By Annika Hauer, Special to the Renton Reporter
“Look, Listen, and Learn” (“LL+L”) is a television show formed from three intersecting visions: brain development and early education research, racial equity, and radical joy. It is a three-time Telly award winner and an Emmy nominee.
“I felt that we in the state of Washington needed a fun way to help children who were not ready for school to get excited about learning and discovery,” said Seattleite Val Thomas-Matson, founder, executive producer, and host of “LL+L”. “And to make sure that in particular kids of color, and really everyone else, saw them in these roles of learning and discovery.”
In more than 36 episodes now, Auntie Lena (played by Thomas-Matson) and her good friend Possum are working through something that has caused Possum to have a feeling he doesn’t yet know how to navigate. Auntie Lena approaches situations, not with the idea that it is an obstacle, but that it is something exciting to discover and learn from, even if it sometimes makes Possum feel mad, sad, confused, or frustrated.
Many friends join the episodes to help Possum out. Friends include local authors, leaders, musicians and other community members. The episodes are filmed in places all over Washington – including Renton – teaching stories, lessons, crafts, and music.
“LL+L” bases its themes off of guidelines from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Guidelines come from gathered and consolidated research on social-emotional learning (SEL).
OSPI defines SEL as approaching a child’s education as a whole: focusing on academics in addition to a child’s skill and awareness in managing emotions, setting goals, building relationships, and making responsible decisions.
“There’s so much research about brain development that I think people might be a little intimidated by,” said Thomas-Matson. “And yet I think ‘Look, Listen, and Learn’ helps provide examples of how you can apply those principles of early learning development in everyday conversations.”
Thomas-Matson had always thought she would be a kids’ show host. As a child, she loved watching shows like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, and when she saw the adults in shows like those, she said she could see herself doing that.
“‘Look, Listen, and Learn’ is led by a Black woman who has the lived experience of not always feeling included and not always feeling equal to white folks, and how that impacted my learning and growing up,” said Thomas-Matson. “The show is produced by somebody who ultimately struggled with school and had teachers who thought that I was less than because of the color of my skin…And so I write the scripts, I produce the show, I hire people, I invite folks on who all can join in making sure that each and every child knows that they are brilliant, and that they can be whatever they want to be.”
A 2018 article published by the Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University wrote, “Studies from many fields have shown that it’s important for children to see characters who not only look like themselves and their families, but also sound like them.”
This is the type of research “LL+L” takes into account.
Consider the antagonist Dr. Doofenshmirtz of the kids’ show “Phineas and Ferb.” The character has an accent, which plays into the trope that “bad guys” commonly use non-American accents and dialects. “There’s a relationship between low self-esteem and negative media portrayals of racial groups,” the Tufts article said. “Others have found that media misrepresentations of ethnic groups can cause confusion about aspects of their identity among children of these groups.”
Funding for early learning has been a challenge, Thomas-Matson said. “Our show would not be made possible except for those folks who have come forward to really put some financial skin in the game and say, I really mean that children are our future, and I’m willing to invest in them,” she said.
A recent source of funding for the show has been the Renton Arts Commission, from which “LL+L” applied for, and received, a grant.
“LL+L” filmed at the Renton Library in Season 3 Episode 3, and in future seasons filming will also take place at Doug Baldwin’s Family First Community Center.
Thomas-Matson especially loves seeing the kids who participate in the shows.
“I think media is so otherworldly, everyday people a lot of times don’t see themselves within that genre, on a film set,” she said. “And so the awe that they have in being there and then interacting with new people, new friends and just being encouraged to be themselves…It is a miracle to behold.”
The kids who get to act are a part of the impact Thomas-Matson sees “LL+L” having. One child was 6 when he started. “When he first started with us he was really reserved, but he was so darling,” she said. “LL+L” invited him back.
“His parents told us the third time they were with us that he actually auditioned for the school play because of being on the show,” said Thomas-Matson.
Dr. Margaret Towolawi is the Medical Director and founder of Nurture Well Center in Shoreline, WA, and a local author of two children’s books. She and her son recently filmed an episode with “LL+L” that features her book “Ayomide and Seyi’s Kitchen: A kids’ guide to plant-based nutrition from A to Z” , which will be a part of the upcoming Season 4.
“For me, it was really a full circle moment as someone who grew up watching “Reading Rainbow” and loved going to the library as a child,” said Dr. Towolawi. “I also enjoyed shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. “Look, Listen and Learn” ties in elements from all of the shows of my past with a more current lens, which I love as a parent and an author. Seeing LeVar Burton on “Reading Rainbow” as a child and getting exposed to so many different things without having to leave my home in Inglewood, CA really instilled in me the fact that I really can do and be anything—when I learned about “Look, Listen, and Learn” it reminded me of that show and I was super excited to have something like it for my kids’ generation, and the fact that it’s hyper-local to Seattle, where I’m raising my family, was icing on the cake.”
Dr. Towolawi’s son had a grand time on the show. He especially loves the cooking and art segments. “Even though he’s only seven, he realizes he’s in the minority, in our current day to day surroundings. Dr. Towolawi said. “So for him to see Auntie Lena and later eventually meet her in person and then he did a segment with [Washington] Congresswoman Jayapal who’s of Indian descent—it’s so impactful for him to see he can be anything he wants to be.”
Dr. Towolawi’s family visits the library weekly. “It’s really important for them to tune into media that promotes and supports reading at a young age,” she said. Her kids are always on the lookout for books they saw on “LL+L”. “Overall the experiences with LL+L have extended beyond the screen for our family,” she said. “The show really is a gift that keeps on giving.”
“LL+L” is on Seattle Channel 21 every Saturday and Sunday at 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., and on King County TV Channel 22 on Saturdays at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. The show also has a YouTube account with three seasons of shows, @looklistenlearntv.
Sip, Savor, and Share is an interactive celebration and fundraiser for “LL+L” in December 2023. Last year, Doug Baldwin helped host the event.
“We’re inviting everybody to be the best that they can be,” Thomas-Matson said. “Hopefully, more and more people will discover us and join in the spreading of that joy. At the end of the day, I really do believe that ‘Look, Listen, and Learn’ has left us a little more, well…joyful!”