Interview with Scotty from Imagine Neighborhood

I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Scotty, host and creator of The Imagine Neighborhood podcast!  We talked about how storytelling helps us to cover some big topics in ways that make them approachable, what The Imagine Neighborhood is, and Scotty’s XP with tabletop RPGs!

Note: this is a transcribed interview, edited for ease of reading

About The Imagine Neighborhood

The Imagine Neighborhood podcast logo
The Imagine Neighborhood podcast logo

The Imagine Neighborhood is a kind and kooky story-based podcast for kids aged 4-10 and their families. Backed by expert research from the Committee for Children, The Imagine Neighborhood is designed for parents and kids to listen to together—providing social-emotional tools to help families identify and manage big emotions, build relationships, develop empathy, and solve problems. Using engaging characters and exciting adventures in a format that’s entertaining to both children and adults, The Imagine Neighborhood helps families talk about the things that matter with the people that matter most.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure; I’m Scotty Iseri.  I am the host and creator of The Imagine Neighborhood podcast.  I am a single dad and a Pacific Northwesterner.

I’ve been playing role playing games for a good chunk of my life.  I had a break in my twenties when it was harder to find groups to get together.  It’s the thing that kills every D&D adventuring party, right? Scheduling!

And now, I have a kiddo of my own, and we play some modified games.  We do a lot of general tabletop gaming, and I’m very excited about the Avatar: The Last Airbender RPG.  We were an early backer on Kickstarter, and I’m so excited to dive into that world too.  

Since you’ve been playing tabletop RPGs for a while, what’s some of your favorite in-game moments?

I think I have two.  So, I, like a lot of people, started with Dungeons and Dragons.  I remember one of my first campaigns, there was one of those moments where you just come up with something that’s a little bit bonkers.

There’s, like, orcs running at me, and I was going to swing my grappling hook into the side of a rock wall of the mountain and dive off it, sort of like a bungee jump.  Then, I wanted to swing my dagger at all of them, and I rolled that nat20.  A – I survived, but then I took out a horde of roaring orcs at the same time.  It was one of those moments where “I can do anything!  The POWER!”

Later, I really found I loved to DM or GM.  In my game group, I’m often the GM.  We were playing this Lovecraft themed roleplaying game called Call of Cthulhu, and I set up this whole little mystery.   I was super proud of it, and one of the clues was going to be that there’s this asylum in a small town, and the gang just heard asylum.  They thought… oh, this must be the famous asylum from HP Lovecraft stories!   So, they drove all the way there, and I’m like… but… 

So, we had like a two hour long detour where they went and fought an orderly and then orderly eventually said, “There’s no one here by that name.  You need to go to the one back from where you came!”

It was a lot of tap dancing as a DM.  You have to kind of come up with something really quickly.  The fact, though, that it was a mistake but we managed to have a good fun division or tangent was one of my favorite moments of play in a long time.  

I’m the forever GM in a lot of my groups, and it’s fun but always a challenge getting pulled in so many directions.  There’s so much improv!  It always feels like they pick the one thing I didn’t think of. 

Yeah, you talk to that one character I didn’t have a backstory for, and the one thing in this room that does absolutely nothing is what they’re going to spend a half an hour on.  

Those are kind of the fun ones too… something like trying to figure out how to open a door ends up as the key memory for a campaign somehow.

Yeah, and no one tried the doorknob!  They’re casting spells and using magic keys, the bard is playing a song for it, and they just had to open it.

Can you tell us a little about The Imagine Neighborhood?

Sure, The Imagine Neighborhood is a weekly podcast, audio only, and it’s designed for kids and their grown ups.  I, again, have a kid, and there’s stuff out there that’s just for him, so we really focus on making this something that we can enjoy together.

We’re also aligned with a very popular social emotional learning curriculum called Committee for Children. So, the entire show is filled with big stories and wacky adventures and fun characters, but it’s got this core of research around social and emotional development.  We’re hoping to give kids and their grownups tools to talk about their feelings, to express themselves, and to solve problems. 

We’re also very lucky that we’re partnered with the Allstate Foundation to do a lot of episodes on racial identity.  We’re helping kids understand their own racial identity to be proud of who they are and to see themselves in the characters we have.  We want them to see the joy and the diversity of the neighborhood that we’ve built. 

It’s a lot to tackle for a show that has an evil billionaire hamster and a fart tornado and all this other fun stuff!  We really try to make learning these very important life skills fun for kids and their grownups.

I remember the Food Fight episode was a really good one – we listened with my kid and we talked about it quite a bit.  Later, we went to a restaurant to try different food and referred back to that episode to both try new things and also talk to him about where the food’s coming from and why it’s so special to people.

