16 Treasure-Filled Facts About Blue’s Clues


In the summer of 1994, Nickelodeon handed three novice producers a monumental task: Create a hit television show for preschoolers, and do it on a shoestring budget. After 30 days holed up in a tiny conference room high above Times Square, the three came up a puzzle-based show starring a little blue dog. Over the course of 11 years, Blue’s Clues not only became the hit Nickelodeon sought—it exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. On the 20th anniversary of the show's premiere episode, we look back at Blue, Steve, Joe, and the show that redefined children’s television.


Todd Kessler, Angela Santomero, and Traci Paige Johnson—the trio that developed Blue’s Clues—wanted the show to be entertaining as well as educational. Along with co-creator Santomero, who had a master’s degree in child developmental psychology from Columbia University, the team enlisted the help of educators and consultants to craft a format that reflected the latest research in early childhood development.

Instead of the varied, nonlinear format popularized by Sesame Street and geared toward short attention spans, the team developed a narrative format. To keep kids engaged, they enlisted their help by having host Steve Burns pose questions to the camera, then pause to hear their answers. Simple, recognizable objects and sounds became the clues that eased young viewers into each episode, while the puzzles grew more challenging without becoming frustrating. The show had its own research department, which was rare for a kids’ program. Its research-based approach became what the production team called the "special sauce" in its recipe for success.


The Blue’s Clues team wanted to promote mastery in children—that feeling that they were experts on a given topic. More than memorization or rote learning, mastery boosts kids’ self-esteem and ensures they’ll internalize information, which in turn better prepares them for school. Enforcing mastery requires repetition. So the show’s script repeated key words and phrases over and over in varying contexts. In the episode "Blue’s Predictions," for example, second host Joe says the word "predict" 15 times to help viewers become acquainted with the word. After finding that kids' engagement with the show increased with repeat viewings, Nickelodeon decided to air the same episode every day for a week before moving on to a new one.


After each script was finished, the show’s research team would test it on a classroom full of preschoolers, noting how the children responded to the material. The team would move on to another group, and then another, using the kids' reactions to further develop the episode as it went into the animation phase. All told, each episode took around nine to 10 months to produce.


Because they were working with such a limited budget, the production team provided voices for the show themselves rather than hire talent. Nick Balaban, who composed the music, played the role of Mr. Salt, while his co-composer, Michael Rubin, provided the voice of The Sun. In determining who would play the part of Blue, the team went around the table to see who had the best bark. The winner was co-creator Traci Paige Johnson, who filled the role throughout the show’s run.


Johnson, Santomero, and Kessler’s first choice for their show’s main character was an orange cat named Mr. Orange. They didn’t like that color, so they turned the cat blue and named him Mr. Blue. However, Nickelodeon already had an animated series in the pipeline that featured a cat, so the network asked the team to pick a different animal. "We thought, it couldn’t be a little puppy, could it?" said Johnson in a behind-the-scenes special celebrating the show’s 10th anniversary. The team made the switch.


In the anniversary special, Balaban gave viewers a taste of the voice he initially gave Mr. Salt. "'Ey Mrs. Pepper! Blue’s in the kitchen and looks like he could use a little help," the composer bellowed, in an accent reminiscent of The Sopranos’s leading mobster. Balaban quickly shifted to a softer-sounding French accent after the production team deemed the accent too gruff.


TV Guide cover in 1998. Jim Ellwanger via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In conceiving the show, the production team envisioned a female host interacting with Blue and the gang. When it came time to cast the show, though, they opened up auditions to both male and female actors. After looking at more than 1000 eager young aspirants, they found that Steve Burns, a 22-year-old whose only previous credits included an episode of Law & Order and a Dunkin' Donuts commercial, got the best response from test audiences. "There was something about this kid fresh out of Pennsylvania," said Johnson in the anniversary special. "He knew just how to look into the camera and talk to the kids."


As a young actor, Burns didn’t have his sights set on a kids’ show—quite the opposite, in fact. "I had moved to New York to become Serpico," he said in a 2010 monologue at The Moth, a storytelling venue located in New York. As such, Burns sported a grungy '90s look, complete with long hair, earrings, and facial stubble. Before he auditioned for Blue’s Clues, Johnson called up Burns' agent and told him to clean up his appearance before he came in. He did, and immediately went from tough guy to kiddie favorite.


