HEIHEI says its programming is targeted at kids five to nine years old, but having watched the whole suite of shows – yes, all 39 of them – Thalia Kehoe Rowden finds plenty that’s great for pre-schoolers. Here are the best shows for littlies – and a few to avoid.
What do you look for in programming for under-fives?
All kids are different, of course. In our house, one child couldn’t handle any scary stuff or even mild conflict between characters until he was about four, while his sister, now three, cheerfully watches ‘bad guys’ with only a very occasional twinge of worry.
HEIHEI reckons its shows are for kids aged about five to nine, but I’m really not sure why. Not only are there quite a few tween and teen shows on the platform, but there are lots of things that are pitched a lot younger than my six-year-old.
The shows I’m recommending today have these things in common:
- They don’t have any danger, peril or scary stuff
- They don’t have anyone being ‘mean’ or sophisticated social conflict that little kids may not be able to process or relate to
- They pass the Maisy Test with flying colours so there’s no subtle sexism to worry about
- They add something useful and age-appropriate to our kids’ lives – interest in the world, learning about something, exploring feelings
- They centre children’s experiences, rather than being about adults.
Darwin and Newts
From the same producers as What Now?, Darwin and Newts is an animated problem-solving show, with a brother and sister and their friends exclaiming ‘Let’s science this!’ whenever their projects hit a roadblock. They retrieve a lost tool with a magnet, make a simple pulley, and so on. They explain things to each other slowly, and with doodles in their notebooks, so there’s maximum chance of drawing kids along with them and helping them to understand the science.
The characters are all Māori, and there’s a smattering of reo and lots of Māori design motifs in the animation, though it looks like a lot of the voice actors and production team are Pākehā.
According to the NZ On Air funding documents, the show was conceived – and funded – as revolving around two brothers. It’s now about a brother and sister, and both kids contribute science, creativity, and engineering achievements to the show.
I’m glad they made the change, but a bit concerned that it got written and funded without anyone questioning that they were making a science show starring only boys. I hope the change came because of a fundamental shift of understanding within Whitebait Media and/or NZ On Air.
Tamariki Takeover is a simple set of short features of kids telling us about things they love – horse-riding, pipi-collecting, hāngī.
Some of the kids begin with their pepeha, which is always nice to see onscreen. There are only three so far, but NZ On Air seems to have funded 45, so hopefully there will be more soon.
What a cool show! My two kids and I were on our feet, following along as the two great adult hosts (Kaharau Keogh and Moana-Roa Callaghan) and their tamariki assistants taught us elements of kapa haka.
We got to have a breather in between practising our skills as the show visited a multi-lingual school including a Māori immersion unit, and the school kapa haka group performed for us.
Kia Mau! is one of the excellent shows shared from Māori Television, and you can see the kapa haka building block skills again online, along with song lyrics and everything you need for a refresher later on.
Riddle + Squizz
You’ll find this in the audio section – I think it’s just been mis-tagged for the moment – and it’s worth tracking down. Real kids send in their questions about, well, anything – and in any language – and the Riddle + Squizz team put together a wordless, stop-motion, creative meditation on it.
They’re not trying to answer the question, exactly, but doodle around it. They’re lovely to watch, and there are more on the way.
This is the only show on HEIHEI where I’ve spotted anyone using New Zealand Sign Language so far. May there be much more of it!
Young Ocean Explorers
Riley Hathaway (14 at the time of filming, now 16) has been sailing, diving and exploring with her dad Steve, a professional underwater cinematographer, for years, and it shows. She’s a total pro, with a snorkel or a straight-to-camera.
Together they head to all sorts of cool places and feature marine life, ecological problems and solutions, and get kids excited about oceans – and preserving them.
Like lots of HEIHEI’s collection, this well-produced series has played elsewhere, as part of What Now? and on Air New Zealand flights, and they’ve built a great website around their filming, too. Once my six-year-old had devoured all 16 five-minute episodes on HEIHEI, he headed to their website and spent another hour-and-a-half watching dozens of short clips and interactive quizzes. It was good reading practice for him, too!
