Archive PanwapaSix New Characters Foster Global Citizenship From A Floating Island

Panwapa helps children gain empathy for others while encouraging a broader international perspective.


When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that October 10, 2007 was officially “Panwapa Day” in New York City, it was one of many such celebrations around the world. Political leaders also celebrated in Mexico City, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and London, marking the launch of a multimedia project designed to foster global citizenship to today’s four- to seven-year-olds, while encouraging community participation.

Answering the need for a child-oriented global awareness curriculum

The road to these celebrations began in London, where Sesame Workshop and the Merrill Lynch Foundation together hatched a plan to bring a global awareness curriculum to kids. They did so knowing that there was very little media available to children that would help them make sense of our ever-changing world. For example, there was no curriculum available that would teach children about the economic disparity between countries and people. Sesame Workshop was eager to play a role in developing a safe virtual environment where children could strike out on adventures, meet new people, and learn about different countries.

Sesame Workshop producer Emily Reardon was one Panwapa team member who saw what the Workshop could bring to the table.

“It seemed citizenship was not addressed in children’s media and Sesame Workshop was in a position to start talking about [the issue] in a playful but researched way,” Reardon says.

The Workshop had an enthusiastic partner in the Merrill Lynch Foundation, which had just established its Global Ambassadors program to engage teens in global issues and teach them diplomacy; Panwapa is a way for the foundation to expand this sensibility to younger children.

The advisory panel established five educational goals for Panwapa, following the major points that educators have identified as central to global citizenship:

  • Increase children’s awareness of the wider world around them
  • Encourage children to appreciate similarities and value differences between themselves and others
  • Instill a sense of responsibility for one’s own actions
  • Encourage active community participation
  • Increase understanding of and response to economic disparity

At its core, Panwapa is a multimedia initiative that harnesses the efforts of international educators and media producers to help children gain the perspectives and competencies that form the basis of becoming global citizens.

The Panwapa experience

When a child visits, she is transported to Panwapa Island, a floating island that travels the world’s oceans. On Panwapa Island, children and their caregivers enter the virtual Panwapa community and meet new Panwapa Muppet friends, including Athena the Owl and Azibo the Monster. Children can then “travel” safely around the world and visit with Panwapa Kids from other countries. They can also watch interactive movies, learn words in other languages, and go on international treasure hunts to collect themed trading cards.

When a child visits, she can also design her own Panwapa Kid, an avatar that will represent her throughout her journeys on the site. She can choose from an array of body colors, eyes, mouths, hairstyles, shoes, and outfits; instructions on the site encourage children to experiment with different combinations. A child’s avatar might look and dress similar to the actual child, or it might look like someone from another culture, or even like an astronaut or a dragon.

After the child creates a Panwapa Kid, it’s time to build a Panwapa home. The child can choose the shape, building materials, and surrounding landscape for his home. When the home is built, the child is ready to go out and visit other Panwapa Kids at their homes.

As the child explores Panwapa World, she will encounter “information booths” in some countries that feature fascinating cultural and geographical highlights about those places.

Developing a site from a global perspective

When developing the project, the Panwapa team put a high value on making sure every child would feel represented.

Panwapa Executive Director Brett Pierce recalls, “The challenge of creating this site is creating it from a global perspective. We had a strong sense that we were creating something new. There’s nothing like this in other languages.”

Pierce says that the breakthrough idea was the floating island. In order for the project to be global, Panwapa Island could not be rooted in one place, associated with one particular region. As a floating body, Panwapa is free to visit different climates, meet different people and animals, and hear different languages. Content was developed in five languages simultaneously: English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, and producers considered every detail of the project from multiple points of view.

The project also includes a DVD with original Panwapa Island adventures, and print materials including a caregiver guide, which is offered in the project’s five languages. These diverse print materials aim to inspire children to make an active change in their neighborhood.

Panwapa’s impact

The unique curriculum is already a success with teachers, and Pierce notes that due to teachers’ overwhelming response, Sesame Workshop developed a full set of curriculum materials to help teachers bring Panwapa’s lessons into the classroom.

“We weren’t going to develop any formal set of lesson plans,” says Pierce, “It was the teachers who said, “I was looking for this!”

Pierce, Reardon, and the rest of the Panwapa team are excited to take the floating island further into the unknown, and to increase its social networking and gaming activities.

With more and more Panwapa Kids joining the site each day, Pierce already considers Panwapa a success.

“Watching six brand new characters come to life in a vibrant setting who are playfully working through these issues with a global resonance, and then empowering the child to do the same onlineā€¦ this was a dream project,” he says.

Panwapa is available as a free download on iTunes and as a free video on demand (VOD) via PBS KIDS Sprout.


Merrill Lynch Foundation, Boeing Global Corporate Citizenship, The Annenberg Foundation