Yeah, it’s an interesting challenge when we’re talking about race and kids, because we know that there’s going to be some kids that identify with it in one way and other kids are going to benefit in another.  

On one hand, sadly, you know race based bullying for food and what’s in your lunchbox happens a lot, and with that particular episode, we’re hoping that, for kids who have had that experience, myself included, we give them some tools to strengthen their inner resolve around it.

At the same time, for others who don’t have the experience, we see how it affects people and that there’s also this beautiful magical world of just trying new things and learning more about people.  So, I am really chuffed that you had that experience with it and were able to use it in that way.  That’s awesome.

We’ve touched a little on it, but how, specifically, does The Imagine Neighborhood use stories and role playing to encourage social emotional development?

I think, as humans, stories are one of the main ways that we learn.  Even back in, you know, cave people days, it was: there’s a story of a mammoth over the hill, so don’t go over that hill.  Through the Bible, through metaphor, through all these different ways that people learn, it’s often through a narrative.

So, with The Imagine Neighborhood, we really want to have strong fun stories to tell that help kids want to learn.  They can see themselves within the characters.  They can see themselves in the situations.  You can do a dry lesson where we talk about feelings of sadness or we can have a character that kids care about already talk about how they might feel sad and how they might express that sadness.  I think that’s a good entryway for families to start having some of these conversations.

One of the things we hear a lot from families is that they never had anything like this.  Even as an adult no one asked.  People say, “How are you doing?” but they don’t ask, “How do you feel when you’re sad? What does it feel like when you’re angry?  What do you do with your angry feelings?”

Those are all skills that we ALL need. 

We’re super lucky to work with this great core of researchers, including Dr. Sherri, PhD and Dr. Aisha, PhD.  They’re bringing us a lot of knowledge and wisdom about what science says about the development of our brains and our hearts and our souls.  Then, we’re able to take that information and turn it into a story about a dinosaur princess or sock goblins.

You’re taking really complicated concepts and finding a way to express them in a very fun way, so it’s less intimidating.

Yes!  We also do a lot of work with the metaphors in the story.  We had an episode about what it feels like to miss somebody.  I think we released it in 2020 around when a lot of people weren’t going to be able to see their families for the holidays.  We had it where there was a castle with a giant hole that opens up.  It keeps getting bigger and bigger the more that you miss that person. 

We look for little ways that we can tie in the metaphor of the story with how something might actually feel or what the research says.  There’s ways to manage those emotions and talk about those emotions.

You also cover loss really well, like with the motorcycle, Giganticus, and a few others that are really hard to explain to kids.  Sometimes maybe the kid would understand it, but it can be hard for adults to approach and explain.  It’s a good way both for kids to understand but also for adults to be able to find the words or be able to reference or play back an episode.  It can kind of help with processing.

It’s a challenge.  I mean, that episode that you mentioned about grief was a request from a listener who had lost someone.  As grownups, we have many, many years of being able to feel those feelings, but maybe not as many years of experience talking about those feelings in a way that’s helpful.  As a parent, I am tasked now with helping my child find that word and find the language to be able to talk about those feelings, and that’s really tricky, especially with things like grief.

One of the things that comes up a lot in our writers room is that hard things are hard.  You feel those sad things.  When you miss somebody or when you’re mad because something’s unfair, it’s a hard thing, and sometimes… they are just hard.  I wish there were better answers sometimes, and there’s certainly skills and techniques that you can build to help with those hard things, but that doesn’t make them any less hard.

I do also believe that there is something about storytelling and empathy.  Think about what your favorite character might do in this situation – it could be a flight of fancy, it can be using your imagination, but you’re using that imagination to think about how someone else feels.  That’s certainly something that I do in my life with the people that I care about.  I’m like, “Oh, I know Esteban really well, and Esteban lost his cat… I don’t have a cat and have not lost a cat, but I can imagine how Esteban might feel about losing his cat.”

So, I do think there is that opportunity with story to build empathy by mirroring and having characters mirror different feelings.  

That kind of gets into the role playing elements a little bit where I’m trying to predict what that the character is going to do or how they’ll react.  There’s a degree of separation to be able to help process it, but then, you’re still getting used to seeing through a different pair of eyes than your own.  

Especially if you’re building a character that is different than you – you know, how would this orc barbarian react to this situation?  It could be very funny, or it could be taking into account all that you know and that you’ve created about this character.

In The Imagine Neighborhood, some of the storylines touch a bit on some tabletop gaming themes, like the Alakazambra stories, right?

Yeah, we have a few of those!  We did one that’s about a board game called Bozelba and about how to be patient with someone that doesn’t know as much as you.

