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Lisa Henson: What I Learned From My Father

As the eldest daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson, Lisa Henson knows a thing or two about kids' shows. And as the mom of two teens, she knows a lot about kids.

That's why it's not surprising that Lisa, who's also the CEO of The Jim Henson Company (Fraggle Rock, Sid the Science Kid, Dinosaur Train), helped usher in Doozers, an original preschool series debuting on Hulu Kids on April 25. The show celebrates creative thinking and design, giving pre-K girls and boys the opportunity to learn about science and tech in an approachable way.

Lisa chatted with mom.me about the new show (where mom is literally the boss!), how she balances work and motherhood—and which muppet reminds her most of her dad.

Doozers is creative and different from what’s on TV now for kids, as far as learning numbers, letters, languages or even emotions. What do you hope little kids will learn from the show?

We started out doing investigation into the process of invention, and how invention is oftentimes about teamwork and overcoming obstacles and adversity, and perseverance. And we started working on what I think is a really innovative curriculum about creative thinking, inventing and design thinking, because the kids—they have a challenge in each episode—and they don’t solve it magically. There’s no instant success. In fact, in many of our episodes, they never really solve the original challenge but come up with something else along the way, or they fail and then try something different and solve it that way. We really like some of the teamwork and creative thinking that we’re modeling in the show.

Everyone knows Kermit, but not everybody knows the Rolf side of my dad’s personality.

Are you looking to attract more girls to fields such as science, engineering?

That is so important, and we do have the equal weight being between the boy and girl characters on the show, and the female characters are doing all kinds of really interesting things. Daisy Wheel, the youngest one, she’s very interested in nature, and a lot of her projects are about biomimicry—finding something in nature and then utilizing what you see working in nature to create something that you make. And then of course the mother of Daisy Wheel and Spike, she’s the Chief Doozer, and she’s a single mom, and she’s the head builder of the whole community, and she wears a hard hat. So she’s a fun character for us to model. She’s also funny, so in addition to all of her leadership in the building of the community, she’s also a funny, fun mom.

Speaking of successful moms, what’s your secret to having both great success at work and as a mother?

I have been working my whole life. Ever since I left college, I’ve worked as a studio executive and then as a movie producer, and I actually didn’t rejoin the family company until 1999. I have worked in all parts of the business, but the most rewarding for me as a mother is to be able to do the family shows and the children’s programming, because when we’re making a show for preschoolers, we’re really thinking big about what is the impact of that show. We don’t want children to just sit in front of the digital babysitter. We want that to be valuable learning time for the kids. So for me, it’s rewarding that my mom mission might line up with my work mission.

MORE: Putting Our Daughters Back Into the Equation

What do you think has changed in the TV and movie landscape since your kids were little—and how have you directed them toward healthy programming?

It’s funny. There are some things that have changed, some that haven’t changed. One of the things that I’ve spoken to my co-workers about, and I think some of the network executives are thinking about this as well, is that as a mom you have so many wonderful, rewarding shows that you can turn your preschoolers on to, and then as soon as they go to school and they suddenly have outgrown that first group of preschool shows, sometimes they immediately get hooked on shows that are not really good for them, at 5 or 6 [years old]. So, one of the things I’d like to do—and a lot of people are talking about this—it would be fun to crack the code of making a show that’s still rewarding and that moms would like, but that (kids) would like, too, after they’ve outgrown preschool shows.

My son is of an age that he was watching Bear in the Big Blue House and then jumped to Pokemon, so you have that big jump at let’s say 5 years old or 6 years old, and suddenly they want to watch things that are not at all educational.

Your parents are famous for their contributions to children's entertainment. Could you share any advice you've received from them about parenthood?

My father was so much about individualism, and he did feel that every person—if they expressed their own creativity—that they in their own way could be professionally artistic being themselves. He was a lot about individuality. Both my parents were also very nonjudgmental, so they wanted us to be very accepting of people’s differences and quirks. If you see the cast of muppets on The Muppet Show, you see the whole range of potentially crazy mental states, and we were really encouraged to celebrate people’s differences and individuality.

Who is your favorite muppet?

I like Rolf the dog because he was one of my father’s original characters, like Kermit the Frog, and he expressed a different side of his personality. Everyone knows Kermit, but not everybody knows the Rolf side of my dad’s personality. (Rolf's) a folksy musician, more of a voice of wisdom. He’s a really great old character.

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Photo by RexUSA

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