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'Puffin Rock' Opens Up a World of Ecological Imagination for Children


What differentiates Puffin Rock from its peers in the crowded market space of children’s educational programming is its commitment to place and how it imagines authority.

Puffin Rock

Cast: Kate McCafferty, Chris O'Dowd, Sally McDaid
Studio: Dog Ears
Network: Netflix
Year: 2015 -

Watching television shows with my kids (ages six, four, and two) means re-watching television shows with my kids. Lately, thanks to the mysterious and sacred algorithms of Netflix, my kids have “discovered" an animated series from Ireland entitled Puffin Rock. The show, which originally aired in 2015, follows the everyday adventures of two young puffins, Oona (voiced by Kate McCafferty) and her little brother Baba (voiced by Sally McDaid). For two seasons - 78 episodes, each six- to seven-minutes in length -- the puffins enthusiastically explore and find adventures in their world, which is limited to a small island.

One of the unusual pleasures of watching the show is discovering how the puffins find novelty in a contained ecology that seems so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The show's refusal to stray beyond this habitat is foundational to its ecological and pedagogical philosophy.

So many US children's shows feature protagonists who depart from their familiar world to adventure in faraway locations. Even Sesame Street, which pioneered children's television in the US, frequently leaves its titular geography to explore various spaces, including, who can forget, journeying to the remote castle of a re-imagined Dracula whose aristocratic title “count" assumes a different signification than the Bram Stoker variety. TV shows about neighborhoods, such as Mr. Rodgers, still have lengthy segments where the familiar is left behind, such as the regular visits to the “Neighborhood of Make Believe". On Puffin Rock, however, the young puffins remain in their habitat, learning in every episode that a wealth of layered knowledge and endless wonders can be discovered in their environment, even if such is a small, rocky island.

Puffin Rock comes from the imagination of Dog Ears, a children's media company located in Northern Ireland (Derry to be specific). While the island at the show's center is small, the production team behind Puffin Rock is anything but. The show is co-produced by Oscar-nominated Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon and the international publisher Penguin.

If you have children and they haven't visited Puffin Rock yet, according to the corporate powers that be, you will soon. Visiting this island is a treat because of the show's rich ecological and educational imagination.

In every episode, Oona and Baba learn how their island's species and habitats are fundamentally entangled and interdependent. Like so many other educational programs, Puffin Rock combines education and entertainment. But what differentiates Puffin Rock from its peers in the crowded marketspace of children's educational programing is its commitment to place and how it imagines authority.

Making learning fun has been a long-standing mantra of this genre, and authority figures are typically imagined as the antithesis of fun. In this genre, the character who perhaps best exemplifies authority is Charlie Brown's teacher, who drones on and on in an endless stream of “wah-wah-wah-wah-wah". In children's education, authority figures are typically straw figures whom children (or child-like protagonists) learn to circumvent, defy, or in the case of Charlie Brown's teacher, ignore.

Yet Puffin Rock moves beyond this narrow definition and re-imagines authority in important, progressive ways in the form of its narrator. Wonderfully voiced by Chris O'Dowd (from Bridesmaids, Moone Boy and The IT Crowd), the narrator guides us through Puffin Rock's ecology, offering insights and facts about this delicate ecosystem and the multiple social relations that make this rocky island possible and sustainable.

Despite being a figure of authority, the narrator refuses a hierarchical dynamic that authority usually insists upon. He is not situated above the action, doling out facts and knowledge from an elite, elevated position. Rather, the show locates the narrator as a virtual spectator, watching the puffins as if for the first time. The first episode tellingly begins with the narrator asking “Where's Oona?" and the narrator (and camera) searching the landscape for the young puffin. In contrast to an omniscient narrator who always speaks with the confidence of knowing, Puffin Rock's narrator is wedded to the present. In this sense, the narrator and viewer occupy similar positions: both are observing and attempting to understand the social relations unfolding.

The narrator, in other words, models how to be a naturalist, showing viewers what it means to look, think, and care about the surrounding world. One of the most important attributes of the narrator is his demeanor, which is one of unbridled enthusiasm for and curiosity about the natural world. He is consistently in a state of surprise, wonder, and gratitude for the complexities and beauties of nature. In the opening episode, for example, the narrator says that he “loves watching puffins" because they are “always doing something interesting", and this love becomes contagious. Throughout, curiosity remains a guiding principle and learning is a constant, pleasurable activity.

The narrator's pedagogical aim is to help viewers develop their ecological imagination. Central to such a pedagogical project is the show's decision, perhaps counterintuitively, to make the narrator fallible and frequently wrong. In the second episode, Oona, Baba, and their friend, a Eurasian pygmy shrew, encounter an egg. The shrew asks what the object is and Oona answers that it's an egg. The narrator interrupts and confirms this observation, but then adds, “definitely a puffin egg". But Oona corrects the narrator, explaining that the egg is white and puffin eggs are blue. The episode is structured, in part, around the mystery of discovering what species incubates within the egg.

Rather than always learning from the narrator, Oona, Baba, and viewers learn with the narrator, creating a more participatory and experimental form of learning. In this sense, the show returns us to the etymology of “err“ before it became a mark of shame, as in “error". To “err" is to wander, to stray from the designated path. In modern pedagogy, to err is to be wrong, but as Puffin Rock narrates, to err is a salient form of learning and a salient aspect of becoming an ecologist. It's important to follow ecological mysteries wherever they may lead. To be an ecologist means to err frequently: there are many false stars, unexpected turns, surprising paths.

And when we err, we often see things that the dominant culture keeps out of view. In episode seven, “Beach Rescue", the puffins must rescue a baby seagull trapped in a fishing line. Even on an island that is seemingly distant from human affairs, humanity remains (destructively) present. In the same episode, we see one of the island's beaches littered with plastic straws, plastic caps, plastic bottles -- all the result of our global throwaway culture. The narrator doesn't lecture or critique. Rather, without any guiding authorial voice, we see that in the age of global capitalism, there are no isolated islands. Even Puffin Island is being shaped and informed by a larger economic structure and process.

Perhaps, as the show suggests, one of the most important pedagogical strategies to help develop our ecological imagination is to teach children -- and adults -- to see.

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