Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Takalani Sesame at 20: How the iconic kids TV show forges ahead with preschool edutainment excellence in the time of Covid: 'We're putting ubuntu at the centre of the show'.

by Thinus Ferreira

With some friendly new faces in the Takalani neighbourhood, the South African spinoff of Sesame Street is marking its milestone 20th anniversary of providing preschool TV content on SABC2 in the time of Covid.

Innocent Nkata, managing director of Sesame Workshop South Africa, spoke to TVwithThinus about 2 decades of the colourful and playful puppets, what the new season and a Covid-19 special is about, why Takalani Sesame is important, the new characters, and the building blocks of diversity, inclusion and ubuntu tying everything together.

What would you say has been the big achievements of Takalani Sesame of the past 2 decades?
Innocent Nkata: It's been to make early learning opportunities available to millions of children in South Africa who would otherwise not have any opportunity for any learning at all before they enter school.

Recently Statistics South Africa (SSA) published a report which detailed the number of children who have access to early learning opportunities and those who don't. The finding was that nearly half of children between birth and 6 years old do not have access to early learning opportunities.

They don't attend any learning institution at all before they go to school at 7. And in that age group in South Africa we have just over 7 million children. So more than half means more than 3 million children under 6 years of age who don't have access to those early learning opportunities.

That's what Takalani Sesame has consistently been doing over the past 2 decades because we use the power of mass media to reach children in their homes. We have consistently reached, in any given month, more than 4 million children through television and other digital channels.

Can you tell more about the conceptualisation of the new characters, Basma and Jad?
Innocent Nkata: The primary theme in Takalani Sesame that these new characters are carrying is that of "learning-through-play".

We decided to introduce the theme of learning-through-play after the realisation that play is a very powerful vehicle to help children cope with setbacks in life, to help cope with difficult circumstances, but also critical to help them in their normal development to help them develop creativity, cognitive skills, physical skills, and their social and emotional skills.

Play has all those benefits, yet in South Africa and in many other places across the world, many parents and educators are not aware of those benefits. As a result, they don't do much to facilitate and to deliberately use play as a vehicle in that development of children.

That's why we are putting it into Takalani Sesame where we will use our characters to model the benefits, the how, the why, the what of learning-through-play. All of the Takalani Sesame characters will do the same, but the primary characters who are portraying this message are Basma and Jad.

What we did is to introduce a brand-new segment in Takalani Sesame of 5-minutes which is focused on learning through play.

Basma and Jad are two friends who have just arrived in the Takalani neighbourhood. Children will see that they have their workshop where they keep all of their tools and whatever they use.

The key focus in storylines are that we see them playing in the club house or on the playground, they encounter a particular problem, then you hear them shouting "Oh, we have a problem. What shall we do to solve this problem?", and then they set off on the path towards solving the problem.

They need some tools, they go to their workshop, they try different things, they meet some frustrations, but they continue to persist because that's typically the skills that you want to teach in children. It's task persistence, but in the process, they're having fun, they're playing and at the end of the segment when they've solved the problem you hear them shouting "We did it!".

Why Basma and Jad are new characters and why we didn't embed this into the existing Takalani Sesame characters is because it's a theme that we are carrying in different characters across the world.

How has Covid-19 impacted the new season of Takalani Sesame and is it worked into the show to explain it to children? Was it more difficult to produce the season?
Innocent Nkata: We did the filming for the season late last year in 2019. We finished filming in December. The current season doesn't have very evident Covid-19 scenes.

We are already preparing to film the next season and in that season Covid-19 related content will be very evident.

However, what we have also since done is that we have been creating additional content that is Covid-19 related that we are placing around the main show. We have public service announcements (PSA's) for instance teaching children how to wash their hands, teaching them other healthy sanitation habits that play immediately after an episode.

In addition to that, we are also in the process of developing other short-form content that we will be distributing through digital platforms and connecting those to the TV programme.

Then we developed a family Takalani Sesame special, a 25-minute programme entitled Elmo's World News Special on SABC2 - the same length as the usual episode - that is very specifically focused on helping children and families to cope with the current challenges of being in lockdown and dealing with Covid-19.