In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Burns joked that his signature green polos were "carefully handmade to be as uncomfortable as possible." The shirts were a hit with kids, of course—perhaps too much so. After parents complained to the network that their children wouldn’t take off their green polo shirts—because Steve never did—producers decided to give replacement host Donovan Patton (a.k.a. Joe) a more varied wardrobe.


After being named one of People Magazine’s most eligible bachelors in 2000, Burns started getting a lot of date requests. One that particularly interested him came from a swimsuit model, who mailed him a picture with her phone number. Burns called and arranged dinner, and agreed to pick her up at her home in New Jersey. When he finally met her, he discovered a significant size difference between the two of them (Burns is 5’6”). Eager to impress, he saw a sign in front of her neighbor’s house for a Blue’s Clues themed birthday party. "I had the green polo and some toys in the back of my car," he said during his appearance at The Moth. "And I thought, 'This is the only game you’ve got right now.'" Bewildered parents watched as the television host burst onto the scene and entertained the delighted crowd. The party was a complete success. The rest of the date? Not so much.


With more than 14 million young viewers tuning in every week, Blue’s Clues had massive earning potential in licensed toys, clothes, games, and other products. But Nickelodeon and the show’s creators didn't just lend Blue's image to any candy company or board game maker that came calling. Knowing that the show’s popularity came from its ability to educate and empower children, the team carefully reviewed every licensing opportunity. Many companies were turned away.

In reviewing a proposal from a clothing company, the Blue’s Clues team interviewed parents about their kids' clothing needs. "We thought, what can we do to help children dress themselves?" Alice Wilder, director of research and development for the show, said in an interview. The result: a line of clothing with elastic waistbands and big buttons that color-matched with each buttonhole.


When Blue’s Clues premiered in 1996, its main competition was Sesame Street, which had been on the air for nearly three decades. Within just a few years, Nickelodeon’s little blue dog had eclipsed Big Bird and company, prompting the PBS mainstay to change its long-standing format to include more interactive segments and other elements that appealed to preschoolers.


In 2001, at the height of Blue's Clues's popularity, Burns suddenly announced he was quitting the show. The decision rocked the production team, who tried desperately to persuade him to stay. And it would go on to shock TV watchers, fueling death rumors that grew so pervasive, Burns had to go on The Rosie O’Donnell Show to prove he was still alive. But Burns had his reasons.

In an interview with SPIN, Burns talked about a party he had gone to the year before where he heard The Flaming Lips' album The Soft Bulletin for the first time. "It completely rearranged my head," Burns told the magazine. The whimsical, yearning alt-rock inspired Burns to begin writing music again, something he had done as a teenager growing up in rural Pennsylvania. After quickly penning three dozen songs, Burns knew he wanted to pursue a music career. In 2003 he made good on his decision, releasing Songs for Dustmites, a critically acclaimed album that featured The Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd on drums.


In the years since his departure, Burns has revealed that his hair loss also influenced his decision to leave. "I refused to lose my hair on a kids' TV show, and it was happening fast," he said in the anniversary special. Burns has also discussed how the show's runaway success made him uncomfortable, particularly since he didn't intend to make a career in children's television. "I began thinking, do they have the right guy here?" he said during his Moth monologue. "Maybe they need a teacher or a child development specialist. I was very, very conflicted about it."


Having never watched Blue’s Clues, the 24-year-old actor who would replace Burns thought the show was about a dog that played blues music. Luckily, that didn’t affect his audition for the role of replacement host. Like Burns, Patton was a hit with preschool test audiences—a reception he credited to a warm relationship with his 5-year-old sister. Burns worked extensively with Patton, and in 2002 viewers watched as Steve went off to college and his younger brother, Joe, took over.


In the years since Blue’s Clues debuted, study after study has venerated the show’s effectiveness as an educational tool. Researchers at the University of Alabama found that regular viewers displayed increased learning comprehension over non-viewers. Another study from Vanderbilt University suggested that the show’s participatory format increased social interaction in children, while others have shown that watching Blue’s Clues enhanced kids’ vocabulary. Imitation may be the greatest testament to the show’s value, with programs like Dora the Explorer following the interactive path Blue’s Clues set down.

