A TV Show That Gets Kids Outside: Q&A with the Creators of ‘Nature Cat’
Parenting in the 21st century goes something like this: You ask your kids a question, and you’re met with silence. You ask again. Still, nothing. They’re so glued to the screen of the phone or the tablet or the TV that they don’t even seem to hear you, much less notice you’re in the room. And if they aren’t listening to you now, they definitely aren’t going to listen when you tell them to go out and play. So how do you get your kids to unplug?
You turn on the TV.
That’s right – on, not off. It might not be the first thing that comes to mind. A TV is just another screen to distract them, right? Right. And it can distract them straight into the backyard. At least if they’re watching ‘Nature Cat’ on PBS KIDS.
Created by brothers David and Adam Rudman, the Emmy-nominated series follows the adventures of a cartoon house cat, Fred, and his friends – Hal the dog, Squeeks the mouse and Daisy the bunny – as they explore the great outdoors. It’s a show designed to get kids back to nature (there’s even an app where Nature Cat shares daily adventures). It’s also a show parents can feel good about … because every busy parent knows that turning on the TV is an easy way to occupy your kids while you cook dinner or do laundry or pay bills. And now you don’t have to feel quite so guilty about it, and the Rudman brothers themselves will tell you why.
David and Adam talked to the Land O’Moms editors about how ‘Nature Cat’ came to be, and why it’s more than just another TV show or kid’s cartoon. Here’s what they had to say.
What inspired you to create ‘Nature Cat?’
DR: We each have four children. We were noticing that our kids weren’t playing outside as much as we did when we were growing up. We thought, is there a way to inspire kids to want to go outside and play? We were trying to think of a way to do that through television. Right around the same time, there was a book that came out by Richard Louv called “Last Child in the Woods.” He coined the phrase, “nature deficit disorder.” So it wasn’t just our own kids that were going through this; it was something happening all over the world. That’s how ‘Nature Cat’ came to be.
What makes ‘Nature Cat’ different than other kid’s cartoons?
AR: It’s a show that encourages them to turn off their devices, and get outside and play. There are other really great shows about the environment, nature and animals, but this is one where it starts in your own backyard. It gets kids to connect with what’s around them, from their own yard to their local parks.
Why a cat? How did you develop the show’s characters?
DR: We thought about pets. When their owners and families leave for the day for school and work, they’re kind of stuck inside. We thought that might be a way to introduce a character who yearns to be outside. Instead of looking at the world through his window, he wants to go outside and explore. The reason that we made him a cat is because house cats are sort of ill-equipped to be outside in nature. He’s a good leading character – a little bit clueless about the world, but excited to explore.
How did you cast the talent, all current or former SNL performers?
DR: First we got Bobby Moynihan to play Hal, because he was just perfect for that character. After that, we started thinking about going to other SNL performers, because they’re so versatile. They’re great improvisers. They’re great actors. They have such a wide range; they can sing and play comedy. We put the call out and asked if people wanted to get involved. Taran Killam said yes, and Kate McKinnon said yes, and Keenan Thompson said yes.
AR: That and PBS really wanted us to do a funny show, so we knew we wanted to get funny people.
Kids are loving the show, but parents are also becoming fans. Do you think the cast has something to do with that?
DR: Definitely. It’s a funny show for everybody. It’s definitely for kids, and kids get a lot out of it. But the humor really does work for all ages. A lot of it has to do with what the cast brings to it when they’re improvising the lines. There’s a lot of ad libbing, and we use a lot of the ad libs on the show.
When writing episodes, where do you draw inspiration from?
AR: Everywhere really. It’s stuff that’s happening with our own kids, and the curriculum advisor also writes a curriculum brief for each episode. She’ll suggest some different curriculum that she’d like us to tackle.
DR: A lot of it is also our kids and reading what’s going on in the world today. We did a show about plastic and the environment, because there’s so much going on in Chicago and all over about how plastic bags are not good for the environment. It [inspiration] comes from a lot of different places.
Speaking of curriculum, how do you balance entertainment with education?
AR: It’s hard to do. We try to make it as funny, active and adventurous as we can. It’s important to make the curriculum a part of the story. It’s part of the quest, it’s part of the adventure. The story doesn’t just stop to get the curriculum points in.
How do you keep kids tuned in when there are so many distractions, so many screens?
DR: In every episode, we have a “Play the Show” moment. Whether it’s building a bird house or finding footprints in your backyard, there’s an activity in every episode that we hope inspires kids to want to go outside and play. And there’s a lot of music in the show, and it’s very active. There’s also an app out now, which helps to encourage kids to go out and explore nature.
Do you have a favorite episode?
AR: Nature Cat has a Curiosity List of questions he tries to answer. In one episode he wondered, “Where do streams begin?” I don’t think I ever really knew the answer to that either, so it was interesting doing the episode and learning where streams do actually begin. It’s a great journey that he goes on to find the answer to that question. It’s funny; it has a lot of action. But I’m not going to tell you where it is … you have to watch it.