spoke with Santomero about her new book, the shows she has created over the years and her unique friendship with the one and only Fred Rogers, whose own kindness led to her show that is now beloved by millions.
When Santomero began her career in the 1990s, it was for one reason — she simply didn’t like what was being offered to kids at the time and thought she could help raise the bar. Her approach? Breaking the fourth wall and including the children on the other side of the screen as a main character.
“My approach has always been to empower, challenge and build the self-esteem of kids while making them laugh. We talk to them, we ask them to think with us and we include them in our discoveries,” she said. “When I talk to parents I use a ‘healthy green smoothie’ metaphor. Every show should have equal parts ‘greens’ (the education), ‘fruits’ (for the sweet taste in entertaining kids!), and ‘protein’ (the inspiration and interaction). A show is only as good as what it does to change the way you think, play, and learn. Before we create any new show for kids, we always ask ourselves, ‘Why this show? Why now?’ In today’s climate, it’s more important than ever to not only model kindness, empathy and compassion, but to teach it.”
This approach to children’s programming has led to the creation of “Blue’s Clues,” Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” “Super Why!”, “Creative Galaxy” and “Wishenpoof!”, along with a Peabody Award, two Television Critics Association awards, more than 25 Emmy nominations and numerous Parents’ Choice Gold and Silver Awards.
Santomero’s inspiration comes directly from Fred Rogers, creator of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a long-running children’s program that aired from 1968-2001. Growing up, she says she was Rogers’ number one fan. As a preschooler, she felt like he was talking directly to her. Inspired by his dedication to kids and his use of the media to inform, inspire and talk to them about important topics, she followed in his footsteps and got a master’s degree in child developmental psychology, studying how kids learn — including how they learn from media.
“After I created ‘Blue’s Clues,’ I was interviewed a lot about the show and I always went back to give Fred credit for how he made television for kids and what a difference he made, not only in media but in the lives of kids,” Santomero said. “We became friends because, as he told me, he could see the thinking and the child development in ‘Blue’s Clues.’ He also told me he didn’t like much of what was on TV for kids — but he sure did like ‘Blue’s Clues.'”
This friendship between the two became beneficial not just for them, but for the TV-watching public. “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is directly inspired by a character from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The series is currently airing its fourth season on PBS and remains immensely popular among the 2-5 age group.
Today, Santomero remains friends with the late Rogers’ wife, Joanne Rogers, who describes Santomero as “a modern-day Fred Rogers.”
While Santomero’s messages may have stayed the same over the years, times have changed since she began creating children’s content. Today, screen time is a big concern for parents, with studies showing too much time spent on digital devices can lead to poor development for toddlers. Santomero suggests combating that with high-quality content and time spent each day without a screen.
“It’s all about the content. If you are watching high-quality content with the intent to teach, then media can change the world for kids and also for adults,” she said. “We want to watch media that inspires us to go out and create, advocate, learn something new or act. Therefore, the amount of time our kids spend with media should be supplemented with an hour of free play. I would recommend that for adults, too!”
In the end, Santomero believes, it all comes back to kindness. “Writing ‘Radical Kindness’ has been such a work of passion as I believe so strongly in what kindness can do for ourselves and our world. I just want to scream it from the rooftops,” she said.
“There is science behind what kindness can do for us — from living longer to being healthier to being happier,” she said. “Kindness is the unsung hero of all of my shows for kids for the past 25 years. My team and I have always modeled characters acting kindly, asking questions without judgment, and we spend a lot of time showing drama, conflict and heated emotions — in a radically kind way. I hope to open this conversation up so that kindness can continue to grow like wildfire and start a kindness revolution.”