Takalani Sesame has been so successful over many years with addressing difficult adult topics like HIV/Aids. Now an international conversation about racism and #BlackLivesMatter has been pushed to the forefront. What new broader topics or themes will Takalani Sesame tackle and touch on going forward?
Innocent Nkata: In terms of how we decided what to put in the programme, our education programming is underpinned by a comprehensive educational framework which is also endorsed by the department of basic education.

It is also aligned to the national curriculum framework for children from birth to 6 years of age. We do workshops with stakeholders and go through a process of reflecting on the main challenges and most pressing challenges that are facing children in South Africa.

Then we prioritise. Obviously, there are so many challenges and we can't address all of them so we go through a prioritisation process in which we decide which are most pressing right now, what are the ones where, as Takalani Sesame, we have a comparative advantage as mass media to make the biggest difference.

We also do extensive research at the beginning of every season to validate those needs that we have identified to get views from parents and from children.

About other themes in the current season, besides learning through play, there are two other themes that we are deliberately addressing are the themes of diversity and inclusion, as well as ubuntu.

With diversity - and as you might be aware in the world of film, it's all about "show, don't tell". We're not shouting about it but we're showing.

We're showing the characters, we're showing the children interacting with people whom they share differences, whether those differences are in terms of outlook, how their skin looks, in terms of language, in terms of ethnicity, nationality and where they come from, in terms of gender. So we are modelling all of those elements of diversity and inclusion very deliberately within Takalani Sesame.

The third theme is ubuntu which is related to that. We are putting ubuntu at the centre of Takalani Sesame. We're using the show to model and teach children about the importance of the values of caring, respect, about sharing, about living and working together whether you are different or whether you are the same.

This is in every episode. At the end of the episode, after the characters do a certain challenge in which they have to make something to deliver to a friend who is different from them, they deliver that gift, then celebrate and then you see them celebrating and dancing to an ubuntu song. We've created a Takalani ubuntu song that they dance to. We even have a full music video version of the song.

The puppeteering and production values of Takalani Sesame - how has that possibly improved or advanced because it's the same people who stay and keep doing this craft?
Innocent Nkata: We have been very fortunate I have to say to have puppeteers who have stayed with Takalani Sesame for such a long time. There are very few substitutes for experience.

The puppeteers of all 5 of the main Takalani Sesame characters have been with us for a very long time. What it means is that the work is of a very high quality.

Puppeteering is very difficult and taxing work. So having had them for a very long time means that they have lots of experience. It also means that their focus is really on producing a high-quality show.

The new characters - Basma and Jad and Grover - for them we had to recruit new puppeteers. This is young talent, fresh artists and part of us developing new puppeteering talent in South Africa.

For them to be able to pick this up and learning alongside these very experienced puppeteers has been once of the things that also strengthens the quality of the show.

Where we're pegging the production values for viewers who are familiar with America's Sesame Street - because that's our mothership and the highest quality of all of our programmes - we'll say our production values are almost next to the quality of Sesame Street.

We deliberately did that because this is a critical milestone - as Takalani Sesame we're celebrating our 20th anniversary, we want to reposition the Takalani brand, consolidating where we have come from and driving a new vision going forward, and responding to children's needs which are becoming even more complex.

It's the first time that the Lego Foundation has become involved or become a partner. I don't think they give you free Lego blocks but what does the Lego Foundation contribute? Just funding or what does the Lego Foundation allow Takalani Sesame to do more or differently?
Innocent Nkata: Our partnership with the Lego Foundation is a groundbreaking multimedia partnership.

That partnership is at a global level. A big part of it is in the Middle East, and including South Africa.

It's focused on learning through play, and producing content to promote learning through play on different platforms on television, digital platforms, as well as through community outreach. So it's a far-reaching partnership that goes far beyond just the television.

Its primary focus is to enable the infusion of learning through play into Takalani Sesame media content across the different platforms.

Sesame still retains the editorial control of the production of the show.

When we produce the playful problem-solving block which carries the learning-through-play theme, we work very closely with the Lego Foundation. We consult with them to provide some guidance on how we are treating the learning-through-play theme in the TV show.

■ Takalani Sesame is broadcast on SABC2 on weekdays at 15:30.
■ The English version of Elmo's World News Special will be broadcast on SABC2 on Sunday 2 August at 18:30.