Panwapa: Global Citizenship Via Media Community For Tots

panwapa200.jpgFor the record, I’d still rather kids be playing outside finding their own world of cultural diversity among play pals, but since this blog’s about positive media uses, this indeed qualifies as one of them!

Panwapa. Even the name sounds global and cool…

It’s got a world beat edge to it and an upbeat tonality that rolls off the tongue with kid-friendly energy. As a name generation and branding queen, I say hats off to Sesame Street Workshop for capturing the essence of their digital project in the name itself and giving it a fun tribal flavor to boot!

Panwapa means, “here on this Earth” in the Tshiluba language, and evokes visions of geographic expansiveness opening minds to new knowledge and wonder. Their tagline? “Where kids shape the world.” (Thanks to Children’s Media Consultant our guest editorial contributor for being our hat tip on this one!)

But ugh, those shrill cartoon voices…Can someone tell me if there’s quantifiable research behind the annoyingly high-pitched Elmo-esque decibel levels of ear-piercing muppetdom? Thankfully, the meaningful content resonates as worthwhile, but I have my reservations on the early branding/global ‘muppetization.’  Still, David Woollcombe, Founder and President of Peace Child International (& Panwapa advisor) sums up the goals well:

“21st century children live in the global village from the moment they are born. The sooner they learn to think of this as a wonderful, fun adventure, the better global citizens they will grow into.” Does that mean children might learn the interconnectedness of our world from a fresh perspective, so we stop blowing each other up and trashing our natural resources from the get-go? Hmn. Now there’s a thought.

Many innovative, positive projects are coming down the pike along these lines, as witnessed at the Virtual Worlds summit today…so this Muppet NewsFlash is quite timely…

Mind you, when I first heard about “social networking for 4 to 7 year olds” I blanched at the concept of age compression, wincing, “sheesh, just because older siblings are socializing on the internet doesn’t mean we need to dial down demographics into diapers to offer wee ones a wannabe platform to mirror their antics.”

I conjured visions of obnoxious Elmo-voiced avatars stumbling around the world in stereotyped splendor with icons representing nationalities making a mess of the digital sandbox…but it’s safe, anonymous, user-friendly, and engaging, with not a tip-tap of type required.

Turns out this is more about instilling awareness and global citizenship to foster greater understanding among human beings in general…Seeing where commonalities exist in a quantum shift toward where we’re all alike instead of where we’re different. I like THAT idea.

It’s kind of a planetary pen pal place for kids to forge cultural alliances, learn about other countries and make foreign friends in an edu-video-game-virtual avatar and language media mashup that truly IS as rich and multi-layered as it sounds.

I definitely have some reservations about high stim media load universally, and how Panwapa could be exploited commercially by folks aligning with the über savvy team at Sesame Workshop, but overall, the entire concept should be wildly applauded for its education goals outlined here:

* Awareness of the Wider World: An understanding of the linkages between local neighborhoods and communities and national and global issues.

* Appreciating Similarities and Differences: An understanding of and respect for similarities and differences among the people of the world and the interconnectedness of the world’s systems.

* Taking Responsibility for One’s Behaviors: An awareness of one’s actions and one’s impact on others, the willingness and desire to take responsibility for one’s actions, and an effort to seek ways to make the world a better place.

* Community Participation and Willingness to Take Action: A desire to participate in and contribute to one’s community locally and globally, as well as a willingness to take action around persistent issues and work through them to effect meaningful civic improvement.

* Understanding of and Responsiveness to Economic Disparity: An understanding that all people share certain basic needs and disparities in resources affect individuals’ abilities to fulfill these needs — and a desire to address these disparities.

Panwapa is also bubbling over with potential for learning opps and fun…mostly video clips so far it seems…

For a play by play on how it works and why it offers a solid example of “using the power of media for positive change” in terms of meaningful messages, here’s Ashley, Children’s Media Consultant, offering her guest editorial below:

Get Out Your Passports, It’s Time to Sail to Panwapa Island

by Shaping Youth correspondent & Children’s Media Consultant, Ashley

Sesame Street’s parent company Sesame Workshop has launched its newest initiative for 4- to 7-year olds: Panwapa. The project aims to foster the foundation of global citizenship and community participation, and consists of a DVD, print materials, and an incredibly complex interactive website akin to social networking in a completely safe and anonymous environment for young users.

