‘Tiny Time Travel’ shorts help kids learn emotional literacy

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Courtesy PBS Kids

Best friends Tyler (Coulter Ibanez) and Tony (Donovan Monzon-Sanders) help their friends solve problems in PBS Kids’ “Tiny Time Travel,” a series of live action shorts.

PBS Kids shows have always leaned into the joy of literacy, whether children experienced it through alphabet lessons on Sesame Street or story time on Reading Rainbow. For the past decade or so, though, programs have also emphasized emotional literacy by teaching kids social skills, communication techniques and how to really connect with those around them. 

It’s an important quest, considering that research suggests that kids who learn to manage emotions become better problem solvers, have higher self-esteem, and can more easily cope with stressful situations. So important, in fact, that the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready To Learn program has leaned into the curriculum of social communication, providing funding for live-action shorts that teach 5- to 8-year-olds how to understand nonverbal communication, consider others’ perspectives and clear up misunderstandings.

Dubbed Tiny Time Travel, the 12-part series is the brainchild of Odd Squad co-creator and head writer Tim McKeon. Released March 15 on PBS Kids, the series follows 11-year-old inventor Tyler and his effervescent and endlessly supportive best friend Tony. Together, they use a device that looks like a light-up lunchbox to go back in time to solve problems in their neighborhood. That can involve teaching a friend that “hot” can describe the temperature or spiciness of food, or why you shouldn’t reveal “spoilers” for a movie your friend wants to see. 

McKeon’s idea for the show stemmed from a PBS Kids request for proposals for alternative literacy programming. The April 2022 RFP was PBS Kids’ response to DOE’s World Of Work curriculum, which helps give kids skills they might need to be successful later in life. 

McKeon was quick to respond to the RFP, even though he wasn’t entirely sure what RTL was looking for. Luckily, he says, PBS Kids had provided a very thorough explanation. “I was like, ‘Okay, so it’s a literacy show, but it doesn’t talk about letters and reading and writing,’” he says. “It’s about different ways to communicate, theory of mind and understanding peoples’ points of view. It’s about making mistakes, realizing you have and then correcting them.”

The concept of learning from your mistakes led McKeon to the idea of time travel, though he says the plot device is one of his favorites.  

“I’m a time travel fanatic,” he explains. So much so that the Odd Squad writers room made a rule that he was not allowed to write any more time travel stories because there were already so many of them.” To him, time travel is about second chances, as well as about wish fulfillment. 

Everyone, he says, has an idea about what they’d do if they could time travel. Put kids in charge of the whole thing, a la Odd Squad, and you’d have a little bit of magic. 

Balance of teaching and entertaining 

Every episode of Tiny Time Travel explores a different kind of social communication. McKeon used PBS Kids’ guidelines to craft where he wanted the series to go, but he had creative control over how to get his messages across. Working with curriculum advisors became essential.

“I never want to be in a box where I’m just servicing the curriculum,” McKeon says. “I really want to teach it and … hit the points that PBS wants to hit. They tell me what those things are, and my job is to wrap all that up in an entertaining story with character and comedy, and with stakes that kids will stay involved in despite all the other things that are seeking their attention.” 

Take, for instance, the episode about homophones, or two words that sound the same but have different meanings. In that story, Tony and Tyler see their friend Cammy in the Peruvian restaurant run by Tony’s family. Cammy is sitting alone and looks bummed out. 

In McKeon’s original draft, the boys saw their friend frowning, approached her and said, “We see you’re really sad. What’s going on?” Curriculum experts suggested that Tony and Tyler should instead model how to ask a friend how they’re feeling. 

In the final script and on screen, they notice Cammy is looking down in the dumps — which is highlighted with an illustrated still frame denoting her slumped shoulders and head — and ask her, “Are you sad?”  That question allows Cammy to express her emotions and connect with her friends, who are there with open ears and lots of friendly questions.

Understanding the thought process

Theory of mind, or the idea of thinking about other peoples’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, is part of the show’s curriculum, says Anne Lund, senior director of content and curriculum for PBS Kids. This cognitive process really starts to percolate when kids hit elementary school. “Preschoolers really think that everyone is thinking the way that they’re thinking,” she says. “This series focuses on the end of that space, where kids are really coming into that understanding.” 


Having spent formative years of their lives cooped up at home during COVID, today’s elementary school kids might have a need for this kind of lesson in particular, she adds.  “Really, we’re just putting a name on skills that have always been important for this age group. We’ve certainly modeled conversation and language development with kids in the past, but this series really hones in on the thought process to help kids really see and understand the choices they make.”

Tiny Time Travel also leans into PBS Kids’ curriculum by centering itself around two empathetic, open male leads who love to boost each other up. “They’re the biggest fans of each other,” McKeon says. 

In creating Tiny Time Travel, the creative team  relied on the actors’ backgrounds to inform script writing. The actors who play Tony and Tyler were cast after the first four episodes had been written. The writers then reworked the drafts, incorporating personal traits of the actors into their characters, such as how Donovan Monzon-Sanders, who plays Tony, is fluent in Spanish. 

“The whole process was really joyful and collaborative, and I hope it got us to a more authentic place on screen,” McKeon says. Producers also brought in a cultural advisor and cast Hmong actors for an episode about how different cultures communicate. 

In making the series, “we always kept the rules in communication in mind,” Lund says. “We say ‘rules’ because they can be different across cultures, within cultures, with different families and among individuals.” That includes thinking about kids who communicate in more than one language or who might have a social communication disorder. “We tried to really represent a wide range of kids and contexts so that kids at home really could find their person on screen.” 

‘Tools to be better communicators’

CPB and PBS Kids manage the Ready to Learn initiative under a contract with the Department of Education. RTL, a $31 million federal program, combines children’s media that supports early learning with station-based education outreach and training for parents, educators and caregivers. 

While PBS grant managers hold regular check-ins with the Department of Education staff to update them on RTL-funded projects, the creative process is really driven by show producers like McKeon and company. 

Over at PBS Kids, the brand’s engagement teams have been working on what Lund calls “different ways to contextualize this media for different audiences,” such as young learners and their parents or families. For educators, she says, five episodes of Tiny Time Travel and supporting resources are available on PBS LearningMedia. 

Next month, a training for RTL’s Learning Neighborhood stations will provide “resources aligned to the show’s learning goals,” both newly created and pre-existing, Lund says. The Learning Neighborhood comprises 41 stations that work with networks of local partners to address the educational needs of low-income children. PBS Kids also is promoting the shorts with articles and activities in its email newsletter, on the PBS Kids For Parents website and on social media. 

“We really have a nice suite of resources to reach the ecosystem that we know surrounds the kids that are watching,” Lund says. “A big piece of all our Ready To Learn work in particular is to do that wrapping around to really support all our content across the different platforms and the audiences that we know are involved. We know that when the grown ups in kids’ lives can be engaged around the content and have those conversations that kids will learn more.”

“Our job is different from teachers in a classroom or any educator,” McKeon adds. “It’s to entertain and educate, but I hope that our show makes connections and gives kids tools to be better communicators and better humans. It’s not going to do the whole job, but I hope that it is a piece of the puzzle.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the learning objectives of Tiny Time Travel. Characters and storylines in the show model social language skills, a curriculum that includes but is much broader than emotional literacy. 

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