“Bluey,” the Coronavirus, and the Weirdness of Little Kids | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children

Early in the COVID-19 lockdown, when I was still ambitious about finding creative ways to entertain a toddler, my two-and-half-year-old daughter and I did an arts-and-crafts project, making “dragons” out of paper-towel tubes. We drew eyes and teeth on the cardboard tubes—the hole at one end was the mouth—and used pipe cleaners to give them spines and legs. It was a huge success. My daughter loved the paper-towel-tube dragons. They quickly joined her favorite toys, a set of plastic “Peppa Pig” figurines. She pretended that one of the “Peppa Pig” characters, Miss Rabbit, was a dragon trainer, flying around on the dragons’ backs. One day, she seemed to get an idea. She stood a paper-towel-tube dragon vertically, on its tail, and arranged Miss Rabbit in a sitting position on the hole that was its mouth. Then she made a sh-h-h sound and exclaimed, “Oh, no! Miss Rabbit peed in her dragon!”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. We had recently started potty-training her: this announcement was clearly about that. I didn’t want to shame her. But I was also grossed out. After gathering my thoughts, I addressed the plastic bunny in a bright, helpful voice: “Miss Rabbit, it’s great that you want to use the potty. But it’s not nice to pee in your dragon. He’s your friend. Why don’t you pee in a regular paper-towel tube?”

My daughter thought that this was hilarious. She immediately wanted to perform the entire drama—Miss Rabbit’s dragon-riding, the peeing, the scolding—all over again. Miss Rabbit Pees in Her Dragon joined the pantheon of her favorite games, along with Ambulance and Birthday Party. When my partner finished his morning Zoom calls and came downstairs for the child-care hand-off, he’d ask, “How’s Miss Rabbit? Did she pee in her dragon again?” And then he’d have to play it, too.

I’m not the first person to note that, for all the pain this pandemic has inflicted on working parents, the COVID-19 lockdowns have given us something remarkable: hours and hours of unstructured playtime with our children. I’d thought that I was getting this before—on weekends and in the harried hours between dinner and bedtime—but, in retrospect, that was nothing. In the three-plus months that my partner and I spent trapped in the house with our daughter, sharing child-care duties, I’m pretty sure that we had our brains rearranged. Time began to unfurl in a slow, trippy way that I hadn’t experienced since childhood. Our home became an extension of a two-year-old’s fantasy life, a place where hazy ideas about the outside world mingled with animal facts, domestic rituals, and scenes from her favorite cartoons.

Those cartoons include “Peppa Pig,” of course, and, these days, an equally charming show by the same creators, “Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom.” But my favorite—and the most relevant to our current predicament—is “Bluey,” an Australian series featuring a family of anthropomorphic heeler dogs—mother, father, two little girls—living in the lush suburbs of Brisbane. (Disney acquired most of the show’s international broadcast rights in 2019. Its second season premiered in the U.S. in July.) The show revolves around play. Many of its seven-to-eight-minute episodes center on a make-believe scenario that the kids, Bluey and Bingo, act out, often with their parents as supporting characters. Although the kids are older than my daughter, their games bear a recognizable weirdness: in Yoga Ball, they put a shawl and sun hat on a yoga ball and pretend that it’s a fancy lady. In Asparagus, a piece of asparagus becomes a magic wand that can transform family members into wild animals. The episode culminates in an especially hilarious sequence where Bingo and her mother become lions and stalk their next-door neighbor as he’s hanging up his laundry.

Not surprisingly, the show is based on real games that its creator, Joe Brumm, played with his two young daughters. In a Zoom conversation, Brumm told me that he wanted to capture “the real, idiosyncratic way that kids play”—as opposed to the way that we adults imagine them playing: running around and shouting “Tag!,” perhaps, or quizzing themselves on the ABCs. The idea came to him during early-morning play sessions, while his wife was sleeping. “You’d find yourself in these bizarre, Monty Python-esque scenarios,” he said. “You know, it’s five in the morning, and, suddenly, you’re in their café, handing them money, and they’re handing you money back. And I just thought, This is funny.”

Brumm pointed out that there is an “inherent comedy” in the way that kids play, because, frequently, their games are earnest attempts to re-create both their own lives and the adult world. But their knowledge of the world is limited—so they improvise. “When they get to a bit they don’t understand, they just substitute something from their imagination to kind of smooth it over,” Brumm said. (As a writer, he is attuned to the language of this imagination, especially when it comes to making up names: Slobber Dobber, Sharalanda, Boop Boop Bop Boop.) In an episode called “The Doctor,” Bingo plays a doctor, and Bluey plays a medical receptionist. Their friends present themselves with a parade of imaginary maladies: scorpion bites; arms fallen off; “I accidentally ate a hippopotamus. And now, when I burp, I burp out baby hippopotamuses.” These are treated as normal ailments, with the doctor pronouncing, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you fixed in a jiffy!” and the receptionist passing out lollipops. “These are the things which adults find funny,” Brumm said. “And to me, it’s endlessly fascinating because it’s the essence of a trip to the doctor’s office. It’s not all the details, but it’s the important stuff. And it makes you see it fresh.”

Brumm researched the psychology of play and learned about its role in early-childhood development—especially the way that it teaches children to navigate social life. Frequently, the kids on “Bluey” will be playing a game when they come to a point of contention: in “Grannies,” they’re pretending to be old ladies when they get into an argument about whether grannies can perform a dance move known as the floss. In “Hotel,” Bluey wants Bingo to play a “crazy hotel helper,” but Bingo wants to be a “crazy pillow.” They have to resolve their differences to continue the game. Brumm explained, “That process, being able to have a debate with another kid and come to an agreement—doing that day in, day out, from age three to five, is how they end up getting socialized. It’s really lovely, because they do it naturally. You don’t have to step in and say, ‘Hey, you need to get along.’ ”

On the show, the parents do sometimes nudge the kids in the right direction. In “Grannies,” Chilli, Bluey’s mother, tells her, “You’re going to have to decide: Do you want to be right, or do you want Bingo to keep playing with you?” Bluey thinks about it and asks, “Can I have both?”—to which her parents respond, “No!” Each episode of “Bluey” generally culminates in a mild life lesson. Moralizing is avoided. Brumm said that he’s drawn to insights that are “quite counterintuitive.” In “The Claw,” Bandit, Bluey’s father, pretends to be an arcade game, and he attempts to teach the kids a lesson about the perils of gambling. It backfires, and they end up pelting him with stuffed toys. “Did we learn anything today?” Chilli asks, later. “Yes,” Bandit says. “These kids are awesome.”


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