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Lakewood Ranch resident co-creates children's program to improve literacy

Heather Kenny's idea for children's program "Sounder & Friends" has come to fruition after 20 years.

Sound Snatcher is a fan favorite character of the show, "Sounder & Friends." (Courtesy photo)
Sound Snatcher is a fan favorite character of the show, "Sounder & Friends." (Courtesy photo)
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Bridgewater’s Heather Kenny was standing at the playground at Pierre Laporte Elementary School with her colleague Laura Robbins in 1994 when she came up with an idea for a TV program.

Kenny and Robbins, who were kindergarten teachers at the elementary school in Ontario, Canada, had been focusing on phonemic awareness in their classes and saw the impact it had on their students and their ability to read. They were discussing ways they could support literacy and spread the world about phonemic awareness.

Kenny thought a TV program focusing on phonemic awareness, which is the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in words, could help children across the country and even the world. 

“Laura’s response initially was to laugh out loud at me, and then she said, ‘OK, that’s a good idea, why don’t you just get right on that,’” Kenny said.

More than two decades later, Kenny’s idea became a reality. 

Kenny and Robbins co-created “Sounder & Friends,” an educational program focused on phonemic awareness for children ages 3 to 7. 

In the short episodes, Sound Snatcher, an energetic raccoon with magical powers, likes using his powers to take words and change their sounds. Then it’s up to Sounder, a dog always listening for sounds, and her friends Trae, Sky and Will to find the missing sounds.

For example, in “The Birthday Ache,” Sound Snatcher took away the “ca” sound in “cake” to make the word sound like “ache,” causing Trae to have an ache in his stomach. Sounder, Trae, Sky and Will were on a mission to help. 

“Our mission for ‘Sounder & Friends’ is teaching reading right, right from the start,” Kenny said. “We can teach children this concept of phonemic awareness and help them develop these skills early on, then reading instruction can be very productive.”

"Sounder & Friends" is an educational program for children ages 3-7 that helps them learn about phonemic awareness to improve literacy. (Courtesy photo)

When Kenny and her husband, Paul, moved to Lakewood Ranch in 2020 and learned students would be moving to virtual learning, Kenny grew concerned over children’s potential learning loss. 

She knew it was time to act. 

Although Kenny had potential funding sources from corporate sponsorships, she knew families would be looking for literacy resources and didn’t want to wait to secure those funding sources. As a result, Kenny and her husband self funded the first season of “Sounder & Friends.”

“We’ve been very gratified that ‘Sounder & Friends’ is now used in classrooms all across the world,” she said. “We have followers in Australia, Great Britain, Brazil, the U.S. and Canada as well.”

Kenny reached out to Green Gold Animation and started making “Sounder & Friends” come to fruition. 

“I never stopped believing this would be a very powerful way to not only help children develop those skills they need but also help them develop this playfulness with language because there really is a magic to it,” Kenny said. 

Kenny said the animators and producers at Green Gold Animation and Marc Lumer Productions instantly saw the entertainment potential of “Sounder & Friends.”

“We really wanted children to fall in love with these characters and develop storylines that had this playfulness in the language,” Kenny said. “It’s been such fun seeing our characters grow and come to life. Through the whole development process, we really got to know them. In a way, we created the characters so we thought we knew them, and then when we actually sat down with our animation team, we had to think that much more deeply about them.”

In 2021, the first episode of “Sounder & Friends” premiered on YouTube. Kenny was amazed to see the ideas she and Robbins had for the first episode, “The Birthday Ache,” become an animated short, which now has more than 12,000 views.

“It was sheer magic,” Kenny said about seeing “The Birthday Ache” for the first time. “I had something in my head (about what the show would look like), and whatever that was, was so far surpassed by our incredible animation team. They really brought the magic.”

Now in its second season, “Sounder & Friends” is funded through a grant from a private foundation. 

Kenny and the production team are working to expand the “sound-iverse” to include live action episodes in season two of “Sounder & Friends.”

They collaborated with Twinkle Time, a children’s musician, for the live action episodes. 

“(Twinkle Time) has great energy,” Kenny said. “We love the idea of live action helping children bridge that gap between the imaginative world and a kind of real world.”

The show is available on, select PBS member stations and the National Center on Improving Literacy’s Kids Zone. 

Kenny hopes to have the show become a full length program available on PBS nationally. 

Kenny and Robbins also developed a “Sounder & Friends” app, which Kenny said has been downloaded almost half a million times, to give children an opportunity to play phonemic awareness games with the characters. The next step for the app, Kenny said, is to incorporate spelling and reading games. 

“The idea for the app is for children to literally get to play with phonemes,” Kenny said. “They complete these sound puzzles. They see a word and they can pull that word apart and then actually put those words back together using these puzzle pieces, if you will, to represent the transitive sounds.”

Another resource for children and families is the “Sounder & Friends” interactive storybook. 

“We are looking at a wide variety of ways to expand the "sound-iverse" in order to provide children with lots and lots of opportunities to interact with our characters and, more importantly, with that concept of playing with sounds.”

As the co-creator of the show, Kenny has been able to add personal touches to some episodes. 

The “Whale Watching” episode was inspired by Kenny’s love for the ocean. 

“One of the reasons we moved down to Florida is because my husband and I both love the ocean,” she said. “Any time I’m out on the water, that’s my happy place.”

In another episode, Kenny incorporated a puffin, the provincial bird of Newfoundland, which is where Paul Kenny was born. 

Kenny said her husband was delighted to see a shout out to his homeland in “Sounder & Friends.”



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