The Unexpected Power of Animation

Terry Thoren has spent his career making cartoons like Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys. The Snohomish resident now owns a company called Wonder Media, which creates animations that educate and empower kids of all ages.

Seated at a dining room table in his rural Snohomish home, animation mogul Terry Thoren plays a short video on his laptop computer. The characters on screen are a diverse group of round-faced and elementary school-aged cartoons, not yet universally recognizable in the way that others touched by Thoren are.

Once the CEO of the company that produced such beloved cartoons as Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys, Thoren’s work in the animation industry over almost five decades has affected the lives of millions of viewers.

But even though the stories Thoren oversaw at Klasky Csupo, the cartoon-production company he led from 1994 to 2006, were game-changing in their own right, his work today as CEO of Wonder Media might be even deeper in its impact.

“My sister was a special needs teacher,” Thoren said. “Twelve years ago, my father said, ‘Why don’t you stop fooling around and figure out how to model behavior with your cartoons for your sister’s students?’” So Thoren did.

He started working on simple animations for the kids his sister worked with, which, after three years, morphed into a company called TeachTown that focused on making educational animations for children with autism. In doing so, he saw the power and potential of his cartoons up close, receiving testimonies from teachers shocked to see that students with cognitive disabilities — those who usually had a hard time remembering rules — were recalling details months later from an animation in which a boy named Marcus told kids not to push each other when standing in line.

“That was my first real aha moment,” said Thoren, who had realized that his animations could be helpful for kids without autism, too. “It made me want to create a silo of different lessons to address all sorts of behaviors. I wanted to look at how cartoons could help all kids at an elementary-school level learn social and emotional behaviors that they might be missing because they spend an average of 60 hours a week on a device.”

Thoren left TeachTown to create Wonder Media, now a 6-year-old, 18-person company with offices across the globe — in Los Angeles; Belgium; Abu Dhabi; and, unofficially, in the Snohomish home where Thoren and his wife moved three years ago. The educational animations created by the company are being shown in 8,200 classrooms worldwide, according to Thoren.

Today’s animations go far beyond those early instructional videos for young children on matters like standing in line without pushing. In fact, as Thoren scrolls through available products on Wonder Media’s website, it seems there’s not much that he’s not trying to cover with his educational animations.

“We’ve partnered with the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center” — an organization with worldwide recognition dedicated to helping children in difficult circumstances — “and created all these animations to fight child abuse — those have 13.5 million views from teachers in classrooms, so we estimate 200 million kids have seen them,” Thoren said. “We’ve partnered with the United Nations, the Catholic Church, and Boy Scouts of America. We created emergency preparedness lessons, programs about water conservation, about how to recycle, about how to protect yourself.”

Courtesy Wonder Media

Each video is just a few minutes long and is designed in large part to be shown at school, though Thoren said there also are videos available on YouTube that parents can play at home. The idea, Thoren said, is that teachers can show one in the morning when students arrive as a sort of transitional tool that teaches them a wide variety of concepts in a format that is familiar and accessible to them. In the wake of school closures due to COVID-19, Wonder Media also has made videos designed for classrooms available, free of charge, to parents who are navigating how to teach their kids at home.

“Kids copy the behavior they see in cartoons, so we’re modeling good, appropriate behavior for them to copy,” Thoren said. “And then, when negative behaviors appear in the classroom,” — or, now, at home, — “teachers can remind the class of what they learned in the video instead of calling out students individually, which can make them feel attacked and cause them to act out more.”

Other videos align with Common Core State Standards for lessons on math and science, with 2,000 printable extension lessons available online. These products fall under a program called WonderGrove Learn, which includes 225 animated lessons designed for kids between preschool and second grade.

Wonder Media has expanded to create content for older elementary students and teenagers, too.

Those programs focus on sensitive issues like suicide and sex abuse, which teenagers can be at high risk for.

“With those things, a lot of teens won’t talk to their parents; they won’t talk to their friends. So, we’re creating a series for social media that addresses topics like consent, sexual assault, and suicide,” Thoren said.

Thoren’s intense way of working — with many different ideas, partnerships, and programs running at once and on parallel tracks — is reminiscent of his career before he shifted into educational animations.

“When I was the CEO of the Rugrats Company (Klasky Csupo), we had Rugrats, Wild Thornberrys, As Told By Ginger, Rocket Power, Rugrats in Paris, all in development at the same time,” he said. Thoren, working closely with company founders Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo, was involved at every production level, from scriptwriting and voice casting to storyboarding and post-production. “I’ve been running things like that my whole career, since I first went to film school at 20.”

The 68-year-old said he’s even more dedicated now to pushing the envelope with what his cartoons can do — and what topics he can address with them — because he’s seen the success that they’ve had with students over the last 12 years.

“When I figured out the power of animation to affect change with children at risk,” Thoren said, “I’m in an even bigger hurry.”

While there are myriad skills that kids of all ages can learn from watching Wonder Medias animations, Thoren said students can learn even more through the animations that Wonder Media empowers them to make themselves.

