Interview Series – Science Wows talks to Una Halpin of Wildways Adventure Centre

This post is the fourth in a the interview series looking at Science and Nature communication through different media in Ireland

This week I talk with Una Halpin, of Wildways Adventures, to find all about her business and her passion to get families outdoors!

Una Halpin is the owner of Wildways Adventures, a company that introduces children and families to nature, heritage and the outdoors in a fun and relaxed way.  Una has a BSc in Geology from Univesity College Cork and an MSc in Environmental Engineering from Queens University Belfast and has worked in the Environmental Education Field since 2004 including three years as a field instructor in the Killarney National Park Education Centre and five years as Education Officer in Castlecomer Discovery Park.  Una has developed and delivered science education programmes to primary, and secondary school students as well as adult groups but her greatest passion is in getting families outdoors exploring nature and the outdoors together.

Hi Una and thank you so much for agreeing to take part in this interview series.
Firstly I would like to find out a little about yourself and how you got into a career in Environmental Education:


Is this something you always wanted to do?

When I was younger, I never had any clear idea of what career path I wanted to follow.  I was interested in wildlife and the outdoors from a young age and I suppose I had a vague idea that I’d like to do something in that line but that was about it.
What path did you take to this career? What training was required?

I suppose I took a long route to the career I’m in now but each of the steps taught me something new and I like to think I’m combining all of my previous experience in my current role.
When it came to decision time in school and I had to start looking at possible study options and the CAO, I chose Earth Science in UCC.   I had decided I wanted to do something in the environmental field, but in the end I chose Earth Science because I loved physical Geography and I was fascinated by rocks and the formation of the landscape.  I loved my college course, and graduated in 1997 with a BSc in Geology.  I then spent a year working in the Groundwater section of the Geological Survey of Ireland before completing an MSc in Environmental Engineering in Queens University Belfast.
After my masters, I worked for two and a half years in an environmental consultancy in Dublin working mainly in the area of soil and groundwater pollution before leaving to spend 6 months travelling in India and Sri Lanka.

It was after my return that I became interested in the whole area of Environmental Education.  Shortly after my return home, I did my first work camp with Groundwork conservation volunteers, clearing Rhododendron from the oak woods of Killarney National Park and was determined to return.  I’m still involved with Groundwork and even met my husband through the work camps.  The following spring I got the chance to return to Killarney National Park to work in the Education Centre.  For the first year, I worked on a casual basis, whenever an extra instructor was needed and volunteered with the park rangers on the other days.  I lived in Killarney for 3 years overall.  I spent the summer of 2005 co-ordinating the Groundwork work camps and then took part time work in the cinema while continuing to work in the Education Centre until I eventually got taken on as a full time member of staff.
In early 2007, I took on some contract work for Castlecomer Discovery Park who were about to open a new visitor centre and coal mining exhibition and wanted to register as a Discover Centre with the Discover Primary Science and Maths Programme.  I put together their education programme, workbooks and teacher notes and started writing content for the website and was then taken on as Education Officer in March 2007.

I spent five years in Castlecomer.  I started with the Primary school workshops and school tours and over the next few years went on to develop a number of secondary schools programmes and also family events and activities.
If you look back to your childhood, is it obvious to you now that this career was a likely path for you?

Yes I suppose it was.  We were always an outdoor family.  Sunday afternoons were quite often spent walking in the woods or climbing mountains.  I was carried up my first mountain in a sling at six months old.  At the age of 7, I joined the Brownies and went on to Guides and remained involved with the Irish Girl Guides for over 24 years.  Even though I’m no longer actively involved I still consider it a huge part of my life and I believe that many of important life skills I’ve acquired come from my time with the guides. 

For me, the connection with the outdoor world and nature defines who I am and always has.  All of my happiest childhood memories involve being outdoors: walking in the mountains; at the beach; swimming in the river; picnicking in the woods or just playing in the back garden.   I remember one family holiday in Connemara when I was about 12 or so.  We rented a house in the middle of a stretch of bog with the mountains behind us and a stream running past the front gate.  I spent most evenings very happily sitting alone beside the stream watching the water flow by.  I feel at home when I walk through the woods, I love watching bats swoop around me at dusk or learning the name of a new wildflower or bumble bee and nothing compares to the feeling of stepping out of a tent in the early morning when the dew is fresh on the grass, the sun is just coming up, the birds are singing and everyone else is still asleep.
You now run your own business Wildways Adventures…..
Can you tell us a little about it?