All materials are available in five languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, and Japanese) and feature an entirely new crop of Muppets, including Azibo the Monster (you know, like Elmo, but green), KoKo, a cute penguin, and Athina the smart and culturally savvy Owl.

Although the filmed aspects of Panwapa – which means “here on this earth” in Tshiluba, a Bantu language spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo – are colorful, funny, and superbly produced, the really exciting and most central aspect of this project is the website’s social networking and community interactivity.

How does it work?

Users are instructed to select a location (UN countries are on equal footing with provinces and city states), and the computer assigns them a number. The user name becomes “Country + #,” so every child at the computer is completely anonymous – there’s no declaration of age, gender, or actual locale.

After selecting a user name, the child creates an avatar. But these aren’t your typical avatars; each character can select from a variety of skin tones and hair colors (everything from pale, to brown, to purple and green), as well as a number of outfits and head wear that feature a variety of things like tunics, saris, bathing suits and even full-body panda or dinosaur costumes.

Users also select six flags representing their favorite things in specific categories: foods, animals, instruments, sports, activities, and cultural crafts. Like the avatars themselves, flag choices are esoteric and eccentric; one Panwapa Kid, for instance, could choose fruit, a frog, the Spanish guitar, rugby, board games, and Matroyshka Dolls from Russia, while another could choose pickles, a mouse, the violin, kite flying, puzzles, and a Chinese opera mask.

These individualized flags become a symbol during the game of how people from different parts of the world can still unite over common interests.

After you’ve set up your Avatar and created a house for him or her, the world is yours!

Users can travel the globe, visiting other Panwapa Kids, and the Muppet characters, who inhabit the floating island of Panwapa. With every visit, children can collect or give away Panwapa Cards (leave behinds with their personalized flag choices). The more places you visit, the more cards you can amass for your collections.

The educational opportunities are endless for cultivation of geography skills as well as the acknowledgment and understanding of communities (large and small), similarities and differences.

My favorite aspect of Panwapa is the ability to view the world in a variety of ways; for example, instead of looking at the globe in a traditional continental layout, you can click a button and look at it as organized by Panwapa Kids who all like conga drums or penguins. Another cool way to navigate the world is too view it in “neighborhood level,” in which you can see every kid who lives in the same country (by user name) and their individualized flags. It’s such a simple idea, yet visually it really hits the point home that even though we’re all different, we share the same planet. After all, of course, a tofu lover and a meat-on-a-stick lover could be next door neighbors.

For more on Panwapa, check out Sesame Workshop’s press release, or Muppet News Flash.

Have you visited Panwapa yet? What do you think?

Comment here and also visit Ashley’s fabulous site at Children’s Media Consultant for more! We’ll be teaming with Ashley for preschool content particularly, as she has her finger on the pulse of all things television. (and digital too!) Stop by and visit her!

btw, Like many of our Shaping Youth consortium colleagues in the industry, Ashley prefers to only use her first name.

After all, our nonprofit tends to be rather…um…er…outspoken, so those “within the system” need to distance themselves for job security reasons. I’ve learned over time that this is how I can recruit the finest into the mix…a blend of anonymity and ‘brand distancing’ from my own “tell it like it is” style of indie candor, beholden to none.

If any of you media/marketing agency pros or children’s advocates worldwide would like to be considered for guest editorial contribution or blog content teaming, please introduce yourselves…

Rest assured, it doesn’t have to be an ‘either/or’ proposition of “you’ll never work in this town again.” Okay? I invite you to advise, align, contribute, speak out. (& also tell me when I’m full of beans or veering toward the soapbox)

Quality begets quality…and I’m proud of our team’s balance and mix so far…Thank you, Ashley for adding your skill sets and voice to our children’s media coverage! Let’s ‘pay it forward’ to keep coming up with “the good stuff” like this. I KNOW it’s out there!!!

