Cai & Kate helps young children deal with feelings

woman in chair talking to a lizard puppet
Kate Kohne is the host of Allegheny Health Network’s Cai & Kate YouTube series. The series helps kids deal with new emotions.

A woman in bib overalls sits on a set in a bright yellow Adirondack chair. Over her shoulder looms a tree with a three-foot-long colorful chameleon puppet.

Kate: Did you know that all people have emotions? No matter how they look, all emotions are important because they let us and the world around us know how we feel. [She takes a big card.]

I’m going to show Cai a card and he’s going to act out the word that he reads. And we all have to be detectives to figure out what emotion he’s showing us.

Okay, Cai, here’s the first card. Can you show us what this emotion would feel like?

Chameleon turns yellow, sits upright, and then swings underneath the branch.

Kate, addressing the viewers: What do you think?

You got it! Cai was acting happy!

So begins a typical scene in the new Allegheny Health Network children’s video series on YouTube, Cai & Kate. Subtitled Exploring the Colors of Emotion, Cai & Kate is designed to help children ages 3-7 cope with “big emotions” that may overwhelm them.

Two members of the team behind the series are Mt. Lebanon residents Will Davies, producer or “head imagineer,” and Matt Acheson, creator and operator of Cai, the chameleon puppet.

Davies, Woodhaven Drive, whose official title is director of the AHN Chill Project, has a background in developmental psychology and education, plus a doctorate in educational leadership. The Chill Project is AHN’s resource for supporting students’ mental health in schools. Acheson, McConnell Mill Lane, has 20 years of experience in New York City, creating puppets for Broadway, Lincoln Center, and Cirque du Soleil. He and his family moved to Mt. Lebanon in 2019 to be closer to his wife’s parents. Davies and Acheson connected through their daughters, who were both attending Markham Elementary School at the time.

Davies came up with the original idea for Cai & Kate after viewing data indicating that many kids were behind in emotional development following the pandemic.

“We recognized even before the pandemic that a mental health crisis was happening,” Davies said. “A lot of students were suffering, and schools were overstretched, unable to meet their mental health needs.”

The overall goal of the series is to help kids understand why their bodies feel the way they do when they experience emotions and to learn what to do with those feelings in a meaningful, age-appropriate way.

Two men and a woman with a puppet
From left: Matt Acheson, Kate Kohne and Will Davies, with Acheson’s puppet creation, “Cai”— a chameleon that changes colors depending on his mood. The trio are part of an AHN Youtube web series called Cai & Kate — Exploring the Colors of Emotion. /Photo: John Schisler

Davies and Acheson are part of a six-member team that produces each Cai & Kate episode in about a week. The team aims to make the videos fun and engaging, while taking into account the attention span of kids 3-7. Each episode is less than 15 minutes long.

Acheson works closely with on-air talent Kate Kohne, who is both a therapist and AHN supervisor, with a background in performing. He and Kohne write dialogue, then storyboard the scenes and ask the rest of the team for comment and approval.

“I throw out ideas for visuals and things that can happen with the puppet,” said Acheson, “and then Kate takes all that information and puts it through the lens of her background and certification.”

Acheson loves the idea of using a chameleon to express emotions. “I really wanted to keep the lizard nonverbal and tell the story through movement.”

Cai is a big puppet and took 2 ½ months to build in Acheson’s home studio. “He’s the size of a Labrador, and can be a bit unwieldy if he’s in a bad mood,” Acheson said. “He does light up, which is kind of fun. Since chameleons change color based on their mood, we try to associate emotions and feelings with color.”

He operates Cai with the help of local puppeteer Jamie Agnello. Acheson says that Cai has developed his own personality along the way.

Promo poster for a children's puppet show.

“It’s an amalgamation of Jamie’s and my sense of humor and personalities, in this weird, hilarious way,” said Acheson. “He’s kind of developed quite a funny little personality that’s helped us write the episodes as we go forward.”

The episodes are filmed at studios owned by Highmark, a partner of AHN, and directed by Highmark’s David Flora. There are also plans for a traveling show that would visit schools.

According to Davies, the reaction has been very positive.

“You see therapists using the videos in their sessions with their patients, and teachers are starting to use them in their classrooms, too. We would encourage parents to watch this themselves or to watch it with their children to understand from a kid’s perspective how that kid is feeling.”