Seven-year-old Hunter McClain and her four-year-old sister Rowen miss a lot of the things that they used to do before the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“We can’t go to the park,” Rowen said in a Zoom call as she sat on her mom Ashley McClain’s lap.
For the last few months, going to playgrounds and having friends over are risks that the family isn’t willing to take. Now, Hunter video chats with some friends and they occasionally see family at a distance.
“Sometimes I maybe get to see my God sister, but not often because of corona,” Hunter said.
Four-year-old Daniel Tiger experiences similar struggles in a new episode premiering Aug. 17 on PBS. The show, which is produced in Pittsburgh, is modeled after Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Each episode follows Daniel as he learns about how to get along with others and take care of himself and his neighborhood.
Supervising producer Chris Loggins said the team put together the special episode in record time to give parents and children relevant ways to talk about the disappointments and challenges associated with the pandemic.
The new opening song features Daniel and his friends in a zoom-style call; Daniel learns that washing his hands will help keep others safe; and he is sad that he can’t see family members or go to the neighborhood carnival.
The images and themes of the episodes are COVID-related without ever mentioning the virus by name. Loggins said that was intentional.
“We really wanted to focus on the social and emotional aspects of this and the questions that children have right now,” he said.
Loggins said he hopes the new episode will model ways that parents can talk to their kids about the pandemic and give them new ideas to help their kids cope.
In the episode, Daniel’s dad sings him a song about what to do when you’re feeling down; the show uses songs to reinforce the lessons in each episode.
“It’s OK to feel sad sometimes,” he sings. “Little by little, you’ll feel better again.”
His dad suggests sending a drawing to a loved one he misses. When Daniel’s dad is working from home he tells him to look around and find something to do.
“Of course I want to play with you, but I can’t do two things at once,” Dad Tiger said.
That’s Loggins’ favorite moment in the episode, because Daniel decides to feed the fish, something Mister Rogers did regularly in his show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
“For me, that's a little way to show that even the fish are still being taken care of, and Daniel is helping with that,” he said.
The show consults with early childhood experts who Loggins said reinforce that children need agency.
Roberta Shomburg taught early childhood education at Carlow University for 30 years. She advises the Daniel Tiger team and is now the Executive Director of the Fred Rogers Center for early learning and children’s media at Saint Vincent College. She said the most important point she wanted the episode to make was that grownups will keep children safe.
“We can say 'I'm here to take care of you. That's my job, and I will make sure you're safe.' I almost feel like that's a promise we have to make to kids. And if something happens that we can't do it ... we say, 'Well, I thought I could, but I can’t,'” she said.
It’s also important for adults to remember that they have coping skills that young children don’t and that children's behavior may suffer as a result.
“They’ve had such short lives that those routine routines and and friendships that they've had have been their whole life, and all of a sudden it's gone,” she said.
At the McClain house, Ashley McClain said she has found ways to keep her children connected to family and friends, but she said it’s been hard. Her children often ask questions like "when will the pandemic will be over?", and she doesn’t always have the answers.
But, her children love Daniel Tiger and often recite songs they’ve learned from the show. She’s hopeful that these types of episodes will help children understand that everyone is going through this together.