Famed director WC Fields once warned artists “never work with children or animals”. Frankly, any parent who has tried to take just a nice picture of a child could attest to the difficulty of trying to wrangle little humans in front of any camera. And yet Julian Shapiro-Barnum, creator and host of the viral sensation recess therapy, it looks easy. His viral interviews with kids in New York’s playgrounds are heartwarming, hilarious, and strike the perfect balance between chaos and charm. In his latest episode, he talked to the kids about Mother’s Day.
recess therapy is a sort of synthesis of Shapiro-Barnum’s previous comic experiences. He had done street comedy as an undergraduate at Boston College, and his graduation project involved interviewing children at playgrounds to ask them what makes them happy. “The answers I got were much more complex than I expected,” he told Romper. He found these interactions “electric” – the children were insightful and funny, even when they didn’t mean to be – and he realized there was something the.
In 2021, he pitched the show to Doing Things Media. “A little over a year later, it’s really gone,” he smiles. “It’s really found a community.” A large community; on Instagram, recess therapy has 1.8 million followers.
In his last episode, the 22-year-old comedian in partnership with Grubhub – which offers diners who buy a Gift card of $50 or more a bonus $15 gift card by May 8—to quiz kids about their mothers and mother figures, how they’d celebrate them this Mother’s Day, and what foods would be involved.
Observations and advice range from the very kind (one girl shared, “I’m going to give her a picnic, I’m going to pamper her, and I’m going to act like her mom.”) to the absurd. (This same girl says she’ll cook her worms because “it’s the worst thing I can think of.”)
But even when it’s ridiculous, it’s chock full of the kind of ridiculously comforting wisdom that parents of young children know all too well and what makes recess therapy so relatable and charming. Like the little boy who tells Shapiro-Barnum that his mother taught him to “know that my feelings matter,” but randomly punctuates sentences with quacks because “I’m the duck, you idiot.” You know: classic kids stuff.
recess therapyThe Mother’s Day episode was sponsored by Grubhub.
Normally, finding topics kids are excited to talk about (the show’s secret sauce) is all about flexibility. “Prep work tries to predict what kids want to talk about, usually by getting it wrong and then being good at pivoting and finding something,” he smiles sadly. But this episode was different.
“Children have so much to say about their parents, so much about their mothers,” he observed. “I had a lot of really funny, sweet moments where I was asking the mums to step away for a bit and then the kids would be so much nicer; the second their mothers left, they were much more gentle and open. I’ve seen that over and over again.”
As for her own plans for Mother’s Day, historically this has been a big issue in her family. Raised by five gay parents – three mums and two dads – the holidays tended to be “chaotic but sweet”.
Shapiro-Barnum quarantined his fathers in Brooklyn when the covid pandemic began.
“We would always go to the park and bake cupcakes and the grandmas would come over and it was always a really fun vibe like a field day,” he recalled. “But it would still be very stressful for me to have to write three heartfelt cards. Seriously! It’s hard!”
After writing these cards, Shapiro-Barnum plans to write a book in a few months about the things he learned from talking to children, though he is quick to point out that despite these experiences, he is far from be an expert. “A lot of people ask me about how to talk to kids better. And I thought it was funny because my relationship with kids is unlike anyone else: no one else meets hundreds children and only have very short conversations with them,” he laughs.
Yet he is not entirely devoid of insight: “What I hold to be true in any social situation, but especially with children, is to find common ground and bring them together. comfortable as quickly as possible. I think a lot of kids meet adults and feel like the adults don’t agree with them or look down on them or something… What I’m trying to do is to meet them and establish an understanding that at least we can laugh together.