Meet the woman behind Blue's Clues, Cha-Ching

by Cathy Rose A. Garcia, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Oct 28 2013 04:26 PM | Updated as of Oct 29 2013 06:09 PM

Dr. Alice Wilder gives a speech during the launch of Pru Life UK's "Cha-Ching" season 3 at the Mind Museum, Bonifacio Global City. Photo by Cathy Rose A. Garcia, ABS-CBNnews.com

MANILA, Philippines - It may come as a surprise to discover that an internationally-recognized children’s education specialist, who has helped create and produce shows such as "Blue's Clues" and "Cha-Ching," was a "reluctant learner" as a child.

In an interview with ABS-CBNnews.com last week, Dr. Alice Wilder shared how she discovered her passion for learning and the secret to making children's shows not just educational but entertaining and "sticky."

"I was a reluctant learner. It wasn't until I was in college, undergrad, that a teacher found me and excited me about learning. She brought me out to schools to talk with kids to run psychology studies on memory and cognition and I loved it. I was like,'You actually get to talk to kids?' If you ask them the right questions, they'll answer you and they can give you insights," she said.

The hit Tom Hanks-starrer "Big" inspired Wilder to pursue a career in children's education.

"I wanted to be Tom Hanks' character Josh (in "Big"). I wanted to be the adult in the room that thought like a kid and represented the kid's point of view while making products and content for children," she said.

So Wilder went to Teachers College, Columbia University to get a doctorate in educational psychology. There she met a woman from Nickelodeon, who would go on to create Blue's Clues. Wilder was invited to join Nickelodeon's research department and later became director of research for Blue's Clues.

In the book "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell wrote that Blue's Clues "may be one of the stickiest television shows ever made." Gladwell described how Wilder and other researchers would test each of the proposed Blue's Clues scripts with preschoolers in New York, before finalizing it.

"She (Blue's Clues creator) brought me on, telling me 'We want to be connected to our audience always.'... Basically we created a process by which we talked to kids three times during the production of every episode. So I got to play the role of Tom Hanks because in every meeting, I was in schools talking with preschoolers, and I would translate that to the creative staff," she said.

Her work in formative research is based on the philosophy that "the only way to understand what children are capable of doing, what appeals to them, and what they know, is to ask them."

She continued to bring this philosophy to her other projects, such as PBS Kids' "Super Why!", Speakaboos, a kid-centric, cross-publisher literacy platform, and most recently, "Cha-Ching Money Smart Kids".

Teaching financial literacy to kids

Wilder was recently in Manila for Pru Life UK's launch of the third season of Cha-Ching, an award-winning animated musical show aimed at teaching financial concepts to 7 to 12-year-olds.

She worked with Prudential Corp. Asia (PCA) and Cartoon Network Asia on the project. Cha-Ching has been a success, particularly in the Philippines where the program has been incorporated in the curriculum of some schools.

"I got involved with Cartoon Network and Prudential through Sean Rach (PCA regional director for brand & corporate affairs). It was his vision to bring financial literacy using music to kids and their parents. But the question was how. How do we take financial literacy, a topic that many adults hear and think is boring, and make it more interesting and appealing (to kids)?"

For the Cha-Ching project, Wilder once again started by talking to the kids to find out what they know about money and what they wanted to know.

"For example, a 10-year-old, one of his first questions to me was 'Does money really grow on trees?'... Another asked, 'So the ATM? Money is printed inside there, right?'... Financial literacy, the concepts about how it works are invisible. Kids only know what they see. And most of what they see is spending, and that's what they know the best. That's how we came up with earn, spend, save and donate. Four choices they can make," she said.

Cha-Ching, which airs on Cartoon Network, tackles the four core money concepts - earn, spend, save and donate - in a fun and entertaining way. Through a series of animated music videos about a band of kids with different money-spending habits, children can learn practical money-smart skills.

"Earn, save, spend and donate" are repeated in various episodes, which allows kids to master these and use it in their everyday lives.

To show how effective this can be, Wilder cited an episode of Blue's Clues, where kids were taught to "stop, breathe and think" whenever they feel frustrated.

"The kids were using that in every day life. When they see their parents getting frustrated, and they tell their parents, 'Mom, stop, breathe and think.' (With Cha-Ching) it's 'Please little spender, think.' It's the same idea of making it sticky, making it repetitive, making it catchy. Apply it in situations that are really concrete and they know when and how to use them. And everyone can learn it," she said.

Among the keys to Cha-Ching's success are the use of music and the use of real-life situations, which kids aged 7-12, can relate to.

"Music is a great way to get content to be sticky and repeatable. We love the idea we can show our characters making mistakes and they can learn from that. We started with situations that are very familiar to kids. We researched these episodes with kids and when kids said,'Oh, yeah, that's happened to me.' That's how we knew we were going to reach them," she said.

Asked if she was surprised about Cha-Ching's success, Wilder laughingly answered, "I should probably say yes, but... No. I believe in kids... I know how excited they can be about a concept like money. And if we did our jobs correctly, that we could not only inspire them to think more about money but also teach them what they're going to need as a framework for thinking about money."