Other Panwapa Articles:

Multichannel News: Sesame Pitches Global Citizenship Through ‘Panwapa’: Project Includes VOD Programming, DVDs, Web Site Supporting Five Languages

Orlando Sentinel: Panwapa: Making good world citizens of our youngsters

Pearl World Youth News (very cool student news service inspired by Daniel Pearl; this particular piece on Sesame Street was written by student David Mc Guinness of Ireland)

Being Peter Kim: Peter’s post also includes a great comment which reveals how kids/parents are actually USING the site…Check this out: “My four-year old and I spent the better part of two hours this past Saturday exploring the site, building our avatar and flag and playing the treasure hunt game (the best part, so far). While she still prefers Webkinz world, she appears to like the community aspect of Panwapa and intends to meet all of the children whose favorite food is popcorn.”

United Nations Association of the USA: This article shows how it’s being integrated into the Global Classrooms project.

Merrill Lynch Global Philanthropy To me, this is an important part of the equation, showing how corporate responsibility can integrate into a nonprofit media platform without mining kids’ minds for a buck directly. With offices in 38 countries and territories, clearly Merrill Lynch has a vested interest in supporting global citizenship, so this win-win alliance makes perfect sense, exemplifying how digital media can partner to build goodwill and community. It definitely reinforces that “It’s a small world” after all…



  1. You are SO welcome. I’m looking forward to more Children’s Media Consultant and Shaping Youth cross-overs soon!

    And as for your comments about Panwapa, I do recall some research re: television about those high-pitched voices. It grabs viewers’ attentions and can be used to reinforce educational content (or so they say)!

  2. ARGH. Well, I think I may have to research that one, kinda reminds me of the reverse of the ‘mosquito ringtone’ that only students can hear, because it’s like a shrill horrid parent deterrent…Hey…maybe that’s it!

    Maybe cartoon networks WANT parents to leave the room from the wickedly high pitched annoyance level so they can sell the kids stuff directly! heehe! 😉

    Kidding. (I think?!)

  3. More Panwapa launches this fall:

    * New York on October 10 (done!)
    * London on October 23 (next!)
    * Mexico City in early November
    * Hong Kong on November 13
    * Tokyo on November 15

  4. Ok, some of my ardent (but evidently shy, as they’re not posting publically) readers are flaming me big time on this one…Just so you have some context, and as I said before..I’ll no doubt revisit this when I have the chance to mess with it PERSONALLY…I’m in accordance with the CONCEPT people…so calm down.

    For example, here’s one, “wtf? Say it ain’t so! Have you crossed over to the dark side? You’re spending way too much time in virtual worlds if you think Sesame isn’t doing this to open new toy markets globally. This is just another branding ploy to sell stuff, you’re slipping, Aim”

    Um…yeah. Ok. I hear ya. (and hey, that was from a personal FRIEND)

    Let me reiterate that I DID mention I have concerns about potential for commercialism and exploitation (see above) and I DID say it is a worthy CONCEPT and the execution is critical…(and even fessed that I despise the voices)

    But to me the point is media is not an ‘either/or’ for ‘free play vs. media play’

    It is about shifting the focus towards producing QUALITY content, with POSITIVE, productive messages, and MANAGING media intake with moderation.

    It is NOT going away, nor is marketing…we need to integrate the best by pouring it through a colander and keeping the nuggets of positive potential. Otherwise, we’re just carping and complaining!

    If we don’t applaud creative folks for TRYING to put out a more meaningful message, (or marketing folks like Dove’s “Onslaught” ad, raising awareness of a key issue) then we’re just unproductively sealing ourselves off from the power of the media to do GOOD things…and whining a lot.

    Go ahead…keep hittin’ me with your best shots…It’s a GOOD thing to have this dialog.

    But fergawdsakes POST ’em on the blog (even anonymously!) so we can ALL hear your concerns. They’re ALL valid. There is no “right or wrong” answer in respectful, conversational debate…Fire away, folks!

    p.s. I may post some of the other notes I received, once I clean up the language…;-) But they all stem off of the issues above…exploitation, branding, potential for global stereotypes. On a positive note, I received some nice ones about community building too…with a warning that we shouldn’t use the word ‘social networking’ for 4-7 year olds because parents will stop reading at the onset and throw their hands up in the air. (so you can see I edited the headline)

    More soon…keep the dialog comin’!!! OPENLY!

  5. Oh no! I felt a bit lonely as a kids community person at the Virtual Worlds event – would have been great to connect with you!

    And no worries, you have me on your side as your partner in this heated discussion.

    Here is my rant on this topic:

  6. Excellent…pleasure to meet you Joi…even virtually.

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