Ten Years of Dora the Explorer

Creator Valerie Walsh Valdes Talks Preschoolers, Parenting and a Decade of Dora

Rear view of a baby girl watching television
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Every day parenting offers up a new adventure -- something that no one knows better than Valerie Walsh Valdes. The co-creator and executive producer of the ever-popular animated preschool television series, Dora the Explorer, Walsh Valdes is the mother of two girls -- a preschooler and an infant.

It was a decade ago when Dora wandered onto our screens and into the popular culture, never looking back.

And if you aren't one of the 100 million people watch the show every year (source: Nielsen Media Research), the premise is brilliantly simple. At the beginning of every episode, Dora, a young girl, and her best friend Boots, a monkey, are presented with a problem of some kind. To solve the problem, Dora and Boots travel somewhere, so they consult the trusty Map and off they go. Along the way, the pair solve simple math and word problems, meet friends and overcome various obstacles. Viewers are asked to help Dora and Boots by figuring out the solutions along with them and then shouting their answers at the television screen. Throughout the adventure, Dora also teaches simple Spanish words, sings songs and engages in other fun activities that children at home are encouraged to participate in as well.

Interactive, educational and fun, Dora the Explorer resonates with kids (and their parents too).

"I love Dora!" actress Salma Hayek Pinault said recently at a Dora 10th Anniversary Press Conference. The mom to a preschool-aged daughter, she's a fan of the bilingual aspect to the show. "She's ben such a part of my relationship with my child. I love that it's very interactive and teachers children to have a sense of adventure."

According to materials provided by Nickelodeon, there are four primary curriculum goals for each episode:

  1. Increase viewers’ appreciation and awareness of Latino culture, introduce the Spanish language and enhance preschoolers’ appreciation for the value of communicating in another language.
  2. Encourage and reinforce preschoolers’ emerging cognitive skills in multiple areas of intelligence.
  3. Support children’s problem-solving skills.
  4. Familiarize young children with computers by introducing and using the conventions and vocabulary of computer games.

And while Dora is certainly designed to entertain young children, it was these educational aspects that most interested Walsh Valdes and co-creator Chris Gifford when they were brainstorming and creating the show.

"We felt like if this show was going to get out there, we had a great responsibility," she said. "If you are a really good teacher and present content in an entertaining way, kids will go for it. For preschoolers, learning is a great way to pass the time -- as much as being at the playground. We knew that having an educational hook and using it the right way, would be powerful."

For Kids, Supervised by Kids
In the early years of the show, Walsh Valdes didn't have children, although others on staff did.

"They would come in and say that their 4-year-old didn't like an idea for an episode," she said, which would halt all progress on that particular concept.

"I would be like, 'What?'," she laughed. "But now I'm in the same position. I talk to my daughter about what we are thinking of and sometimes she'll give me better ideas."

Being true to the audience is something the team takes seriously. Before Dora can embark on any adventures, she needs to make a quick pit stop. According to Nickelodeon, the network that airs Dora, every episode is screened by at least 75 preschoolers before it is show on television.

"We go out and test every story in preschools and day care centers," Walsh Valdes said. "We get to know kids at different levels. We are really mindful of what they want and like. We really do listen to kids."

Want more on Dora? Check out our Character Guide, a Decade of Dora round-up and get fun facts about the show.

Dora as a Life Tool
Walsh Valdes says that being a parent and working on the show, truly "go hand in hand," but even for those parents who also don't happen to be creators of television programs for children, there are many ways to incorporate the show so you can make your life with your preschooler a bit easier.

"I use Dora to help her organize her life," Walsh Valdes says of her daughter Olive, who is nearly three. The tip, she says, is to utilize a cognitive organizer -- like a map -- to help plan out the day.

"I use the idea of the map to get her from A to B," Walsh Valdes says. "If we are going to the beach to go swimming, we follow the steps. 'First we are going to put on our sunblock.'" The brilliant thing about using a map, is that you can really apply it to everything, as Walsh Valdes discovered. She said while sometimes the map is just a map -- if they are going to the store, first they have to stop at the post office, then go up the big hill -- it is also a great way to organize activities.

"If we are baking a cake, I break the process down into steps. First we gather the ingredients and then we put it in a bowl," she said.

On the show, Walsh Valdes the creative team do their best to make the story easy to follow. "It's hard for a little kid to sit through 25 minutes," she said. "They want to do other stuff. So we help them by telling them what is going to happen. We give them markers -- signposts -- the map as the cognitive organizer."

By giving kids cues as to what is going to happen, it makes them more likely to want to stay tuned in. The same principal can be applied to anything you need your little one to do, whether it is getting dressed or accompanying you to the grocery store.

"We've heard stories about kids creating their own maps to organize their day," Walsh Vldes said. "Parents also use maps to help get their kids excited to go to the supermarket or post office because they know in the end, they will get to go to the playground."

Limit Screen Time
It may sound funny -- the creator of a television program designed for kids placing restrictions on what her kids can watch, but Walsh Valdes says it's important.

"Screen time is a struggle," she said. "And as the kids they get older it will graduate to the computer and more."

She says her daughter didn't watch television (even Dora!) until she was two years old. And even now, she's only allowed two programs per day.

"Sometimes she'll choose to watch Caillou, sometimes it's Little Bear or the Berenstain Bears," she said. But it's the choice that is the important part. "It's really important for parents to give kids some choice," Walsh Valdes said. "When you give kids a choice, they feel as if they have a little bit of power and control over their own life."

She acknowledges that sometimes the two-show rule is a hard one to follow. With an infant at home, she admits that having the extra time to get things done would be nice. "I'm sleep deprived," she said, "and it would be easy to give in 'just this one time' but it's a complete snowball effect! With two shows, there is a definite beginning and end."

Life With Dora -- At Home
Despite haven't ever seen Dora on tv until she turned two years old, Walsh Valdes says Olive was always a big fan, reading books and hearing stories about the animated heroine from her mom and dad (a former writer on the show). Before she goes to sleep at night, Walsh Valdes and her husband will tell Olive stories about Dora -- tales that will never see a television script (consider them the lost episodes).

And since Olive likes to hear an original story every night, the pair must call on their creativity. "Dora's done some pretty zany things!" Walsh Valdes said.

Walsh Valdes said the line between Dora and family is definitely blurred at times -- and that's a good thing.

"My daughter is in love with Dora," she said. "Whatever story we come up with, it always has to be about Dora and Olive -- sometimes she'll even want to leave Boots behind!"

But Walsh Valdes says she realizes that the relationship that her daughter has with Dora is not singular, that many preschoolers feel that way too. It's a big responsibility, and one she takes seriously.

"There's something about the connection that preschoolers have with Dora," she said. "They really do believe that Dora is their friend. It's very genuine and sincere and earnest."

Want more on Dora? Check out our Character Guide, a Decade of Dora round-up and get fun facts about the show.

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