Kids Teach Dad; Dad Makes Show: JC’s Kris Van Nest turns learning into compelling TV
‘Kids Teach Dad’ host Kris Van Nest making dino gingerbreads with young cousin Raymond.
It makes perfect sense that Kris Van Nest, creator and host of the web series Kids Teach Dad, earned a Master’s degree in Educational Technology. But his zest for learning started much earlier, in a simpler setting. “I grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania,” Van Nest tells the Jersey City Independent. “You’re building tree houses, and dams in the stream, learning at your own pace and style, and exploring as much as you can.”
That same spirit of adventure drew Van Nest away from the prestigious Teachers College doctoral program at Columbia University, and into a noted international vehicle-based competition. “I saw an ad for ‘Camel Trophy Mongolia‘—mountain biking, off-road driving, bridge building,” he recalls. “I thought, that’s what I want to be doing!”
The transformative experience kickstarted the next decade of Van Nest’s life: as an adventure-racing competitor, professional off-road driving instructor, and precision driver in car commercials. (When it says “Professional driver, closed course, do not attempt” at the bottom of the ad? That’s Kris.) He also hosted two adventure-themed TV series—Freesport TV which aired on local cable, and Trekken for the DISH Network. But after criss-crossing the globe for 10 years, there was only one logical place to go next: Jersey City.
“I realized if I wanted to do more television and precision-driving work, I should be closer to New York,” says Van Nest, who was living deeper in New Jersey at the time. “I looked up Jersey City and saw that it’s kind of artistic here; there’s a cool vibe.”
Soon after, Van Nest encountered an intriguing detour in his life’s journey—his son Blake was born in 2009. “All my responsibilities changed, and my focus. I could no longer be away for three months at a time in Canada or South America,” Van Nest states. “I wanted to be very involved with my son’s life.”
While dedicating himself as a single dad to his son’s growth and development, Van Nest also started looking for ways to combine his background in education with his passion for television production. In 2011, he started a company called thislearning to produce and broadcast education-themed videos while also offering custom-video and consultation services. Van Nest assembled a team of local professionals to assist him with the technical, marketing, financial, and research aspects of the organization.
Meanwhile, he and Blake were spending a lot of time in Hamilton Park, where Kris would chat with other fathers and mothers. “Parents are always talking about, what’s the best preschool, what’s the best daycare, and nobody really knows!” Van Nest says. “But all parents, no matter who you are, want the best for their kids—the best education and learning.”
But where were the best offerings and styles? Van Nest was quite familiar with the literature on educational trends and theories, but raising Blake—and Kris’s park interactions—began to give him a more direct idea. “Let’s ask the kids. What works for your learning—what gets you excited and motivated?” he says. “That’s how Kids Teach Dad got started.”
Searching for topics for his initial episodes, Van Nest relied on word-of-mouth ideas from neighborhood parents. Filming began in 2012 at the opening of the Newport Green park, with then-Mayor Jerramiah Healy as Van Nest’s first interview. Van Nest didn’t want to take any political sides on his show: “The very next episode, I did a full interview with Steve Fulop at Champions Soccer Academy,” he says.
Kris and his crew have also visited the Newark Museum to learn about 3-D printing, and New Jersey City University to discuss studying abroad and cultural immersion. But the episode that has really impacted him was a trip to the Concordia Learning Center at St. Joseph’s School for the Blind. “The kids actually blindfolded me; I got to experience what it was like to paint blindfolded—and why that really works for their learning,” he says. “That was amazing.”
Van Nest is ready to take Kids Teach Dad to the next stage. “It’s a grassroots effort that we started here, with our friends and community,” says Kris, “and we want to bring that to a national level, or even worldwide.” Toward that goal, thislearning recently raised capital for the series via a crowdfunding campaign on the Indiegogo site. The money contributed will allow Van Nest to produce one or more full pilot episodes which he will then shop around to television networks.
But where in the world to film those pilots and future episodes? “We want people—and particularly kids—to submit ideas about where we should go to find awesome learning,” Van Nest encourages. A couple of already suggested locations that have captured Kris’s imagination are a forest kindergarten in Switzerland and the music school in Paraguay where kids play instruments they’ve made out of recycled trash. “No matter where you are—whether it’s Jersey City, Newark, or anywhere—you can have these kinds of crazy-cool learning experiences too,” Kris states. “We want to share the possibilities that are out there.”
And no matter where Kris Van Nest goes to discover incredible experiences in learning, he will always be right in the middle of the action. He says, “You can only get that perspective by talking to the kids and putting yourself in their shoes, in their seats, to find out how that feels.”
For more information and to watch episodes, visit Kids Teach Dad or connect with the show on Facebook.
Photo courtesy Kris Van Nest