I set up Wildways Adventures in July 2012.  My tagline is “Come Explore the Real World” and my mission is to get children and families to engage more with the world around them and explore nature and heritage in a fun and relaxed way.  There is so much emphasis on the virtual world and digital technology today that people can often lose sight of what’s around them.  Many children will be able to tell you all about endangered polar bears from watching wildlife documentaries but very few will be able to identify native Irish animals.

I do this through running schools workshops, family nature trails, bug hunts and outdoor treasure hunts and through working with other tourism businesses, youth and community groups and local tourism bodies.

At present, it’s just me but I can call on family and friends, especially my husband, to help out when needed and I eventually hope to employ a small number of like-minded people to assist with planning and running events and activities.
Why did you decide to set up this business and when? What inspired you?

I had been considering it for about a year before finally taking the plunge.  I was inspired by my own connection with the outdoor world and my desire to introduce others to the outdoors.  Having my own child also had a lot to do with it.  I wanted to have more flexibility in my working life to be able to spend more time with him and also to build something that he can be involved with.


I do a lot of work with schools and I love introducing children to nature and seeing how much enjoyment they get from it.  Even in my indoor classroom visits, talking about rocks and fossils I love seeing how much they enjoy touching the rock samples and asking questions about them.  I like to think that I inspire some of them to look more closely at the world around them when they go outside and understand a bit more about the landscape and the forces that shaped it.

Working with children is very rewarding but I think there’s a niche for more family activities.  There is no end of choice when it comes to children’s activities but not so many things that the whole family can get involved in.  Also if you want to get children interested in nature and the outdoors, you need to get their parents involved too.

So much emphasis nowadays is placed on keeping our children safe, that we are unintentionally placing huge restrictions on their freedom.  There’s also a trend towards more high-tech toys and more new and exciting forms of entertainment but in most cases, the activities children will enjoy most and remember for longest are the simpler ones.  Taking them outdoors and letting them explore opens up new possibilities for them.  By its unpredictability, nature encourages observation, imagination and problem solving skills.  I believe that any child who is encouraged to love nature and spend time outdoors will sleep better, be healthier in mind and body and will rarely be bored.  By getting outdoors with your kids, you can let them have the freedom to explore while at the same time keeping an eye on them.
Your work has you working with children, families and the local community in a number of different ways;
Can you tell us a little about each aspect of your business?

I’m involved with a number of schools programmes.  I run energy workshops for primary and secondary schools on behalf of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), I train primary teachers in science activities as part of the Discover Primary Science and Maths programme and I go around to schools with my own workshops on Rocks, Minerals and Fossils or various nature and biodiversity topics as part of the Heritage in Schools scheme.

I run family activities such as nature trails, bug hunts and themed treasure hunt style trails in County Carlow.  My most recent event was an afternoon of Halloween themed family fun and was run in conjunction with The Tea Rooms at Duckett’s Grove in Carlow.

I also work with other businesses and community groups to organise and run family activities or to put together education packages or family activity programmes.  I have run activities and led walks for Carlow Tourism and organised activities for local summer camps in Carlow and for community Gathering events.  Last year, I put together the new Discover Primary Science and Maths programme for Birr Castle and have done some work with Huntington Castle.
What are your favourite aspects of each side of your business?

With the schools I love it when the children ask questions that really show that they’re taking an interest in what I’m saying.  I’ve been asked some great questions by children that have made me think and that have encouraged me to learn more myself.

With families, I love it when the parents get interested and tell me that they’ve learned something new and have enjoyed it.

With other businesses and community groups, I love being presented with a new challenge and working on new projects.  I love being able to help showcase nature and heritage and design activities that will make them more accessible to families.
Do you see an increase in awareness and interest in Nature and the environment in Ireland?

I think there is more of an interest lately in nature and the environment but it’s a slow process.  Some families are starting to get out more and go for walks and are beginning to realise the benefits but there is also a huge rise in amount of time children spend indoors watching TV and playing computer games.  During the boom years, families were more likely to spend their Sunday afternoons in a shopping centre than out in the woods and many children didn’t even own a pair of wellies or a proper raincoat.  I think that this is starting to change now and that parents are spending more time outdoors with their children and taking more of an interest in what’s around them.
What is a typical day like for you…. Or is there such a thing?

