“Mom, you can’t come to the store with us. Dad needs to come.” My 6-year-old daughter was insistent. (She is almost always insistent.)
“I’m fun to shop with! And I like going to the store with you!” I replied because little does she realize I’m the proto-insister. And a fun mom. Sometimes I even buy Oreos.
“No,” — this was turning into a standoff — “we want to play ‘Kids’ at the store so Dad has to go with us.” Ahah. There it was. A “Bluey” game. Specifically, a “Bluey” game from Season 1, Episode 45.
“Bluey” is an Australian animated TV series for children about the Heelers household, an anthropomorphic family of Australian Cattle Dogs, or Heelers. There’s mom and dad, Chili and Bandit, and their 6- and 4-year-old-daughters, Bluey and Bingo. “Bluey” began streaming in the U.S. on Disney+ in 2019 and has been quick to enter the hearts and playdate discussions of parents and kids alike with its dry wit, real-life portrayal of modern-day family life and very cute, very Australian sensibility.
For example: My kids are now using words like “cheeky” for naughty and “dunny” for toilet. Like I said — very cute, but also very Australian.
Season 3 of “Bluey” just hit Disney+ on Aug. 10 and the level of anticipation and excitement in our home, especially from said 6-year-old, was unprecedented. For my four children, ranging in ages from only-wants-to-watch-veterinarian-docuseries to Elmo-is-life, there is no other television show that brings them together around the glowing campfire of a backlit flat screen than “Bluey’s” jazzy theme song and seven-minute episodes. They are short but profound, sweet but not saccharine, silly but not obnoxious. And even more impressive than bringing my children together is that my husband and I genuinely enjoy “Bluey,” too.
In “Bluey,” families can see themselves in the minutiae of daily existence, while reaching for the idealized versions of who we want to be — our most creative, patient, joyful selves. “Bluey” reaches parents and caregivers because it’s just as much about being a parent as it is about being a kid. There’s plenty of family-friendly media that can bring you and yours together on the couch, but what makes “Bluey” unique is how it models the kind of play that children and parents both need to see the best versions of themselves.
Keeping children off screens while also sometimes needing them to entertain themselves on screens is the prisoner’s dilemma of modern-day parenting.
But “Bluey” provides a better way. Associate professor of media arts at BYU, Benjamin Thevenin, says of “Bluey”: “While other media kids consume are so creatively crafted that kids can’t help but escape into them, ‘Bluey’ manages to be engaging while still encouraging kids to use their own imaginations. So, when the credits roll, rather than simply sit and binge a few more episodes, kids are more likely to get up and play ‘Grannies’ or ‘Keepy Uppy’ themselves.”
For my four children, ranging in ages from only-wants-to-watch-veterinarian-docuseries to Elmo-is-life, there is no other television show that brings them together around the glowing campfire of a backlit flat screen than “Bluey’s” jazzy theme song and seven-minute episodes.
If “grannies,” keepy” and “uppy” sound more like random word association than “Bluey” episodes and accompanying games, then, regretfully, you have not had the delight of watching small children (affectionately) imitate the elderly by hobbling about with blankets around their head using small squeaky voices; or spent hours trying to keep the last dying balloon off the ground the day after a birthday party.
The “Bluey” games my children have modeled and imitated from the show not only entertain them, but enrich our family by encouraging silliness, laughter and problem-solving. (Outside of the dreaded Kids games, which my own children only play to mutinize our shopping trips and fill our basket with treats. It’s a good strategy on their part.)
MG Prezioso is a doctoral candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies “story world absorption” — or how children get immersed in stories they are engaged in. I asked her why my kids like to play Kids and other “Bluey” games. She says that when kids pretend, they are often imitating the content that has been curated for them and what they are experiencing in the real world.
So what does that say about the media our families digest?
“The onus is on parents, educators and media companies,” Prezioso says, “to realize that the content we present to children directly affects how they play, think and act — perhaps even more than we realize. We have a tremendous influence on their imagination that, in turn, shapes their development, and it is important to be cognizant of that.”
The creator of “Bluey,” Joe Brumm, researched sociodramatic play to show kids how to problem-solve through imaginative play, and to show parents that kids learn through exploring their emotions and problem-solving in a safe, low-stakes environment.
Since 2019, “Bluey” games have infiltrated my home and my kids’ lexicon, sometimes to my pleasure, like when they play Rug Island or Shadowlands among themselves in the backyard while my husband and I make dinner. But I don’t often have the patience of Chili and Bandit — it’s hard to have the emotional reserves of an animated dog parent. But there are times when my kids try to freeze me like in “Featherwand” or make me dance on command like in “Dance Mode” and I ... just can’t.
As domestic life and work become more isolated through the nature of being very online, there is validation and even inspiration in watching Bandit and Chili navigate parenting. They have demanding jobs (although Bandit is an archaeologist who works from home, which definitely seems like a flight of fancy); they get frustrated, but still have the capacity to engage practically, thoughtfully and earnestly with their children.
When I ask why “Bluey” resonates so much with parents, Thevenin tells me that the show mirrors what we aspire toward. “Bluey’s parents (and really, all of the adult characters in the series) demonstrate a willingness to prioritize play,” he says. “Not just to appease their kids but because playing (especially with little people who we love) is fun and fulfilling — way more than checking our phones or answering emails.”
As domestic life and work become more isolated through the nature of being very online, there is validation and even inspiration in watching Bandit and Chili navigate parenting.
“Bluey” is aspirational for parents in that we can feel good about what media our kids are watching (and that it’s pleasant enough to watch together) because of the important social–emotional learning that happens in the Heeler home. Further, “Bluey” is aspirational for me because it makes me want to be like Bandit and Chili.
And on my best days and in my best parenting moments, I am. I have done obstacle courses on the playground with my kids and put aside all my type-A’ness to complete a craft with them. I’ve broken out dance moves not meant for this world just to make them laugh. I have been strong and resolute enough to sit down, eye-level with my daughter, in the middle of a Target check-out aisle while she threw a tantrum so ghastly it might have frightened onlookers into celibacy.
Inasmuch as adulthood is checking our phones and answering emails, so much of parenthood and caregiver-hood is to resist doing so to engage eye-level with the people in our care. Watching “Bluey” with my kids allows me to do that — to put aside my own things for seven minutes — to put my arms around them, to laugh at the same silly jokes and to see the best in each other.