Aflac's Robotic Duck Comforts Kids with Cancer

Every year, close to 16,000 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer. That news can be the beginning of a long and draining battle that forces kids and their parents to spend large amounts of time with medical providers, enduring long and sometimes painful treatments. As The Verge reports, a bit of emotional support during that process might soon come from an unlikely source: the Alfac duck.

The supplemental insurance company announced at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that it has partnered with the medical robotics company Sproutel to design and manufacture My Special Aflac Duck, a responsive and emotive sim-bird intended exclusively for children undergoing cancer treatment.

When a child cuddles the fuzzy robotic duck, it can cuddle back. It reacts to being cradled and stroked by quacking or moving its head. Kids can also touch special RFID chips emblazoned with emoji on the duck's chest to tell it how they’re feeling, and the device will mimic those emotions.

But the duck isn’t solely for cuddling. In “IV Mode,” which can be switched on while a child is undergoing IV therapy, the duck can help the user relax by guiding them through breathing exercises. Accessories included with the toy also allow children to "draw blood" from the duck as well as administer medication, a kind of role-playing that may help patients feel more comfortable with their own treatments.

Aflac approached Sproutel with the idea after seeing Sproutel’s Jerry the Bear, a social companion robot intended to support kids with diabetes. Other robotic companions—like the Japanese-made seal Paro and Hasbro's Joy for All companion pets for seniors—have hinted at a new market for robotics that prioritize comfort over entertainment or play.

My Special Aflac Duck isn’t a commercial product and won’t be available for retail sale. Aflac intends to offer it as a gift directly to patients, with the first rollout expected at its own cancer treatment center in Atlanta, Georgia. Mass distribution is planned for later this year.

[h/t The Verge]

15 Amazing Kids Who Are Making The World a Better Place

From pint-sized activists to elementary school entrepreneurs, the digital world has been instrumental in giving a global platform to anyone who wants to make a difference—regardless of age. Need proof? Look no further than the 15 amazing kids highlighted here, each of whom is doing his or her part to make the world a better place.


Daliyah Marie Arana
Haleema Smith Arana

Studies show that the typical American will read around five books per year. Well, 5-year-old Daliyah Marie Arana of Gainesville, Georgia, does that in a week. What's more impressive: She read more than 1000 books before she even entered kindergarten. Her love of reading became so prolific that it caught the attention of the Library of Congress, where she was invited to serve as Guest Librarian in January 2017.

“I want to inspire all the kids at my school to read more,” Arana tells Mental Floss. “I read to my 5-month-old baby brother, Demetrio, every day because I want him to learn to read before age 2!”

That same passion extends to her community, where Arana says, “I want to work with my mom to make my school the best group of readers in Georgia!” —Jay Serafino


Gizelle Bazos
Courtesy of Ann Bazos

Nine-year-old Giselle Bazos has solved a problem that plagues kids her age: lost retainers. Her invention, the Retainer Container, prevents kids from losing their dental appliances while they eat. “I have a retainer that I lost a couple times,” Bazos tells Mental Floss. “I found it really hard, especially when you are eating, to keep it somewhere where it won’t get thrown away or broken.”

Her storage container can be worn on the wrist, so that a kid’s retainer never actually leaves their person. (Which is good news for parents, too, as it can cost as much as $600 to replace a lost retainer.) Bazos got to present her idea at the National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo in the summer of 2017. Though right now she’s more focused on being a regular fourth grader than manufacturing the device, we’ll be looking out for her next brilliant invention. —Shaunacy Ferro


Robbie Bond
Photo courtesy of Michelle Bond

This past April, the president issued two executive orders that hit close to home for 9-year-old Robbie Bond. They threatened the protected status of 27 national monuments, including Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Bond’s home state of Hawaii. He knew he had to do something, so with his family he decided to hit the road. Bond's mission is to visit each of the 27 vulnerable monuments while raising awareness of the issue among both kids and adults. He’s already well on his way to achieving that goal, and tracks his progress on his website, Kids Speak for Parks.

“I love when I visit schools and interact with my peers and they tell me about their experiences visiting national parks and monuments,” Bond tells Mental Floss. “At every National Monument I have visited, the community has welcomed me and people have taken the time to educate me about the uniqueness and significance of each monument.” —Michele Debczak


Henry Burner
Sarah DeNike

When a school trading post project tasked fourth grader Henry Burner with bringing in something to sell to his classmates, he didn’t want to go the traditional baked goods route. Instead, Henry made and sold his own pinback buttons with the help of his mom’s button machine. The success of his creative project spawned an idea.

