Bedtime can often be a trying experience for young children – and their parents. But evidence suggests that regular bedtimes are very important for children’s wellbeing and development.
One regular element of the routine for many families is the children’s TV show In the Night Garden. Narrated by classical actor Derek Jacobi, it is a programme which aims to calm and relax toddlers before a good night’s sleep – and has been broadcast almost every bedtime on the BBC channel CBeebies for the past 11 years.
In the Night Garden’s colourful mix of characters and concepts can seem surreal – and even incomprehensible to adult viewers. But it certainly seems to engage young children – and uses a mixture of key tools to entertain and entrance its target audience.
To begin with, it is deliberately repetitive. Toddlers seem to love repetition, whether of a phrase or name, such as Upsy Daisy, or the same activity, such as Makka Pakka’s face washing.
As well as learning through repetition, children also find it relaxing and comforting. Each episode of In the Night Garden follows a recognisable and predictable structure, ending with the tittifers (colourful exotic birds) singing. Afterwards each of the characters goes to bed (except for Igglepiggle, who wanders off through the forest, falling over and waving) before the forest goes dark and the stars come out.
Another regular feature of the programme which toddlers enjoy is rhyme. There is evidence that exposure to this linguistic tool through nursery rhymes and songs can support children’s development in many ways, especially reading. So although adults may think the Igglepiggle song (“Yes, my name is Igglepiggle, Igglepiggle-niggle-wiggle-woo”) sounds like nonsense, to toddlers it has instant appeal.
This linguistic element continues in the simple sounds of the characters’ names and the dialogue between them – the sounds are reflective of the way a toddler’s language is developing. For example, they generally master vowel sounds before consonants and The Tombliboos are named Unn, Ooo and Eee, phonetically reflecting how a toddler might say the numbers One, Two, Three.
This is also emphasised by the fact that the Tombliboos always appear in this order, with their names spoken as they appear. And there is considerable use of words that are similar to baby babble in their formation. They have a consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel (CVCV) structure such as the beige, small, round-bodied doll named Makka Pakka.
Aside from language, toddlers make extensive use of gestures in their communication and will usually express ideas and feelings in this way before being able to express them using speech. The characters of In the Night Garden do the same. There are whole episodes which feature characters waving at each other and giving each other kisses – both gestures that are commonly practised and enjoyed by toddlers.
Excitement is often expressed by the characters dancing and there is much shrugging of shoulders, especially by Igglepiggle when he is unsure of something.
Around the age of two, children tend to stop being preoccupied with the world as it is and start engaging with their imagination. This is reflected in their play as they begin to shift from experimenting with the physical properties of objects (banging bricks together) towards more symbolic play, perhaps pushing a brick along the floor pretending it is a car.
It is this early symbolic play that In the Night Garden seems to be replicating. Examples of this include the Pontipines, ten peg doll-like characters who represent a family living in a semi-detached house at the foot of a tree. The familiar game of toddlers pretending they are on the phone is also mirrored in the “Trubliphones” which allow characters to communicate with each other as they wander through the garden.
Another type of behaviour enjoyed by many toddlers is their attachment to a special toy or comfort blanket. They may find it reassuring that the main character of the show, Igglepiggle, is almost always seen with his red comfort blanket in tow. It is a clear acknowledgement of the importance of such a comforter – and the role it may play in helping children learn to control their emotions.
It is no coincidence that the content of In the Night Garden reflects the developmental stage of its target audience. Andrew Davenport, the show’s creator (and co-creator of the Teletubbies) has a degree in speech sciences. His personal bookshelves include works written by well-known developmental psychologists.
It also nothing new that something designed as entertainment for children seems so bizarre and nonsensical to adults. Traditional popular nursery rhymes include a cow jumping over the moon and an old woman living in a shoe. Neither would be out of place on the colourful set of In The Night Garden – a different world carefully designed for the curious minds of young children (and their weary parents).