We have another wizard named Preston Changeo who is trying to teach Count Vacula how to play a game, and he’s very frustrated because…. It’s obvious!  You just do the thing!

He has to take a minute to remember what it was like when he first learned in the game and how to cast spells or how to move your pieces. 

I’m not the only role playing game person on the writing team, so that kind of stuff sneaks in rather frequently.  We’ve had a couple magic missile calls in the show.  

What is your favorite part of The Imagine Neighborhood?

My favorite part is when listeners send in drawings.  We’re an audio only show, so we don’t have any “official” versions of what the characters look like, so kids will send what they think Count Vacula or Princess Donnasaurus looks like or what they think I look like, and they’re all very very different.  It’s so cool to see kids playing in our sandbox.

Sometimes, they’ll create their own little stories for it, and it makes me feel really proud of the work that we do, but also very humbled to know that kids are continuing the work.  Anything that we come up with as boring old adults is going to pale in comparison to the stories that a kid’s going to have.

I remember one kid wrote in about an idea for an episode.  It was about Scotty and Count Vacula meeting up with Optimus Prime and meeting Aang from Avatar, and then they fight Thanos!  They pulled everything from every story that they love, and they added us into it!  I can’t think of a bigger honor than to be part of a kid’s imagination.

When it comes to the show itself, we have stuff in there that’s… not adult jokes with a capital A, but there’s stuff that is kind of just for us grownups to think is funny.  Like, whenever a character goes, “but….” like, “I wanted to go to that party but…..”, we’ll have other characters harmonize with that, and then we started doing that amongst each other.  I love it when we people put in stuff that’s just so blatantly silly and has no connection to the curriculum too.  

What advice do you have for parents, teachers and caregivers when it comes to storytelling and role playing games?

We were just talking about how the best laid plans are going to go awry.  If you are running a game, you’re going to have a great idea for how it’s supposed to go, and it’s not going to go that way!  My advice would be to listen as much as you talk when it comes to that.  See what your players are doing and where they’re having fun and where they want to explore, and just follow them.  It’s not going to be perfect, and that’s part of the joy of it.  

It can be this shaggy, silly, storytelling time together, and it can also be really educational for yourself as a grownup, too, either if you’re running a game or if you’re playing along.  Everybody around the table is going to have different opinions and different desires for how the story is going to go – it’s a game on purpose.  We’re meant to play and enjoy that moment.

When it comes to games and storytelling as an educational tool, there’s such an opportunity at every moment to think about how a character might be feeling.  So, if you’re designing a game or if you’re playing a game, maybe one of the puzzles has to do with someone’s emotional state and they have to calm themselves down before they can turn the doorknob.  Even if there’s an NPC out there that you’re trying to get some information out of, taking that extra minute to ask your players, “What do you think they’re thinking right now?  What are they feeling?” can be a great little hook for ways to help kids develop those same skills that they would in real life.

I did something similar with a lot of the games I ran with my kid during the whole shutdown situation, and it helped so much!  We practiced calming down a storm bird one time using deep breathing, and it finally clicked.

Yeah, it is interesting how adding that layer of fantasy or of storytelling can help you get it in a different way.  It’s similar to when you see a movie with a character that really speaks to you.   I remember talking to other friends who saw Encanto and Luisa, the older sister, and finally having words for how it felt being an older sibling or how responsible I feel for this now.  It can be very emotional.  Sometimes you just need a superpowered big sister to help give you the words for it.  

I know!  I’m an oldest sibling, and watching that, there’s silly donkeys and stuff in it, and I I was like… why am I crying now?!  

Do you have any closing words or shoutouts that you’d like to make?

Well, please, listen to The Imagine Neighborhood!

The way that we end every show too is by asking the audience, “How were you kind today?”

Steph, it was very kind of you to talk to me about the show, and what I’m wondering is how were you kind today?

Ah!  I’m on the spot now!

Haha!  I flipped it around!

 I’m going to say, I got my kid up with a nice big hug this morning.  I also have a bit of a cold right now, so there’s some self kindness there too with trying to take it a little bit easy today!

And it was very kind of you to agree to do the interview and have a chat, so thank you so much!

Thank you!  

The Imagine Neighborhood podcast logo

You can find The Imagine Neighborhood here!  And I definitely recommend checking their site out – my kid and I are regular listeners, and it is a fantastic and wonderful and wholesome show that has helped us tremendously with finding words to help with big feelings and big situations.


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2 thoughts on “Interview with Scotty from Imagine Neighborhood

  1. What an incredible interview about storytelling and empathy. I love the idea of puzzles related to emotional states! Sometimes I really do have a hard time opening things when I’m having a big feeling.

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