There’s really no such thing as a typical day for me.  Over the next month for example I’ll be running energy workshops for primary and secondary school students in Dublin, training primary teachers all over Carlow and running workshops with a school in Kildare who want to study habitats in the school grounds for their Biodiversity flag.  When I’m not out and about, I work mostly from home during the morning when my son is in pre-school and in the evenings after he goes to bed.
I notice you have also started blogging, I really enjoy reading your posts;
How are you enjoying communicating your thoughts and ideas through this medium?

I’ve been meaning to start a blog for ages but only just started a few weeks ago.  I love this kind of writing.  I started an online blogging course with Lorna Sixsmith of We Teach Social and it’s been great.  I’m picking up lots of tips and ideas although I must admit I’m falling a bit behind on my homework lately.  It’s a challenge coming up with ideas and then trying to get them down in a way that hopefully will be of interest to other people but is also fun for me to write but I’m enjoying it so far.  I also enjoy reading other blogs.  I love yours especially and Dee from Greenside Up is always an inspiration.
And the final world….
What is the best thing about what you do?

I love coming up with new ways to introduce people to science and nature and making it relevant to them.  I also love that I can go out for a walk, take photographs and look around and call it work.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a career in your field?
I think I’m still trying to define what my field is.  Environmental Education is still quite a small area and I certainly never fit well into any of the boxes I’m supposed to tick.  I suppose my advice to others would be to believe in yourself and your message and don’t focus on the things you don’t know but concentrate on what you can teach others and how you can inspire them. 
And what are you hopes for the future of Wildways Adventures?

I’d like to expand my family activities and get more people interested in exploring the outdoors and discovering nature and heritage.  At the moment, many of the families who come to my activities are those who are already going for walks and bringing their children outdoors so I’d like to attract a wider range of families.  I’d also like to work with more community groups, local tourism bodies, accommodation providers and tourist attractions who are interested in promoting family friendly outdoor activities.
You can contact Una at (087) 4125649 or check out her website or facebook pages for more information on Wildways and all the great activities it offers.

Interview Series – Science Wows talks to Michael Bell of Nature Learn

This post is the third in a new interview series looking at Science and Nature communication through different media in Ireland

This week I talk with Michael Bell, owner of Nature Learn, to find out about his life as a nature educator in Ireland and his path into such a career.

Image credit: Michael Bell of Nature Learn

Michael Bell is an experienced wildlife educator with a background in conservation research and education.   In 2009 Michael set up his own business, Nature Learn, to bring toschool children and adults alike the wonder of nature, using a combination of interactive presentations, field study and hands-on activities, to foster an awareness and appreciation of the environment that exists around them.  Michael is a listed specialist with the Heritage in Schools Scheme, a member and local treasurer of BirdWatch Ireland, exercises a keen interest in Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and enjoys the outdoors with his wife Kate and eco-friendly daughter Molly, in Ballymote, Co. Sligo.

Hi Michael and thank you so much for agreeing to take part in this interview series.
Before I get into the details of your business Nature Learn I would like to find out a little more about you and what led you to a career in nature education;

Is this something you always wanted to do?

I have always been interested in nature, from as early as I can remember really.  Growing up in Belfast my father would take me and my brother out on walks and carried binoculars and a bird guide and I developed a keen interest in bird watching.  I remember joining the Young Ornithologists’ Club (the junior wing of the RSPB) when still in primary school and doing monthly surveys along Millisle Beach looking for washed up sea birds.  

How did you start off this career …what path did you take? What training was required?

Bird watching was always a hobby for me and I never realised you could get a job involved with nature.  I ended up getting a degree in economics from the New University of Ulster, Coleraine though I have never looked at an economics book since the day I left!  

After university I worked in London for a year before heading off travelling and settling in Georgia, USA for 24 years.  I did all kinds of jobs in America but ended up working in ecological research for several years as a field technician doing everything from collecting soil and leaf samples to catching and releasing snakes.  As I didn’t have a biology degree I was always on temporary contracts and on the bottom rung.  Nevertheless, I really did enjoy my time at this sort of work.  I was also involved with the Georgia Ornithological Society as a volunteer and kept the Field Notes of all the relevant bird reports for a few years as well as leading walks for a local nature centre.  I also published a book ‘The Breeding Birds of Haralson County’ about the birds in the locality where I was living.  

During this time I met my wife Kate, a native Floridian, and our daughter Molly was born in 2002.  We decided to make the move back (for me) to Ireland in 2005 and settled in Co. Sligo (just because I thought it was the nicest looking part of the country) where I was able to find temporary work with the National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) as an Education Officer.  This was my first experience working with children and I admit I was terrified at the prospect when I started but soon learned to love it.  I, along with a couple of colleagues, developed a nature programme for schools from scratch.  I did this job for two or three years, again on temporary contracts, and while I loved working in the schools I found some of the mindless red tape involved in working in NPWS very frustrating. 
You now run your own business Nature Learn…..

Why did you decide to set up Nature Learn and when?
By the time my job with NPWS ended I realised nature education was something I wanted to continue to do and I felt I had acquired the skills to deliver it and also saw a great need for it in Ireland, so I set up my own business, Nature Learn, in 2009.  It was tough going at first as I am not very good at getting out and self-promoting but I did manage to get a few schools booked.  Soon the word spread from school to school and the amount of bookings slowly increased.  After about a year of working on my own I became a listed expert with the Heritage in Schools Scheme and have found that to be very beneficial.  The scheme, which is run by the Heritage Council, is popular with schools and they partially fund the visits which is a great help.

What is Nature Learn all about?

Nature Learn brings to school children and adults alike the wonder of nature using a combination of educational materials, interactive presentations, field studies and hands-on activities to foster an appreciation and awareness of the environment that exists around them. 
Your work brings you into schools and the local community;

What are your favourite aspects of each of these sides to your business?
I love getting to visit schools and getting to meet the teachers and children.  Every school is different.  Some might have less than 10 kids in the whole school, or I might be in a class of 35 junior infants, so I have to adapt to each situation which is part of the fun.  Since working in schools I have developed a greater appreciation for teachers and find the vast majority to be highly dedicated professionals.  I also visit a few secondary schools, though not as many as I would like.  I mostly get to deal with transition year students and they are always very polite.  By that age, they are not as keen to get their hands dirty when working outside and a bit of rain will have them running for cover!  However, I feel it is particularly important to target this age group with nature education as I feel the vast majority of teenagers have lost contact with the natural world and spend too much time in front of computers and the TV   I also give talks on a variety of wildlife subjects and lead nature walks for adult groups which I enjoy as well. 

As well as the face to face element of your work you also prepare visual elements such as posters, signage and pamphlets:

Can you tell us a little about this side of the business?

Image credit: Michael Bell of Nature Learn

This is something I have been doing more of recently.  Several Tidy Towns groups have asked me to design nature signs.  As I like my signs to depict flora and fauna that is of particular interest in a certain area, it can often involve quite a bit of research.  I also like to use my own photographs where possible, though I do have some friends that are good enough to provide excellent images when required.  I do take a lot of care in designing the signs as it really bugs me to see nature signs that have incorrect information or feature wildlife that has nothing to do with the area in question.  I have also to date produced three nature education booklets (Minibeasts, Irish Birdsand Biodiversity) that are aimed at school children.  As I have been fortunate enough to get funding to cover printing costs to date, I always give a free copy of one of my booklets to all the children that I teach.  Just recently I got the children at Summerhill College in Athlone to provide art material and text for a pamphlet on local wildlife and this is something I would like to repeat with other schools in the future.


You cover a wide area of Irish wildlife…..flora and fauna;

Do you have a favourite plant? Animal? Species?

As I mentioned I have always had a particular interest in birds and I guess my favourite Irish species would be the Twite.  They are one of those birds that often appear dull at first glance but if you get to see one well in the field (not easy to do!) the subtle beauty of it shows through.  In recent years I have become more interested in insects and in moths in particular.  It’s tough to pick my favourite moth but the elephant hawkmoth is hard to beat.  I think my favourite flower would be Grass of Parnassus though that is always changing.

The beautiful Elephant Hawkmoth
Image credit: Michael Bell of Nature Learn

Your daughter Molly is often one of the first people to identify my “mystery creature” of the week…

It is obvious that she follows in your footsteps, has Molly always been interested in?
Did you introduce Molly to the wonders of the natural world around her or did she just gravitate towards it automatically?

Molly studying a Pale Tussock;
Image credit: Michael Bell of Nature Learn

Molly’s first word was “bird” so I like to think I haven’t totally brain-washed her and that she was born with a love of animals!  From the age of five or six she has watched David Attenborough programmes over and over and takes it all in.  Most of her friends last about 30 seconds before getting bored.  I hope she keeps up her interest in nature as she will have a fantastic knowledge of wildlife as an adult.  To study wildlife really enhances one’s life.  I guess that will be up to her though.  Like many teenagers, I did become less interested in nature at that stage but it did come back to me in later years.

And the final word….

What are your most favourite elements about what you do?
I do love everything about my job though I admit it is hard to make a living at it as there are times when no income is coming in (school holidays, winter etc.) and I couldn’t do it without a very supportive wife and family.  Education, whether as a teacher or a specialist educator should be a passion.  I certainly don’t consider myself a wildlife expert but I do love the subject and this is what I hope comes across when talking to children or adults. 

And what are you hopes for the future of Nature Learn?

 I just hope I am able to continue doing what I do in the future and I hope Nature Learn can inspire others to gain an awareness, appreciation and concern for the natural world.


Michael can be contacted at (085) 1751000 or (071) 9197926 for school visits, talks, signs or other wildlife related matters.  Or you can e-mail Michael at . 

Nature Learn’s Facebook page is a favourite of mine, you can check it out at: .



Interview Series: Science Wows talks to Dee Sewell of Greenside Up

This post is the second in a new interview series looking at Science and Nature communication through different media in Ireland

This week I talk with Dee Sewell, owner and manager of Greenside Up, to find out about the various aspects of her business, the elements she enjoys most and what led her to this career.

Image credit: Foxglove Lane

Dee Sewell is a qualified horticulturist and trainer with a passion for the environment and growing vegetables. She founded Greenside Up is 2009 as a way to shows people how to grow their own vegetables without chemicals and to lead more sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyles, causing as little impact to the environment as possible. The aim of Greenside Up is to teach as many people as possible this basic life skill, either through workshops or community gardening, virtually through social media and more recently in the form of the Greenside Up Seed Gift Collections.

Hi Dee and thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.  Since I joined the social media and blogging realm I have got to know some really interesting people in various walks of life.  You are definitely one of those people… I really love your blog and have already got some great and practical tips from you as you frequently use social media to share your knowledge and answer any questions posed.  This interview series is all about how people communicate their area of Science or Nature to the general public and I think you are a great example of how this is done successfully.
Firstly, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to set up your business “Greenside Up”? Was this something you always wanted to do?

No, not at all. For around twenty years I was working as a PA in London then moved to Ireland to live a simple life, rearing our children and living off the land. Life doesn’t always work out as we plan however and the reality of bringing up children is that we need an income! I wasn’t keen on returning to an office based job working for someone else after being ‘my own boss’ working as a full time mother, so when our youngest started school I went back to full time education myself and studied Horticulture. It was during that time that I had the idea for my business and set it up immediately upon finishing my course.

In retrospect, were there any elements of your life as a child that lead to your current choice of lifestyle and career?


I always loved nature, animals and the environment living on the coast as we did. Weekends and evenings were almost always spent outside, walking across fields or heathland or swimming in nearby creeks. My summer jobs were spent working in a greengrocers and a tomato farm though I only realised the significance of that recently! As a late teen onwards I was a member of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and given that it was in the eighties with no internet, I would often be firing off handwritten or typed letters to my local and parliamentary MPs about saving whales, the rainforest or the ozone layer. Nowadays it’s much easier to express our concerns with online global petitions and social media.

You work with children, the community and people on a one to one basis…
Can you tell us a little bit about each of these aspects of your work? Do you find it easier to communicate with people individually or as a group? Or are there different aspects of both that you like?

I enjoy them both but most of my work now is with groups. I primarily work with adults but have worked with children from 4 to 12 at an after schools club and teenage boys from a village youth project. The after schools project took place during the winter months so was mostly indoors but we looked at everything from nutrition to bulb planting and wildlife. I enjoyed my work with the teens immensely as to watch them show a marginal amount of interest in seed sowing then to see their expressions when the plants actually grew was so rewarding! (Read Dee’s blog about this project here).

You also added your lovely seed gift collections as a more recent aspect to your business.  I love the idea of each collection having a theme.
Where did the idea for the seed collections come from? How did you decide on the themes for each collection?
Are you involved in all aspects of the seed collections… from sourcing, packaging, design and distribution?

Thank you! I have to confess to getting a lot of help from friends. My husband was working in the US when I had the idea so friends were vital in seeing the project through in the tight two month deadline I gave myself! Initially a friend in the UK who worked as a seed manager advised me with regard to the seed collections then close friends nearby became my marketing and design advisor’s and critiques!

The Secret Garden centre in Cork were a real help in terms of retail advice at the beginning of the project and were the first online business to sell them for me. I designed and developed the seed cards myself, from printing, ordering, packaging and distribution. Keeping the products as environmentally friendly as possible has been very important and all seeds are guaranteed GMO free and untreated, with as much of the packaging sourced from recycled materials as possible.

You definitely have an Eco friendly ethos to your business…
What little things have you changed in your business and personal life to contribute more positively to the environment in which we live?
Do you have any tips or advice of some small changes that others can make?

We’ve always been environmentally aware, recycling and reusing for many years now. One of the changes I made after the initial launch of my business was to become paperless as much as I can. I used to print out reams and reams of notes but realised that on the most part they would be thrown into a drawer and not looked at again. I now email notes whenever I can and use my blog/website to create new content for customers. I can include topical recipes or pest control – people will always know where to look and not lose the notes!

I am a really big fan of your blog*, I love the diversity of subjects, the knowledge and honesty and the companionable style of your writing.
How long have you been blogging and why did you start? How do you feel it compliments your work?

Thank you again! It’s lovely to hear that people are enjoying the content as I sometimes worry that my content is too varied!

I started blogging in 2009 not long after I launched my business. Lorna from We teach Social suggested I start blogging as a way of advertising my business, keeping my website on google’s radar in terms of SEO and as a new business showing people that I know what I’m talking about. It took me a while to feel comfortable in my content but I kept going and attend the monthly KLCK bloggers network whenever I can to meet other bloggers, talk and pick up tips which has helped a lot.
I primarily blog for my customers now and the groups and gardens I work with are my blogging inspiration. Often my posts will have been as a result of conversations or questions asked during the gardening sessions. I love writing and ‘think blog’ all the time. I tell my husband when I’m tapping away at the keyboard that it’s work but the reality is that my blog is a working hobby.

And the final world….
What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working with three community gardens – my hours are being funded by the Kilkenny Leader project for two of them and we’re going through some very exciting times creating business linkages and products from the vegetables we’ve grown that will be launched at this years Savour Kilkenny food festival. I would love to see community gardens in every town and village across Ireland and believe this is achievable once others see and realise the many benefits.

And what are you hopes for the future of Greenside Up?
I’m not sure where the future lies at present. I’ve just started a European funded INSPIRE course through Carlow IT to help me develop some ideas surrounding social entrepreneurship – hopefully they won’t be wasting their money on me! Watch this space!

* Since this interview Dee Sewell has won four blog awards (Blog Awards Ireland) for her blog; these are …


  • Best Eco/Green Blog
  • Best Great Outdoors Blog
  • Best Lifestyle Blog
  • Best Overall Blog

Big Congratulations to Dee!!!

To find out more about Greenside Up check out ..the website, the blog the facebook page or contact Dee on twitter.

Interview Series – Science Wows talk to Jason Tammemägi about creating and producing children’s animation

This post is the first in a new interview series looking at Science and Nature communication through different media in Ireland

I really enjoy using different media to communicate Science and Nature topics to people of all ages. I am always very interested in how others communicate in these fields and the methods they use.  I have come across many people who have really caught my interest… their subject, medium and most of all their passion for what they do.
Through this series of interviews I hope to explore how different individuals work in their specialised area, provide a sense of what a career in their chosen field is like and above all, express their passion for what they do and why!To kick off this interview series I spoke with Jason Tammemägi.

Image Credit: Jason Tammemagi

Jason is a writer, creator and director of many well known children’s television programs.  The creative mind behind such favourites as Fluffy Garden, Roobarb and Custard Too, Ballybradden and, more recently, Planet Cosmo, Jason’s work is familiar to us all.I was delighted to get an insight into the various aspects of Jason’s work and how he uses the
creative media of cartoon and animation to communicate with children.

Hi Jason and thank you so much for agreeing to take part in this interview series.  I have always believed that you can communicate any topic to children if you just present it in the right way and that is why Planet Cosmo really caught my eye.  Moreover it caught the eye of my three year old son, Rohan and when he started to remember and repeat the information he learned from each episode I realised how well it appealed to his young mind.

Before I get into the details of what makes such a program so successful I would love to learn a little more about you and what lead you to this career;

How did you start off on a career as a writer and cartoonist…what path did you take? What training was required?
I actually arrived at cartoons via science. I was studying physics, chemistry and maths but, while I have always loved physics, things just didn’t click for me at university level and then someone told me about an animation course. Well, I didn’t even know animation was something you could do for living – nobody had told me! I had been drawing all my life and loved stories so I applied and I got in. Within a week or two I knew this was what I wanted to do.
I studied animation for three years and that’s how I got into cartoons. From there, I worked my way up and moved to directing, designing, writing and creating. With most of those, it was just a case of trying them and then doing everything I could to get better. The initial animation training was the beginning of that journey.
Is this something you always wanted to do?
I had never decided to be an animator as a child. I really didn’t know what I wanted to be.
If you look back to your childhood, is it obvious to you now that this career was a likely path for you?
Yes, it makes so much sense now. As a child, I loved to draw, I loved to tell stories, to create and that’s exactly what I get to do now. I just didn’t know as a child that it was real job.
As I mentioned, Planet Cosmo is a big hit in this family, not only for my three year old; his older siblings (nine and seven) really enjoyed it as well.
Where did you get the idea for Planet Cosmo?
I was looking for good ways to teach my daughter about space. She was about three and was really taking an interest but I just couldn’t find the right book or show aimed at her level. I know how important it is to feed interests in children or they quickly move on. So I decided to make a show for children about space. A way to entertain them, make them laugh and sing along while also giving them real facts about the planets because, for me, that’s what’s amazing: these are real!
Which do you create first… the characters or the theme?
The theme came first. I had the mission. From there, it took quite some time to find just what the show would be and who the characters would be. Early on, it was about a little robot boy, his sister and their dog and it evolved from there. Cosmo became a girl, the sidekick became her Dad and a family was created around them.
How many people are involved in a project like Planet Cosmo?
It takes quite a few people to make a show like Planet Cosmo but maybe not as many as you might think. We had a core team of around ten people I think but then there were many others who made important contributions along the way. Everyone who touched the project added something of their own and it would never quite be the same without them.
From the first idea to seeing the final product on screen, how long does a project like Planet Cosmo take?
With Planet Cosmo, I think it took over three years and that wouldn’t be unusual. It can take a long time to pull a television show together and then get it made. There are highs and lows in there and the certainty of the show is never guaranteed. So it’s always a special feeling when the show finally hits the screens. It’s a real success to even get a show made at all and even better when you find out afterwards that children love it and it’s really helping bring space to a lot of households.


I really liked how Planet Cosmo managed to engage and capture the imagination of its audience while teaching quite a complex material in a very simple way. 
How did you manage to target the program to the preschool audience so well?
Well preschool is really my area. I love how open to ideas preschool children are and I love what entertains them and what they find amazing so I have done a huge amount of work and research into that area. Before making Planet Cosmo, I made 80 episodes of Fluffy Gardens among other things so, when it came to making this show, I had an idea what I doing. But I’m also fortunate enough to have two young daughters. When I began creating the show, my eldest daughter was right in the middle of my target age group. By the time the show was finished, my youngest daughter was there so I always had a preschool child to test ideas on.
Do you test your ideas on your intended audience at different stages of production?
Yes, it is easy to get lost in a project and lose sight of those who matter: the audience. So I found it important all the way through to check and test and see what works and what doesn’t. The best way to do that is to show the work to children. They don’t fake their reactions and they know better than anyone when it’s right or wrong.


I know that you are fond of getting involved in every step of a project from creation to development and production;
Can you give us an idea of what is involved at each step?
There are so many stages in making a television show and they’re all so different. The beginning is creation: ideas, characters, stories. It is all very free and very creative but then requires focus and hard work to bring it all together into something that can really be a show. You then have to pitch the show and convince others that it’s a good idea in order to get it made. That can be a tough process and it is always a real test of just how strong the show is.
If you’re successful and the show goes ahead, then you are into preproduction (getting everything ready for the show – designs, writing and so on) and then production (the actual animation). The writing is incredibly important because it really sets the template for everything that happens afterwards. You need a fun, strong story or the rest of it doesn’t really matter. But once you have a good story, great animation and great sound can turn it into something wonderful. And yes, I tend to be involved with every part of production and count myself fortunate that I can do that. I think it brings a real sense of identity to a show.
What is a typical day like for you…. Or is there such a thing?
How my day is depends on what stage a project is at. I write at home, for example. I need the peace and I get asked far too many questions in a studio! So writing is peaceful and quiet and I do lots of walking around to let ideas swirl in my head before getting them down on the page. Whereas in production, I’m in a studio and it’s all so busy. I usually start very early and make my to-do lists and get a head start on everything I have to do that day. Then once the studio gets going, there is so much to check – going through storyboards to make sure the story is being told well visually, timing them into videos that set up the whole episode, checking animation scenes, checking how they flow when put together and then working on effects to get the final episodes together. At any one time, there are many episodes in various stages of production so there is always a lot to do and the important thing is to keep track of the overall stories because, in production, everything is split off into smaller parts.
So a typical production day is busy!
What are you working on at the moment?
I am making an app for kids right now and that’s pretty exciting. It hasn’t been announced yet so I can’t say too much about it but it is going to be fun. I am also developing a couple of new concepts and helping some people out on their own projects. So right now, things are very busy and I will be announcing some of these new projects soon.
You have worked in this area for more than 15 years and have generated a number of other projects and programs. 
Can you tell us a little about some of your favour projects to date?
Planet Cosmo is really the show I always wanted to make. It sparks an interest in space and, with it, science and it does so with lots of humour and songs and, for a large part, it’s a science fiction show based around science fact and I love science fiction. It was so much fun to write and I couldn’t be happier with the end result. So that show will be hard to top for me! But Fluffy Gardens will always have a special place in my heart and I know each and every one of those characters so well. It’s a part of me and I still think to this day that the Fluffy Gardens Christmas Special is one of the best things I ever made. It has been shown here every Christmas Day since it was made and I love it every time. It’s just so Christmassy.
Of the other shows I have worked on, well, Roobarb and Custard would be a favourite. It was such an honour to work on that show and to work with its creator, Grange Calveley, and the late great Richard Briers.
Of all the characters you have created do you have a favourite among them and if so why?
It is so hard to pick a favourite. Cosmo’s Dad is probably the most fun to write and I really love him because he has a lot of different sides. His silly side is obvious and that makes him very funny but he’s also a good Dad and he’s a good pilot so he has strengths too. He has these little warm moments of fatherhood that I can really relate to myself no matter how silly he is. I will always have a soft spot for Mavis the Pony in Fluffy Gardens too though.
Who is your target audience or does that change for each project?
Most of my work has been for preschool children, although not all (Ballybraddan was for older kids and Managing the Universe was for teens). With preschool, which is the area I really specialise in, I tend to pick a slightly different core age group for each project because a two-year-old is very different to five-year-old even though they all come under the heading ‘preschool’. So Planet Cosmo was aimed at a slightly older preschool child than Fluffy Gardens. I love sticking with preschool but I tend to shift focus within that depending on the project.
From my viewpoint Science communication is on the rise in this Country, with children becoming more and more the target audience;
How do you see this developing in the future and would you like to be involved in another science based project for children?
I think if you’re aiming for real positive change, you start by inspiring the children. Not all children will be interested in everything and that’s perfectly okay but you have to give them the chance. Feed the interest while it’s there or they just move on and forget about it. So I love to give children something that is fun first and enjoyable while also expanding their options and introducing them to new ideas. Science is amazing and exciting and covers so many areas that there is lots to explore for children and plenty of areas of science that can make for wonderful entertainment. And for children, I see one of the main ideas behind science being so important for all aspects of their lives as they grow: ask questions, challenge and look deeper. So I see this getting bigger and more important and, yes, I have no doubt I will be involved in more science-based projects in the future.


And the final word…
What is the best thing about what you do?
I get to make children smile and laugh. And I usually get to give them something positive in the process. I’m not sure it gets better than that!
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of a career in your area?
Create. Draw or write or both and keep doing it. See the world around you, how it is and how it works and then plug that into your imagination and see what comes out the other side. From there, find out about college courses in the specific areas you would like to be involved in and try to get in and work at the things that really inspire you. And remember that there are many different paths. The one you start on doesn’t have to be the one you end up on so try to be open about how you get to where you want to be.
What would be your ideal project for the future?
I count myself fortunate enough that I have already been given the chance to make my ideal projects. So from here, I want to deliver better. More smiles and laughs and content that might just make a real positive difference not just for children, but for the adults they will one day become.