New podcast leads kids through community of woodland creatures

Feb. 25—Each episode of the podcast begins with the same sentence.

"Once upon a time, there lived a community of creatures who shared a meadow with a stream running through it."

This tranquil scene is spoken to life through the calm voice of Jeff Lockwood, a natural sciences and humanities professor at the University of Wyoming. The introduction is followed by a set of delicate musical flourishes as Lockwood introduces the characters and plot of the episode.

In "Dare to Be Fair," the debut episode of "Once Upon a Meadow," these characters are Crow, Bear, Rabbit and "the squirrels." Featured characters change every time, with Rabbit making an appearance in the following two-part episode, "Pond Palace," which concluded on Tuesday.

While the characters of each episode vary, their unique set of personalities and backgrounds always center around solving social conundrums through a collection of diverse viewpoints.

"Communities have to live with, work through and flourish in the face of difference — of different needs and wants and perspectives and experiences," Lockwood said Wednesday morning in a video call with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. "That's what the animals bring. What Bear wants and needs isn't what the raccoon wants or needs, or trout or whatever the other character is."

At the very core of each episode is a conflict, and it was a joint decision by longtime friends Lockwood and Willow Belden, editor and producer of the podcast, to present conflicts that kids ages 4 to 9 years old can understand and learn from. The focus of each episode tends to present issues that many adults struggle with, too — such as social justice and environmental conservation.

In "Pond Palace," the Lockwood-penned story follows Beaver as he decides to "imitate humans" by building an enormous wood lodge to impress his friends. Beaver soon learns that chewing down so many trees causes problems for the rest of the ecosystem.

"In terms of subject matter, I think the world is so divisive right now that offering children's stories, where they can sort of gently and kindly learn lessons about respect, compassion and compromise is really important," Belden said on the call. "One of the things that we also tried to do very intentionally with this show is kind of model the world that we hope to create."

Some of the characters in the story are written to represent alternative lifestyles. Rabbit identifies as nonbinary, one of the squirrels represents neurodiversity with a speech impediment, and Bear tends to be the character that follows more traditional values, making the most progress in regard to understanding each lesson by the end of the episode.

The goal is to normalize diversity among younger generations to which the new podcast is catered.

Both Lockwood and Belden shaped these characters so that their diversity is rarely, if ever, highlighted. Regardless of their identity, the characters are treated without prejudice, the story focusing on the community's collective issues.

Scripts went through roughly 10 to 15 rewrites to hone technical, creative and conceptual content. In order to accurately represent all featured groups, the creators incorporated feedback from a diverse panel of consultants.

"Jeff and I are both white, straight and cisgender," Belden said. "That's leaving a lot of perspectives out when you're trying to be inclusive. We would sort of run through the idea with these consultants and say, 'All right, what do you think about this? What should we change?"

Belden is a former journalist for Wyoming Public Radio, and since 2015 has hosted and produced the award-winning show "Out There," a Wyoming-based podcast focusing on exploring existential questions through personal stories of the outdoors.

With her experience, Belden was the perfect fit to work on the production and curation side of "Once Upon a Meadow." Lockwood, on the other hand, lent his decades-long background leading church youth groups with stories similar to those that appear on the podcast.

Lockwood knows that kids are intelligent, so he specially focused on writing stories that were simple to understand, but still educated young listeners on important concepts. Belden decided to expand the show by concluding each episode by interviewing children for their reactions to the story.

Interviewing children was a tricky adjustment for Belden, but through these interviews, they both realized that children were successfully grasping the stories they presented.

"It was super fulfilling," she said. "Sometimes, they would say things or ask things that were just brilliant and completely captured what you were going for."

All in all, the podcast has been an unexpectedly involved undertaking that has required significant attention from the entire production team.

"Despite the fact that I've already been producing a podcast, it's just different producing a show for kids," Belden said. "When we started it, I did not think it was going to be this big an endeavor. I thought it was going to be a much more compact little package, something that we would sort of do in addition to the things that we were already doing."

The podcast's score, created entirely by Tel Aviv native Nadav Amir-Himmel, also deserves a mention. As a children's podcast essentially devoid of any visuals, his work plays a crucial role in both keeping the listener engaged and helping foster images of characters and their environment.

In addition to score, the creators hired outside help in designing a packet for kids to interact with while following along to "Once Upon a Meadow."

Online, listeners can download different activities that pair with each episode. Kids can color and draw, participate in activities like scavenger hunts and work on different assignments that provide further environmental education after the podcast has ended.

Lockwood and Belden hope that the entirety of the production helps develop a crucial creative spectrum for the children that fully engage with the show's offerings. Children's podcasts are a growing trend, and "Once Upon a Meadow" ensures that children get the most out of the medium with all-encompassing interactivity.

"I think that there is a desperate need for children to sit quietly and listen to beautifully orchestrated and musically supported stories being told," Lockwood said. "The lack of the visual intensity, the lack of constant scene shifting, the energy and the adrenaline — (those are all) fine, but I think there's a time and a place for children to still be able to sit and listen.

"It's a skill. It's absolutely a skill, and if we don't give them opportunities, they won't develop that skill."

Will Carpenter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's Arts and Entertainment/Features Reporter. He can be reached by email at or by phone at 307-633-3135. Follow him on Twitter @will_carp_.