“Animation Now is a software that allows students to control an animated puppet and tell a story,” Thoren said. “On a touch screen, students can select from more than 1,000 movements for a character. They write the script, they control the movements, and they record their voice speaking as the character.”

Creative director Ryan Cannon and art director Evan Lewis at Wonder Media’s studio reviewing Dorothy’s character designs for The WonderGrove Wizard of Oz.

Animation Now, designed by Rudy Verbeek, makes it possible for students to create their own animations through a program called Story Maker. Instead of just watching animations made to teach them, students in third grade and up use Story Maker — both individually and collaboratively — to teach themselves a wide variety of skills that their teachers think will serve them well as adults in the working world. Story Maker currently is licensed by 172 school districts in 24 states across the country, including in Snohomish and Everett. Teachers in both those Eastside districts have seen many successes using the program.

“This is my third year using Story Maker in my classroom with 9- to 12-year-olds,” said Kimberlee Spaetig-Peterson, a teacher at Riverview Elementary School in Snohomish. “They take it so seriously, and they hold each other accountable, and I can see them learning how to negotiate and make collaborative decisions. There are so many jobs out there that you don’t get to do just by yourself. They’re learning those skills in the classroom with Story Maker now.”

A lot of kids are being introduced to specific professions in the animating world that they otherwise would not have known about, added Melissa Dilling, a technology teacher at Eisenhower Middle School in Everett. Some of her students, who are in sixth and eighth grades, have discovered career possibilities using Story Maker.

“We’re trying to expose them to all the different behind-the-scenes careers,” Dilling said. “Story Maker introduces them to all those different careers, and they have so much information about them from real people who work in the industry.”

Those students not interested in becoming animators, producers, editors, puppeteers, or voice actors, however, still can learn a variety of helpful and applicable skills from Story Maker. Many of those skills, Thoren said, have to do with the writing process.

“If a student writes a history paper and slides it across the table, her teacher is the only person to ever see it,” Thoren said. “But if she takes that same paper, adds a character introduction at the beginning, and uses that as her script for a Story Maker project, she has to read it out loud. And then she realizes, well, the grammar is wrong here; the punctuation is wrong; there’s not a beginning, middle, and end. It makes that writing process relevant to students — it holds them accountable to their work, and it puts them in charge of their learning.”

The Story Maker process has students write scripts, make storyboards, record voices, create backgrounds, choose movements, adjust timing, add music, and insert title cards and credits. They’re in control of their own projects, which are designed to promote essential skills like literacy, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

The software can be used across disciplines and is even connecting students across the country. Right now, 10-year-old Sydney Dilling — Melissa Dilling’s daughter — is using her time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to empower and educate other kids through animations she’s creating on Story Maker. Students from dozens of school districts nationwide also have worked on creating scenes through Story Maker of a kid-made animation of The Wizard of Oz.

“The twist is that Dorothy has anxiety about transitioning from elementary to middle school,” Thoren said. The film includes musical numbers that the kids rehearsed in music class; they created background scenes, auditioned for voice parts, participated in table reads, and controlled the movements of the characters. Wonder Media then collected scenes made by each school and stitched them together into a complete film — a screening of which kids promoted in their respective towns.

This spring, students also participated in Wonder Media’s Return to Oz, a sequel to the original film focused on Earth Day. Thoren said that film was entirely written by students, and the process of its creation was pivoted into kids’ homes after school was canceled due to COVID in March.

To pull it off, students picked a scene and were given the last frame from the scene before and the first frame from the scene after. Everything in between was up to the kids, who were responsible for researching what they chose to write about — farming, deforestation, water resources, and more.

Spaetig-Peterson said this process makes students more invested in their learning.

“They get to look into things they’re interested in and then tell a story about those things,” she said. In the fall, her students researched and wrote animations about everything from the periodic table to the Northern lights for the Wonder Media Story Maker Fall Festival, a competition in which kids submit short animated stories for the chance to win an award. “They go to the ends of the Earth to find out that information because they care. It gives them that grit and stamina in the research process because they genuinely want to learn.”

Though there are many programs and learning opportunities being created by Wonder Media, the company has one simple goal, Thoren said: Use the unexpected power of cartoons to empower kids.

“We hear cartoons immediately,” Thoren said. “Studies show that cartoons break down everyday barriers: They know no race, class, or gender. They’re the most powerful means of communicating with people on the planet.”

And kids in Eastside classrooms using Wonder Media programs get a bonus: They get to hear from Thoren himself — now a local who has spent his career as a disruptor — on how they can use the skills they’re learning in class to benefit them for the rest of their lives.

“Here’s what I told (students): No is just the beginning of the conversation,” Thoren said. “In any field. If you’re a disruptor, people will always be against you affecting change. People will always tell you no. You have to learn to push back against that and continue the conversation anyway — that’s when something special happens.”

is an assistant editor at 425 magazine.
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