Sago Mini Friends
November 3, 2022

Apple TV+ series features UCR professor as 'gratitude expert'

Sonya Lyubomirsky is part of a post-pandemic revolution in children's television programming

Author: J.D. Warren
November 3, 2022

The lessons in today’s preschool animated series are a moonshot from the anvil-dropping antics of their parents’-parents’ generation. Case in point: UC Riverside psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky is the “gratitude expert” for a new preschool animated series from Apple TV+, “Sago Mini Friends.”

The concept of gratitude is writ large in the series, which debuted on Sept. 22. In its description of the series, streaming app Apple TV+ writes: “Sago Mini Friends is an adorable nod to gratitude … in each episode, Harvey (the floppy eared-dog/protagonist) and his friends express their true thankfulness for all things, big and small, through optimism, kindness, preschool-friendly humor and unforgettable songs.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky
Sonya Lyubomirksy is a distinguished professor of psychology at UC Riverside.

A “gratitude expert” is what it sounds like, said Lyubomirsky: “An expert in the science of gratitude.”

“I feel like a show with an emphasis on gratitude — and it was a huge emphasis — is a huge advance. Teaching children gratitude is important,” said Lyubomirsky, who is a distinguished professor of psychology renowned for her research on happiness.

The show is part of an Apple TV+ “changemakers” initiative that Apple TV+ says “brings world renowned education leaders together with the world’s most creative storytellers to create inspiring and enriching original series for kids.”

The series is part of a trend in children’s TV programming driven by parents' pandemic-era concerns about their children’s mental health, and about them falling behind academically. A survey of 1,000 parents by United Talent Agency, or UTA, found a 43% increase in viewing hours for children 3-12, during the same 2019-2021 span during which all other TV series had a 19% increase. UTA also found 93% of parents consider it important that children’s entertainment address emotional and mental health. And three-fourths of parents said screen time doesn’t bother them if it’s educational.

Preschool programming is a fast-expanding sector, contributing to the decision this year to add a new Emmy Awards category for Children & Family. While children started regularly watching TV at 4 years old 50 years ago, today they begin interacting with digital media at 4 months old, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Other Apple TV+ changemakers preschool series include shows such as “Hello Jack, The Kindness Show,” “Getting Rolling with Otis,” and “Pretzel and the Puppies.”

“As we continue to expand our slate and partner with today’s world-class storytellers, we are so inspired by our collaboration with an exceptional group of changemakers who are passionate about giving kids the tools they need to leave the world a better place than they found it,” said Tara Sorensen, Apple’s head of kids’ programming, in a press release. All changemakers programs have educators as consultants, Apple TV+ said in the release.

The “stars” of Sago Mini Friends include Harvey the floppy-eared dog and his best friends, Jinja the cat, Jack the rabbit, and Robin the bird. Episodes include storylines such as “As Harvey and Jinja bake a cake for Remy; a small mistake leads to a big problem,” and “Harvey and Jinja try to help Robin be patient while waiting for a lunchtime treat.” A Thanksgiving special that will air Nov. 18 finds Harvey and Robin accidentally in Loomington — a town without gratitude. 

It’s Lyubomirsky’s job to review drafts of the scripts and submit comments for consideration. Examples include the following notes she provided to the show’s writers: “Maybe Harvey or other characters could express gratitude for finding all those sparkly clothes or for the fact that sparkly clothes exist in the world to brighten their mood anytime,” and “It’s interesting to think about what a creature/person without gratitude would look and act like. They are … void of the benefits of gratitude (not feeling happy, not feeling connected, taking things for granted, not being particularly generous, not being moved/inspired/humbled, etc.).”

While she’s not keeping score, Lyubomirsky said the writers often incorporate her feedback into the final scripts.

The show is based on an app called Sago Mini World. Sago Mini World features more than 40 games from children ages 2-5 years old. It has received accolades from the Parents’ Choice Gold Awards and the Webby Awards.

The series is produced by Spin Master Entertainment and animated by Brown Bag Films Toronto. Producers include several people associated with PAW Patrol, a popular, Emmy Award-winning Nickelodeon Network series about “rescue dogs in training.” 

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