Behind the Screen: Lesli Rotenberg of PBS KIDS


Today we have an interview with Lesli Rotenberg, general manager of children’s programming at PBS. We talk about transmedia storytelling, STEM and the future of children’s media.

What is transmedia storytelling?

At PBS KIDS, we think of transmedia as a way of developing content across platforms to create a seamless experience for our audience, offering consistent engagement with our characters and curricular areas regardless of how you encounter them. When we launched our newest preschool series “Peg + Cat” last year, we developed on-air episodes, digital games, offline activities and an app all at the same time. Kids, parents and teachers can engage with the series in a variety of ways, all of which are connected through story, character and learning goals. For example, you can see Peg and Cat meet a group of pirates in the show on TV, play a digital game with them online, use PBS LearningMedia resources from the show in the classroom and print out a physical board game to continue playing off screen.

At PBS KIDS we believe that this connected experience with our series and their curricular goals creates even more learning opportunities for kids and offers parents and teachers new ways to extend that learning in an engaging way for their kids or students. We do a great deal of research at PBS KIDS and are in the process of testing the educational impact of engaging with our content on more than one platform as opposed to one stand-alone experience.

How is PBS KIDS increasing the love of science in kindergarten children and why is it important to encourage interest as early as possible?

Research shows that the early years in a child’s life are critical for their development and success in school. At PBS KIDS, we believe that not only is it important to start building key skills early, but it’s also critical that we encourage children to get excited about learning and exploring early on. Children’s media should light a spark for kids, tapping into their interests, so they are inspired to keep exploring after the screen is turned off.

There are many ways to leverage kids’ interest in a particular topic to help encourage a love of STEM. Kids can explore natural science concepts by tapping into their interest in animals or dinosaurs (as we do with our series “Wild Kratts” and “Dinosaur Train”), or they can dive into engineering by building structures with blocks or creating new inventions with household items (concepts that we model in “Curious George”). STEM is such a robust subject and provides many opportunities to help children explore the world around them.

What would you tell a teacher or parent that is wary of letting their pre-K child watch media on an iPhone or tablet?

There are so many new screens and new ways to engage with media today, which can be overwhelming for parents and teachers. It’s important to keep in mind that whether a child is using a TV set, computer, tablet or mobile phone, what matters most is the content they are engaging with. I always recommend to both parents and teachers that they look for content that will engage and inspire kids — by featuring a character they love, or a subject area that they are curious about. It’s also a good idea to look for positive role models in media. And of course, it is important for every child to have a balanced media diet; parents can set limits to help manage screen time. We have free tools on our pbsparents.org site to help and also recommend the great resources available from Common Sense Media.

How is PBS KIDS helping to make STEM more fun and appealing to children?

Many of PBS KIDS’ programs offer lead characters that help foster a love of STEM learning in children. Curious George, with his insatiable curiosity about the world around him, helps inspire kids to explore, build and experiment — as they learn engineering skills along the way. The Kratt Brothers, from our series “Wild Kratts,” are creature adventurers, helping kids discover that animals can take them anywhere in science. With music, humor and great stories, Peg and Cat show kids how problem solving, perseverance and working together can help them build math skills.

In your opinion, what is the future of children’s media? How do you think this will affect teachers and students in the classroom?

Our next frontier for media is to create experiences that not only teach and engage kids, but also invite and empower parents to participate in their learning at the same time. We know media can teach, and we know that parents’ involvement in their children’s education is the single greatest contributor to their success, but we’re only just starting to discover how we can use these two strengths together to help children thrive.

One of our most recent innovations to help engage parents is the PBS KIDS Super Vision App — a tool that gives parents insight into what their children are learning as they watch and play on pbskids.org. PBS KIDS Super Vision lets parents see on their smartphones, in real time, what skill areas their children are engaging with in every PBS KIDS game or video. It offers suggestions for related, hands-on learning activities parents and children can do together, and a Play Timer parents can use to help transition kids from screen time to real-world experiences. This app is just the tip of the iceberg. We plan to continue adding features and building functionality that lets parents not only see what their children are learning, but also help them better understand how they’re learning by analyzing the kinds of games children gravitate toward and excel at. And we’re also building new tools to help teachers track students’ progress in exciting ways.

Through tools like these, our hope is to increase engagement and learning for kids both inside and outside the classroom, helping prepare kids for success in school and in life, encouraging kids to be excited about learning and exploring their passions, and giving parents and teachers new ways to support this learning and exploration.