It’s aimed at older children, but is totally accessible and appropriate for little kids.
I sincerely hope there will be more of these.
Fanimals is a new TVNZ show with high production values, all about animals. It’s a classic presenter-led, magazine show, hosted by effervescent Jess Quilter and friendly vet Stacey Tremain, with interviews with animal-keen Kiwi kids and ‘celebrities’, a chance to send in vet questions to Stacey, craft ideas, and even a 24-hour guinea-pig-cam. An easy crowd-pleaser.
Fanimals has its own website, too, with games, extras and a chance to peek at the guinea pigs.
Māia the Brave
This TVNZ show is squarely aimed at young children, talking them through real-life things they might find scary, and trying out solutions.
What should you do if you’re scared of dogs, worried about moving house, or nervous about having a sleepover at Nana’s? Māia will help you be one of the bravest kids in the world, with some gentle reassurance and practical tips.
Shows that fail the Maisy Test
Over half of HEIHEI’s shows are, sadly, needlessly populated with far more male characters than female (two shows are female-dominated).
Let me just say this really clearly: HEIHEI’s line-up is sexist. If you watch a random selection of the shows – or every one – you will come away with the subconscious impression that boys’ lives and experiences are more interesting and important than girls’. This is not okay.
So here are two shows that would otherwise be great for little kids, but which have slipped off my list of recommendations because girls and women are so under-represented.
George and Me
George is a skateboarding kid who chats with his animated robot friend ‘Me’, voiced by a man, to explore human biology by ‘going micro’.
They’re good little shorts (only a couple of minutes each), and Bo Liew-King, who plays George, does a great job. But why are both characters male? There are only two characters in the whole show, and one is animated for heaven’s sake. One couldn’t be female?
The Moe Show
Well, this is adorable. Moe is a fluffy puppet, kind of a much-less-annoying version of Elmo, with a three-year-old’s speech patterns and interest in the world. There’s basic alphabet, a bit of te reo Māori, and gentle learning opportunities.
Moe’s voiced by an adult man, though, which is a pity, in a show for little kids, where he’s otherwise designed to be just like them. He interacts with a voice-over narrator who is also a man. Moe goes and explores things in the neighbourhood, and, in the episodes I watched, chats to more men and boys than women and girls.
I’m sure all of this is unconscious and unintended, but it’s just one more show that tells our kids that male experiences are worth showing on TV – but female experiences, not so much.
There’s heaps of potential here, but I won’t be encouraging my kids to watch it while there are so few girls and women on it.
Little kid shows we’re actively avoiding:
ZooMoo Make It stars a gorilla doing faux-ninja moves along with Asian-accented ‘ha-ya!’ noises and monkey grunts. It comes across to me as racist, though as a Pākehā person, I’m keen to hear the opinions of others on this.
ZooMoo Lost is a cute, well-made puppet show about a dog who photographs wildlife, but the actors mispronounce Māori words like kākāpō (in an episode entirely about that bird).
Families will have their own views on the mega-phenomenon that is Peppa Pig. For me, the routine fat-shaming takes it off our viewing list.
I’m not sure why HEIHEI says the platform is aimed at five-year-olds and up. Shows like Māia the Brave, The Moe Show and Tamariki Takeover are classic pre-schooler fare, and my three-year-old is delighted to have discovered ‘Newts’ as she says when requesting her new favourite show.
She’s also perfectly happy with some of the shows that are pitched older, but are not inappropriate, and which her big brother likes, such as Wild Eyes and Siouxsie and Eve Investigate.
Hopefully as the platform develops, the producers can bring in some more gender-balanced stuff for littlies – and commission new shows with a closer eye on representation, for all ages.
Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former Baptist minister and current mother and development worker. She writes about parenting, social justice and spirituality at Sacraparental.com.
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