In the British cartoon Sarah And Duck, Sarah is a girl who lives with her best friend, a mallard named Duck. Their home is devoid of adults except the omnipresent narrator/possible dad. Each short episode follows the pair through both mundane activities (like making a cake) and fantastical scenarios (like the cake batter coming to life to coach them on its baking).
Self-described as “wide-eyed, quacky flappy, pre-school adventures,” the quirky and endearing cartoon models friendship and community for children. It has been a family favourite in my house since I first gave in to “screen time, all the time.” Both sweet and surreal, it’s the reason my daughter said “biscuit” before she said “cookie.”
The two main characters are devoted to each other, as if they are siblings (without the bickering). They share, look for solutions and include everyone in their adventures. My children never get tired of watching it (or chanting the theme song — “QUACK!”). And I’m ok with that because it’s layered with subtle messages about being a good friend, building community, and tolerating differences. Here are three emotional skills your kids can learn from Sarah and Duck.
Adult characters on Sarah And Duck (except the narrator/dad) are generally silent in the background, giving Sarah and Duck space to invent their own schemes and solutions. Their neighbour Scarf Lady is perpetually confused and forgetful, but her gruff talking handbag is there to keep her straight and interpret her malapropisms.
In one episode, Scarf Lady “loses her memories” of the Winter Sports Championships when her film reels break. Sarah, Duck, and their friends conspire to recreate the memories by making a new film. I doubt preschoolers appreciate the subtext of older loved ones experiencing memory loss, but this episode is a perfect model for responding with patience, humour and empathy.
In another episode, Sarah and Duck spend the day with Scarf Lady’s pet donkey. Sarah worries that Donkey seems sad and is determined to not just make him feel better, but to uncover why he’s down. (My librarian heart fills up when they have a question and head straight to the library for answers.)
Sarah and Duck take responsibility for the happiness of their community members, but not in a dysfunctional codependent way. The series is full of situations where Sarah recognises a friend is hurting, and her instinct is to help.
Almost every character in the show has a phobia or an intense interest/obsession (like preschoolers often do). These quirks are never pointed out as odd or cause for shame. Instead everyone recognises and accepts differences. John doesn’t like stairs, Plate Girl always carries a plate around, Scooter Boy is extremely safety-conscious, Bug collects buttons. It’s all taken in stride.
Even the feelings of (typically) inanimate objects are considered in an effort to make sure everyone is accommodated and accepted. Sarah and Duck befriend an Umbrella and work to keep him dry because he is afraid of rain. When Duck needs a new chair, they discover a sensitive shunned wicker in the corner of the store. Its label says, “The wicker chair, you’ll know it’s there. It twitches its stitches, and catches your hair.” Sarah sees that the chair is just twitchy with excitement and takes it home once it agrees to not pull Duck’s feathers.
Patience and communication
Sarah models patience by working to help her friends, but there are also times when she and Duck have to prioritise clear communication to help others understand.
In one episode, they find an untended flower bed in the park. First they pretend to be flowers to make the garden tools more comfortable, then they get to the bottom of why the tools are not working in that one patch. The tools point to a “Keep Off” sign, which they have honoured out of respect for the Old Trowel. In a brilliant manoeuvre, Sarah recognises they have misinterpreted the trowel’s intended message, and helps them honour him by cleaning up the patch.
In another episode, a tired Sarah coaches Mars to fill in for Moon. Again she is patient, and demonstrates that she recognises and appreciates the role each community member plays. Moon’s role is to be quiet, still, and provide gentle light, quite a challenge for noisy, bright Mars.
Imaginative play and creativity are also prominent themes in Sarah And Duck. Music, art, poetry and dance are threads through all 120 episodes. The combination of creativity and compassion build a world where Sarah and Duck can try new things without fear of mistakes and see potential instead of roadblocks, which is kind of exactly how I want my kids to feel in their world.
Sarah And Duck airs on ABC Kids in Australia.