It’s a question that parents and teachers struggle to answer at home and in the classroom: how do we make math fun for kids?
The creative minds at PBS Kids have spent the last few years devising a solution to that problem. With Ready to Learn funding provided through the Department of Education in 2010, PBS staff set their sights on creating two math-focused children’s shows. Their answer for the 3- to 5-year-old crowd was PEG + CAT, an animated series that debuted last fall. Produced by Fred Rogers Company, PEG + CAT teaches measurement, shapes and patterns, skills that help the characters solve their real-life problems.
Odd Squad, a live-action math series geared toward children ages 5 to 8, is the latest addition to PBS’s slate of math-based kids’ programming. Created by Tim McKeon and Adam Peltzman of The Electric Company fame, the show will feature sleuths Olive and Otto, members of a detective agency that uses math concepts to solve unusual mysteries around their town. The show is produced by Canadian new media company Sinking Ship Entertainment and Fred Rogers Company.
Producers of Odd Squad took inspiration from PEG + CAT by approaching its curricular topic with “the point of view that math is fun and interesting and helpful, said Linda Simensky, v.p. of PBS children’s programming. “As we started developing ideas for the early elementary-oriented show, we encouraged everybody to have a sense of humor about it and make sure the show had great characters [and] stories.”
Simensky credited Kim Berglund, content and curriculum director for PBS children’s programming, for her work with math advisors to develop age-appropriate curriculum for the series. Unlike Peg + Cat, Odd Squad will focus more on connecting elementary math principles, such as the concept of zero and multiplication, to real-life situations.
For example, in one episode, the town’s pizza delivery person wishes she could clone herself to get more work done, Simensky said. Her wish comes true, and it turns into a lesson in doubling.
“She divides into two different people and they both start delivering pizza, but she starts delivering double of everything,” Simensky said. “You see that principle executed and you see it played out right there in live action in front of your eyes. You might not even know it’s multiplication yet — you just see it happening that way.”
“It’s very common for people, adults or kids, to say they don’t like math,” Simensky said. “But I think the real thing is they just don’t know why it’s useful.” As the Odd Squad detectives demonstrate how math skills can help solve problems, Simensky hopes kids in the audience will pick up on an over-arching lesson – that math skills are important to learn. “We’re helping kids have a better attitude about it, which is the first step in getting them to understand it.”
Odd Squad brings another change to PBS Kids’ animation–heavy lineup: live action production. Simensky said the creative choice springs from a sentimental connection to popular PBS live-action series of the past, such as Ghostwriter and Wishbone. Simensky’s two children enjoy watching live-action shows on other kids networks, she notes, as long as they’re funny. Humor is something that writers McKeon and Peltzman can deliver.
“The scripts are really funny,” Simensky said. “And the thing that amazes me is that each script manages to find math that’s relevant to kids this age and to do something really funny with it, to cause some quirky problems that the agents in the show have to figure out.”
Odd Squad, which features two 11-minute cases per episode, is slated to premiere later this year or early next year, The official airdate will be announced in May at the PBS Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The TV show will be accompanied by free online games and mobile applications designed to extend viewers’ learning — and love of — math.