Tree Fu Tom and David Tennant: helping children kick the flab

A superhero who gets children off the sofa? Now that's incredible...

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Tree Fu Tom and David Tennant: helping children kick the flab
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When it comes to the battle against childhood obesity, TV doesn’t always come out looking like a superhero. Along with the internet, computer games and parents too nervous to let their children roam outside, TV is blamed for a generation of couch potatoes.

But now here comes a show aimed at children as young as four that is specifically designed to get them off the sofa and leaping around like embryonic kung fu masters. 

In CBeebies’ new high-gloss animation series Tree Fu Tom, we follow boy action hero Tom as he tears through the sylvan world of Treetopolis solving problems along with sidekicks such as Twigs, a woodsprite voiced by David Tennant.

Spells

The presence of ex-Time Lords aside, however, the show’s key appeal comes from its “spells”, sequences of movements performed by Tom – and the viewers he encourages to copy him. Tree Fu Tom’s producer and creator, Daniel Bays, believes it’s the only show where “movement contributes to the success of the story, involving a physical participation in the narrative.

In every episode there are two moments when Tom’s action-adventure skills can’t overcome a problem unless he has the help of children at home. He takes them through the magical tree-fu moves and they send the magic through the screen to him.The core thing is we want kids to feel like they are heroes too.”

Help for dyspraxia

This emphasis on self-esteem as much as exercise is at the heart of the show. It’s also designed to help those with dyspraxia, a developmental condition that affects an estimated six to 15 per cent of children. “It comes from the Greek words meaning ‘ill’ and ‘doing’”, says show consultant Dr Lynda Foulder-Hughes of the Dyspraxia Foundation. 

“Children appear clumsy, disorganised and slightly chaotic.” They have trouble with tasks their peers might find straightforward – learning to write, eating with a knife and fork – a gap that widens with time, often resulting in low self-esteem and issues with academic attainment. 

The show was inspired by an article Bays read about a mother trying to help her son, who had dyspraxia, with a special movement routine. As a father with a science background, his interest was spurred and he started to research the subject, realising that while parents often worry about language development and social skills, few are as concerned about the “vocabulary” of movement.

Magic moves for the playground

Dr Foulder-Hughes (together with In the Night Garden’s Iggle Piggle – aka choreographer Nick Kellington) helped Bays devise the “spells”, packing as many “foundation movements” – the building blocks essential to carry out more complex actions – into each one. The aim is that young viewers will take Tom to their hearts and practise the spells in the playground – even if, like vegetables hidden in the pasta sauce, they don’t know what’s good for them!

David Tennant, father of Olive, nearly 1, on voicing Acorn sprite Twigs

“Twigs is Tom’s best friend. He’s very small and he’s a little anarchic, he’s a little crazy and  he’s quite loud.  “I could never have imagined that a programme like this could be used in this way to help combat dyspraxia. It will be fascinating to see if it does have a positive effect. The children will certainly have a good time trying!

“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything for this age of child before. Television more than any other medium influenced me as a child and formed my response to literature, storytelling and, therefore, the world around me. Generally speaking we don’t have vivid memories of that age and what influenced us, yet clearly these are hugely formative years and it’s really important that we can create television of a high quality for that audience.”

For more information on dyspraxia go to dyspraxia foundation.org.uk.

Tree Fu Tom is on Mondays-Fridays at 5:25pm on CBeebies

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 28 February 2012.

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