“I did so well at my trading post that when I got home I asked mom whether I could ‘make real money doing this,’” Burner tells Mental Floss. He began selling his buttons at farmers markets, but when the season ended and the markets began to close, he said, "My mom suggested e-commerce and that's when the business really took off!” 

Now as the founder of Buttonsmith, Inc., Burner—who was named as one of Forbes's notable 30 Under 30 in the retail and ecommerce industry—is creating jobs in his hometown of Carnation, Washington. With a patent pending on the design, his products are available both online and in Walmarts across the country. While Burner cites "selling more than $1 million gross in 2017, being in 1600 Walmarts, [and] being able to sell custom products on Amazon" as some of his biggest achievements, he's also very conscious about the kind of company he wants to run. He's proud of Buttonsmith's "products [being] 100 percent made in the USA, being a union shop, and creating 10 good jobs for our employees!” —JS


Mari Copeny

For years, residents of Flint, Michigan have had to deal with a water supply known to contain dangerous levels of lead and other contaminants that irritate the skin. To make sure President Barack Obama was aware of the situation, 8-year-old Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny wrote a letter to the White House in March 2016. After not hearing back for months, Copeny’s mother, Loui Brezzell, got a call from Washington: The President was coming to Flint and wanted to meet Copeny.

Known as “Little Miss Flint” from her days in beauty pageants, Copeny became a lightning rod for the water crisis in her town. “When we found out the water was making us sick, I decided I wanted to stand up and give a voice to the kids in Flint that couldn’t stand up and speak for themselves,” she told Fortune.

Copeny—who has more than 21,000 Twitter followers—has since spearheaded a charity movement to donate 1000 school backpacks to area students. In November 2017, her tireless community efforts were recognized by Central Michigan University, which presented Copeny with a $25,000 scholarship to the school. —Alvin Ward


Sophie Cruz
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SOZE

Sophie Cruz has proven that you’re never too young to start caring about national issues, especially when your family’s fate hangs in the balance. Her story got global attention in 2015 when, at just 5 years old, she handed the Pope a letter and a hand-drawn illustration in hopes that he could help change U.S. immigration laws, which threaten to deport her parents, who are both undocumented immigrants. The illustration was of Cruz, her family, and the Pope joining hands, with “My friends and I love each other no matter our skin color,” written in Spanish across it.

Her story continued at the Women’s March in January 2017, where she made a speech to the crowd in both English and Spanish, pleading with them to fight for immigrants around the country. “We are here together making a chain of love, to protect our families,” Cruz, who was just 6 at the time, told the massive crowd. “Let us fight with love, faith, and courage so that our families will not be destroyed.” Cruz's story has become a rallying cry for nonprofit organizations like Fighting for Families. —JS


Addyison Goss
Courtesy Snuggle Sacks

Ten-year-old Addisyn Goss, of Fenton, Michigan, met her grandfather for the first time in 2015. He was very sick, with one leg amputated, and had been homeless for six years. “So many of his stories made me sad, and I wanted to help others that might be homeless,” Goss tells Mental Floss. With her family’s help, she bundled donated toiletries, clothes, snacks, and blankets into 50 individual bags she dubbed Snuggle Sacks, which they delivered to the homeless in Lansing and Flint. Soon they were giving out 50 each month; now it’s 500. Goss’s nonprofit has handed out 3200 survival kits so far.

“I like seeing how the Snuggle Sacks really help people,” she says. “We have met lots of very nice people, and see them over and over again. They tell us how happy they are to get a new pair of socks, or the gloves, and how it helps them stay warm and safer. That makes us feel good. And, my brother and sister help me every day, so we are very close now.” —Jennifer Pinkowski


Ryan Hickman
Photo courtesy Damion Hickman

Ryan Hickman’s passion for the environment began early. When the 8-year-old was just a toddler, his father, Damion Hickman, would take him on trips to their local recycling center in Orange County, California. These outings inspired Ryan to launch his own recycling business, Ryan’s Recycling, with help from his community.

