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Go ask Alice Blue's Clues director Alice Wilder '88
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Go ask Alice
As a freshman in a class on autobiographical memory, Alice Wilder ’88 got her professor’s attention because of the questions she asked.
Twenty years later, as director of research, producer, and writer for the phenomenally successful Blue’s Clues kids’ show on Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr., she is still asking questions. Says Wilder, “The only way to understand what children are capable of doing, what appeals to them, and what they know is to ask them!”
Since its debut in 1995, Blue’s Clues has drawn an enormous following and spawned an empire of books, videos, consumer products, and the literacy-based spin-off Blue’s Room. In fact, a floppy stuffed toy of Blue herself was on hand when “Dr. Alice” was honored as Skidmore’s 2005 Alumni Periclean Scholar during Celebration Weekend in October.
(Each fall Skidmore’s academic honor society, Periclean, celebrates its induction of new members by also naming an alumni Periclean honoree whose work reflects the society’s ideals of active and continuing engagement in the life of the mind. The alumni Periclean returns to campus and serves as a featured speaker at the induction ceremony.)
Psychology professor Mary Ann Foley introduced her former student, recalling that Wilder “had always been single-minded about making a difference in children’s lives.” It was Foley who recruited the questioning freshman to work in her memory and cognition lab—where a career was born. Wilder went on to earn an EdD in educational psychology at Columbia University Teachers College and found her niche in research and development for children’s television.
With an infectious smile, Wilder told the Skidmore audience how the movie Big played a role in her career choice. “I wanted to be Tom Hanks,” she recalled. “I wanted to be the adult in the corporate board room who thought like a kid, who could say, ‘What’s so fun about this?’”
Blue’s Clues is fun, as well as effective, because Wilder and her colleagues pretest each episode with kids. The shows feature a live host—cleverly integrated into Blue’s animated world—who asks viewers to help him find clues to the day’s question and involves them in educational activities along the way. Episodes are carefully paced to wait for the young viewers’ reactions, as Wilder demonstrated with a split-screen video of program segments and children watching them.
Wilder advised the Periclean inductees and other students to “create your own mission statement,” explaining that all of her work must answer to hers: “to create, develop, and research ‘products’ for kids—with kids as my advisors—that are educational, entertaining, interesting, and relevant to their lives.”
One look at the kids watching Blue’s Clues is all it takes to see that mission fulfilled, no question about it. —KG