The preschool years form the basis of a child’s character, poise and confidence.  These are things that are rarely mentioned in children’s programming.  For the past two decades, however, color-coordinated Australian children’s music braintrust The Wiggles have spoken to preschoolers — quite literally — during performances and on DVDs.  Now, for the first time in 20 years, there’s a turnover in The Wiggles’ ranks.  Red Wiggle Murray Cook, Yellow Wiggle Greg Page and Purple Wiggle Jeff Fatt are touring the world in anticipation of their retirement and the handing over of The Wiggles reins to a new group of Wiggles.

The Celebration Tour, which corresponds to the release of their new DVD and CD, The Wiggles Big Birthday, will celebrate more than two decades of The Wiggles’ songs, dances and performances for children and their parents.  The new lineup: co-founder Field is joined by Purple Wiggle Lachlan Gillespie, Red Wiggle Simon Pryce and the first-ever female Wiggle, Emma Watkins.  She’ll be the Yellow one.  They’re partnering on this tour with nonprofit organization Reach Out and Read, which prepares America’s youngest children to succeed in school by encouraging families to read together.  At this point in The Wiggles’ life, it’s helpful to remember that they’ve sold more than 23 million DVDs and videos, 7 million CDs and 8 million books worldwide, performing more than 200 times each year across four continents.  Hardly child’s play.  Murray Cook, the Red Wiggle, known for his conceptual acumen and enthusiasm for guitars, spoke recently about the end, the past and what lies ahead.

VCReporter: Telling a child that someone whom they love is not going to be around is one of the most difficult things to tell them.  How did you tell the kids?
Murray Cook (Red Wiggle): We always wanted to tell them why we were doing it [retiring], and just told them that we wanted to spend more time with our own families.  It’s also reassuring them that there will still be some continuity — there’ll still be Dorothy the Dinosaur and Wags the Dog, all the characters they love, and also we’ve tried to tell them we’ll always be there on the videos and the DVDs.  They can always still see us.  It’s interesting that children are also quite open to change — they can accept change.  After the initial sadness or upset, they cope quite well with it. Towards the end of the shows, we do address this onstage. We do talk about it, and it’s kind of good, too —  the audience can say goodbye to us as well.  We’re just coming from a tour of the U.K., and there was some sadness there on both sides of the audience.

When you realized you’d become a role model for children, were there things you’d caught yourself doing that you thought, “Well, I shouldn’t do that”?
It is a big responsibility, and you’re talking onstage about eating healthy food, crossing the road at the lights, things like that. I know a couple of times I’ve gone to cross the road against the lights or something like that, and I’ve thought, “Oh, someone might see me and I’ll get into trouble,” but that’s a bad model for children or anyone, really!  We are aware of that, but basically we all live our lives in a fairly healthy way, so there’s not too much of an issue.  And also, we are adults; I’ll have a glass of wine and I’m not too concerned with that.

What were you like as a child and do you have children of your own now?
I do have children of my own, and they’re almost grown now. My daughter’s at college now and she’s 18, and I have a son who’s 16. My own childhood is quite a long time ago now, but I had a very happy childhood. I had a fairly stable upbringing; my parents are still both together and I had a brother and a sister, and we grew up in a country town.  We had probably more freedoms than children today have; I think parents let their kids run a bit wild, but we were pretty good kids. My dad was a policeman, so we had a fairly strict upbringing as well. I have very fond memories of my childhood. It was a really happy time.

What wisdom do you wish someone had imparted to you when you were a child?
I was really mad about music from a fairly young age; they weren’t, so much.  But they still kind of supported it. My dad always encouraged me to do something other than music as well, so that I had something to fall back on. I only got into The Wiggles because I became a teacher.  I do think that it’s really important to give them a sense that what they’re chasing has to be realistic. I’m not one to say to children “You can do anything you like,” because everyone has their own talents, their own skills, but certainly, you have to harness what those skills are.

Is there other children’s programming that you’ve admired over the years?
In Australia, there’s a program that’s been running since I was a child, called Play School. It’s a really gentle program with two presenters, and they talk to children directly through the camera. That’s been very influential on us and how we communicate with children.  Similarly, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood — it’s that kind of gentleness and communication with the children that Mr. