Why the kid interview series 'Recess Therapy' is an Instagram hit: 'Positive, but not dishonest'

·Senior Editor
·5 min read

Mining kids’ original thoughts as a source of entertainment has a long and adorable history, from Johnny Carson’s reading of school-age kids’ letters on the Tonight Show in the 1970s and Rosie O’Donnell highlighting children’s jokes on her 1990s talk show, to Jimmy Kimmel featuring little ones in video bits and, of course, the ongoing series Kids Say the Darndest Things and Kids React.

But with Recess Therapy — the runaway-hit Instagram series that asks kids on the street to weigh in on topics from superheroes to climate change —creator, host and producer Julian Shapiro-Barnum is looking to shift from that groundwork.

“I use it kind of as a counter text [to the] vetted kids who have gone through probably a couple rounds of interviews,” he tells Yahoo Life. “I've always found what makes Recess Therapy special is that it can be any kid — no studio … [or] casting call or anything. It’s really just the kids walking around Brooklyn.” And unlike some of the historic ways of approaching kids and their humor, he adds, “I try to meet them exactly where they're at and, like, feel like a peer with them a little bit.”

The Brooklyn-based Shapiro-Barnum, 22, kicked off the beloved series right in the middle of the pandemic — June 2020 — and just recently eclipsed 1 million followers, along with being named a Fave Follow by the Today show at the start of the new year. He says the fact that Recess Therapy is resonating with so many people — of all ages, by the way — is both a sign of the times and a result of what the series offers.

“I think the social media sphere is a very weird place — and I think there isn't a lot of, like, purely positive content out there,” says Shapiro-Barnum who, as a member of Gen Z, has never known a world without social media. “I think Recess Therapy is positive, but not dishonest. Like, we don't hide that there is ugliness in the world and that kids are grappling with these issues, but I think there's something that’s uplifting [and] kind of hopeful in seeing kids talk about these things.”

A quick perusal of the supportive comments — both on the Instagram series and the YouTube version, which features longer interview segments — shows that people are definitely feeling buoyed by what they see. And then there are the direct messages Shapiro-Barnum receives, “just saying how much the content has impacted them.” For example, he says, “someone will be like, ‘I'm going through a really bad divorce and I get home and I watch these videos and it makes me feel like a person again,’ or ‘I work at a children's hospital and we've been using these videos to teach bedside manner to the new doctors.’” Which of course inspires him to keep going.

“That aspect of it makes me feel really good about doing it,” says the Boston University theater major (and film and TV minor) grad. “I think people love to see the show for the catharsis level of it that's very sweet. I think there's the comedy element that people just enjoy. And then I think there's the, like, ‘Wow, these are the young folks and they're thinking and giving us hope for the future,' maybe.”

It’s Shapiro-Barnum’s clear-eyed perspective — and uncanny ability to speak to kids on their level, without condescension, whether they’re 2 or 10 — that also makes the series so lovable, and something the host credits to his unique and empowered upbringing.

“I have five gay parents — three moms and two dads,” he says, explaining that his two moms asked their friend who had a boyfriend to be their sperm donor and that, when he was 2, his moms broke up and one partnered with a new woman.

Julian Shapiro-Barnum is creator and host of Recess Therapy. (Photo: Yahoo Life)
Julian Shapiro-Barnum is creator and host of Recess Therapy. (Photo: Yahoo Life)

“They all co-parented us,” he says of himself and two siblings. “In that, I had all these amazing, cool adults very much encouraging me to pursue all of these passions. And the one thing that I can point to that I think directly connects to Recess Therapy is that I, as a kid, was very much treated kind of older by them. Like, we would have these conversations about race, sexuality, gender, the earth. And I felt like my parents really didn't treat me like a kid in a lot of ways … They, like, really respected me in a way that I try to do with the kids that I talk to.”

It makes sense that he’d approach his subject this way, considering how deep they tend to go, he points out.

“It's mostly fun and games,” Shapiro-Barnum says, “but what does stick out to me in a heavier way is how many kids bring up how afraid they are of climate change and how many kids bring up how much they hate racism.” Interviewees as young as 4 or 5, he says, “voluntarily bring that stuff up whenever I ask them what they want to change and what they want to see differently in the world. And I think that just really speaks to how much those things affect everyone — and how important it is to facilitate those conversations with kids, starting at a young age.”

—Video produced by Olivia Schneider

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