In just five years, Hickman has recycled nearly 300,000 cans and bottles. He has also raised more than $5000 for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a marine mammal rescue center, by selling company-branded T-shirts. “I love recycling because it helps keep trash from getting into the ocean near where we live and that helps the animals in the ocean,” Hickman tells Mental Floss. —Kirstin Fawcett


Tristan, Jackson, and Violet Kelley
Photo courtesy Heather Kelley

In the summer of 2009, the Kelley brothers—Jackson, then 10, and Tristan, almost 8—launched Backpacks for New Beginnings, a charity that provides backpacks and school supplies for underprivileged kids around the Boston area. “We wanted to create a charity where we could do more than donate money or toys," the brothers told Mental Floss by email. "We wanted it to be a charity for kids run by kids.”

They fundraise, shop for items—which also include warm clothes, toiletries, and other basics—manage around 30 volunteers, and coordinate deliveries themselves, donating more than 7500 backpacks in the past nine years. And they show no signs of stopping—especially now that their 7-year-old sister Violet has gotten involved.

Though Jackson is now a freshman in college, he still plans on staying involved from afar and during the summers, and hopes to found a new chapter wherever he ends up after graduation. In the meantime, 16-year-old Tristan is spearheading the effort at home, and Violet is preparing to take over the operation in the future. —SF


Robby Novak

Navigate past YouTube’s sea of unboxing videos and famous cats and you’ll sometimes find someone worth your time—Robby Novak being a prime example. Since 2013, the 13-year-old has been posting videos as “Kid President,” featuring optimistic and enthusiastic addresses from his cardboard Oval Office that have promoted charitable causes, like urging people to donate clothes and meals to the needy. In other clips, he uses humor to make salient points about empathy. “Before you say something about the barbecue sauce on somebody else’s shirt, take a look at the barbecue sauce on your own shirt,” he says.

Novak’s high spirits are in contrast to his osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that causes his bones to be abnormally brittle and has prompted over 70 bone breaks in his life. Novak’s infectious energy has been viewed by—and inspired—millions, including Real President Barack Obama, who visited with Novak when he invited the performer to the White House for the annual Easter Egg Hunt in 2013. —AW


Sunshine Oelfke
Photo courtesy Jackie Sue Oelfke

Most kids break open their piggy banks to buy games or toys, but 5-year-old Sunshine Oelfke found a more important way to use her savings. She started gathering up her own change after learning that a friend at school didn’t have enough money to buy milk. Sunshine’s mom, Jackie Oelfke, helped her fill a baggie with cash and take it to school, but they didn’t stop there. They decided to extend Sunshine’s good deed with a GoFundMe campaign that raised money for more kids who can’t afford milk. “I want all my friends to have milk and lunch,” Sunshine tells Mental Floss. “I want all my friends to be happy.” —MD


Gitanjali Rao
Discovery Education/Andy King

Gitanjali Rao, a seventh-grader from Colorado, won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and was named "American's top young scientist." Her winning project? An inexpensive, portable, accurate device that tests lead contamination in drinking water and a smartphone app that analyzes the results, which she created after seeing news stories about lead in Flint, Michigan's water system. With her $25,000 prize, Rao hopes to fine-tune her invention—which she named Tethys, for the Greek goddess of fresh water—and ultimately help people make sure their water is clean. “I believe [Tethys] could have helped the people of Flint if they had it earlier,” Rao told The Denver Post. “My next step is to find out for sure.” —Kat Long


Carl Scheckel
Photo courtesy William Scheckel

Carl Scheckel, 10, uses his love of comics to entertain soldiers and veterans. It all began when Carl (with help from his dad, William Scheckel, an adjunct professor at New York Institute of Technology) launched a website, Carl’s Comix, to post reviews of works and interviews with comic book creators. “One of my readers asked me if I would want to donate comics to veterans,” Scheckel tells Mental Floss. “I liked the idea and took 400 comics of my own and asked dealers, collectors, and creators I know if they would like to donate comics too. I raised 3500 comics!”

The Department of Veteran Affairs arranged for Scheckel's comics to be donated to a local veterans hospital and Army base, and thousands of additional donations poured in when news spread about his good deed. Scheckel plans to give a portion of these extra works to Maryland’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “I hope that when people get these comics, it reminds them of home and gives them something fun to do!” he says. —KF


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