Ellen Doherty is head of production for Fred Rogers Productions, overseeing creation of television and digital content, as well as developing new properties. We spoke to her about the creation of the beautifully crafted series Through the Woods, what inspires her and what lessons today’s kids should be learning.
What is Through the Woods about?
“The show follows the adventures of a little boy named Rider and his dog Wolfie, who is his constant companion. Every day, Rider’s parents ask him to take something over to his grandmother, who lives on the other side of a small woody area between their houses. Along the way, something captures Rider’s curiosity - say a bird, a bunny, or a frog - and he gets caught up watching and wondering about the animal. When he gets to Grammie’s house, he shares his adventure with her. Sometimes they play together about something he saw, like hopping like frogs.”
How did you get the idea for Through the Woods?
“Since the show was for preschoolers, I wanted to set it in a place that would be accessible to most little kids - the kind of “nearby nature” that you can find in your backyard or at the park.
I grew up in a small town in Michigan. When I was little, my best friend and I would play in our neighborhood park. And next to that park was a small strip of trees, maybe 20-30 feet wide. It felt wild and unkempt. It wouldn’t look like much to a grown up, but to us it was The Woods. And there’s so much to wonder about and explore if you’re 5 or 6 years old - trees and leaves and slugs and bugs and birds and nests. Whenever you are, there are things to discover.”
Tell us a bit about the team behind Through The Woods.
“We produced the show from Pittsburgh at Fred Rogers Productions, including working with our staff child development advisors. We also had a wonderful nature advisor, Marijke Hecht, who has many years’ experience working with kids in parks in Pittsburgh as well as New York City. Our animation studio was PiP Animation Services in Ottawa - I knew they would be perfect for the project because director Meeka Stuart is super talented and was also a scout leader for many years. And the gorgeous world (and characters) was designed by artist Marie Thorhauge, whose work is simply incredible. It was important to me that the animals and plants be recognizable to viewers, but also that the show had a unique look and feel in animation - Marie helped us achieve that.”
Can you talk us through the process you went through when creating Through The Woods?
“Every story started with something to explore in nature. Our advisor gave us a list of animals and themes, then we dug into those topics to find the stories.
For example, our advisor was keen to do a story with the message “it’s ok to get dirty” because she had met many kids who didn’t think that was ok. So, we did a story about Rider finding some little pill bugs and then rolling around in the dirt to imitate how they curl up as a defense mechanism. I really like the combination in that story of noticing, observing, and then playing what he sees.”
Tell us a bit about your own experience in creating content for kids.
“I decided in college that I wanted to pursue a career in children’s TV - it was a way to combine my interests in writing and making stuff with helping kids learn. My first job was on Reading Rainbow - I couldn’t have had a better start. I learned so much about the many ways we can tell stories and the incredible importance of reflecting the diversity of the viewers watching the show. It’s so powerful for children to see positive examples of “someone like me” on TV.”
What do you think are the most important things today’s kids should be learning at a young age?
“Big question! Here are two.
While it is important for kids to learn their ABCs, it is just as important for them to develop the social-emotional skills that help them navigate their world. It’s hard to learn if you have a hard time sitting still in the classroom, following directions, or managing your feelings if you are upset with a classmate.
I also believe that kids should learn to follow their own curiosity. To ask questions. To wonder. Whether it’s about nature or space or math or books or music - go enjoy and explore!”
What do you think is the key to making content that's not only fun, but educational too?
“The key is that whether your goal is to entertain or educate, a show has to be fun and engaging. You can’t learn from something you don’t stick around long enough to watch!”
What do you hope children and parents will take away from the show?
“For kids, Rider models an enthusiasm for nature and exploring the outside world, which is something a lot of kids today need to see.
He’s also curious. Really curious. And that’s key because although he doesn’t have all the answers about what’s going on with that bird or those frogs, he can wonder about it. And ask questions. And notice details.
For example, when Rider sees an unfamiliar bird in the woods, he doesn’t know its name, but he watches and notices a lot. When he gets to Grammie’s, he describes it to her: “It had a red head and it went tap-tap-tap on the tree!” She gives him the name of the animal - woodpecker - but he had learned a lot about it just by watching.
Grammie really gets a big kick out of her sweet grandson - and his dog and constant companion, Wolfie. When Rider asks Grammie a question, she doesn’t always give him a straight answer - she often asks him another question to help guide him to find the answer himself.”
About Ellen Doherty:
Ellen Doherty is head of production for Fred Rogers Productions, overseeing creation of television and digital content, as well as developing new properties. She is an Emmy Award- winning producer and writer with more than 20 years’ experience in children's media. Previously, Ellen was executive producer and story editor of the PBS KIDS series Cyberchase, where she oversaw production of television and digital content, including Webby- nominated apps Cyberchase Shape Quest, and Cyberchase 3D Builder. Prior to that, Ellen was a freelance producer and writer. She began her career on the celebrated PBS KIDS series Reading Rainbow and has a B.A. in Communications from Boston College.