Formula for Fun

Mini superheroes, a new take on math and a Korean American creator seriously obsessed with origami paper—they all add up to a successful new preschool program, Team Umizoomi

By Anna M. Park

Say the word “math,” and a common reaction is a glazing over of the eyes. For many in this country, it’s just not a fun topic—and it shows. In 2006, America ranked 23rd of the top 30 industrialized countries in the world in math achievement. (South Korea ranked second.)

Well, leave it to a pair of miniature superheroes to save the day: Nickelodeon’s newest preschool offering, Team Umizoomi, introduces math to children in a fun, educational package. And since its premiere in January, Umizoomi has soared to number one in all of preschool television programming. The only other Nickelodeon preschool shows to launch as number one in their first month were Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go! It’s been so successful there are already plans to roll out the show internationally, including in South Korea.

And what’s not to like? A mini brother and sister team (they’re three inches tall!) and their pal robot Bot, scoot around Umi City and save the day using their math powers. Geo’s got a cool tool belt of shapes that can make anything. (Who knew two triangles and a circle could make a helicopter?) Bot’s got a belly screen that can show you anything. And little Milli? Using her “Pattern Power,” the only girl of the trio can change the pattern on her dress.

Wait. What do dress patterns have to do with 2+2=4?

“Shapes, spatial relations, matching, sorting classifications, patterns, measuring, weight and balance—all of that is within the realm of math,” says show creator Soo Kim.

“Previously it was thought that preschoolers were not ready for math, but it’s actually the opposite,” she adds. “Preschoolers encounter their world through math. They wake up in the morning and count how many times they’re brushing their teeth. When they put their clothes on, they’re matching buttons to buttonholes, or tying their shoes—it’s matching or spatial relations.”

Each Umizoomi character embodies one or two specific math concepts, Kim says. Milli can measure length, weight and temperature (her ponytail turns into a measuring tape). And that mysterious pattern power? “It’s a little bit more of a sophisticated power,” says Kim, referring to the “repeatable mathematical pattern,” which Milli uses to overcome obstacles in their math adventure. To reach the top of a building, for example, Milli turns her dress into a pattern of vines, and throws the vines up the side of the building to climb up. Or she’ll light up a dark tunnel with a pattern of small and big stars.

And it seems no coincidence that Kim has managed to parlay fashion into a math-oriented show. “Soo has always had a signature fashion sense, which includes colorful, beautifully patterned dresses and chic platform shoes,” says Jennifer Twomey, in charge of development and production for Nickelodeon Preschool Television, and co-creator, executive producer and writer on Team Umizoomi. “I always smile when I see Milli in her patterned dresses and her pink platforms. [I think,] ‘Hmm, I wonder where that design inspiration came from?’ ”

Kim’s design work on another Nick Jr. show, Blue’s Clues, with its paper-cutout feel, is a far cry from Umizoomi’s slick, Japanese pop art look. “It’s more me,” says Kim of Umizoomi.

In fact, when Nickelodeon called upon Kim five years ago to create a preschool show based on math, they pretty much gave her a blank slate. The first thing Kim did was pull out her giant collection of origami paper.

“I bought [origami paper] every time I went to any kind of Japanese store,” says Kim. The intricate patterns and complex color combinations that Kim so loved in the paper proved a perfect fit for her new project. In addition to the more sophisticated coloring of the show (think periwinkle, lavender and peony), geometric origami patterns litter the skyscrapers, the cars and even the leaves in Umi City.

Watching the first episode, “The Kite Festival,” which involves helping a real life Asian American girl find her dragon kite, one very much gets a sense of the Asian American influence on the show. (Milli is voiced by Sophia Fox, whose mother is Japanese.) But it’s not something that Kim consciously brought to the show, she says. She may have been born in Seoul, but Kim spent the rest of her life after her first birthday on the East Coast. “I think of myself as such an American, but since developing and creating the show, it’s becoming more obvious that I’m really influenced by my Asian background,” she says.

One thing the thirtysomething has always been influenced by is math. And not just because she loved calculus and graduated with a biology degree from the College of William and Mary (yes, Kim was on a med school path). “I remember being in kindergarten—and again you don’t think all of this is math—but any kind of music time, piano lessons early on or ballet lessons, all of that keeping to the beat, are tied foundationally to math,” she says. “It has a really wide appeal, much more than you think.

“As an adult you think, ‘math, oh, that’s not very exciting,’ because we’ve all been conditioned that way,” Kim continues. “Maybe kids starting to watch [Umizoomi] now can think of it more as a fun and exciting adventure.”

Math equals fun? That’s a formula worth discovering.