Val Thomas-Matson always wanted to work in children’s television. But the Western Washington University broadcast communications graduate’s first task interning at KOMO was stuffing envelopes with letters explaining the cancellation of beloved local children’s show “Boomerang.” It would take nearly 30 years before a Best Starts for Kids grant gave her the opportunity to create her own local children’s TV program.
“Look, Listen and Learn” is an early-learning television show grounded in child-development research. Created by producer Thomas-Matson for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) audiences, the show features a diverse cast in local settings. It presents lessons for kindergarten-readiness and addresses timely, real-world issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. The first season of “Look, Listen and Learn” recently won three Tellys, awards honoring excellence in video and television across all screens from among 12,000 entries from all 50 states and five continents.
Thomas-Matson worked in broadcasting for many years before moving into public health. But even working in drug and alcohol prevention, she dreamed of a BIPOC-centered program like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and Shari Lewis’ Lambchop that would feature an auntie and her animal puppet friend.
“In my community I am very much a woman of authority as an auntie. I take that role very seriously, as we do in the Black community and a lot of communities of color,” said Thomas-Matson. In 2016, her characters Auntie Lena and her animal friend, Possum, debuted in Thistle Theatre’s stage show “Auntie Lena’s African Stories.” Finally, in 2018, a Best Starts for Kids Innovation Grant enabled Thomas-Matson to begin television production of “Look, Listen and Learn.”
“Reading is fundamental for us,” said Thomas-Matson of the program. A picture book created by an artist of color anchors each episode. Its social-emotional theme is woven through the episode’s reading, cooking and art segments, linked by conversations between Auntie Lena and Possum. Every script is evaluated for educational value against the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills list. After the credits, Auntie Lena presents a parenting tip.
The pandemic provided a surprising opportunity for the show. While developing safety protocols that would allow them to film the planned second season, the “Look, Listen and Learn” team struck on the idea of mini-episodes. In these, Auntie Lena joins Possum on Zoom to talk about timely, complicated topics like the Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19 safety.
“We were fortunate to find a blessing during COVID in that we could be a resource and offer comfort for kids and families during a difficult time,” said Thomas-Matson. They continued to release mini-episodes after resuming the regular season production. The most recent is “Do Black Lives Still Matter?”
Outdoor filming sites provided by Woodland Park Zoo and Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands were valuable resources during the pandemic. But local partnerships were always part of Thomas-Matson’s vision for the show.
“People would say, ‘You can’t do a local TV show,’ and I got really mad. I thought, ‘Why the heck can’t a little Black girl from Seattle, Washington, create a show about her town?’ I wanted little Black girls and other little girls from here to see themselves represented.”
But there is more than hometown pride behind the focus on location. Many places feel off-limits or unwelcoming to families of color, an effect of institutionalized racism that research has shown harms children’s development. “Look, Listen and Learn” is presenting local cultural and learning resources that are welcoming to families of color.
“I wanted to showcase for families some of the places where it is safe to explore, to look, listen and learn freely,” said Thomas-Matson.
Although white viewers may not relate to this aspect of the program, Thomas-Matson emphasizes that she wants all families to enjoy the show.
“It’s for everybody. All of our families need to normalize seeing BIPOC people being the best selves they can be. We are celebrating BIPOC children and families in concert with white families,” Thomas-Matson said.
“Look, Listen and Learn” won Telly Gold Awards for season one as a whole and for episode seven, “Don’t Touch My Fur.” The mini-episode, “What does ‘Black Lives Matter’ mean?” won a Silver Award for online children’s programming.
“The Tellys tell us ‘Look, Listen and Learn’ is an example of a need that was not being met and people are hungry for it. There is a need for more local programming. There is room for more brilliance of Black and brown and women producers,” said Thomas-Matson.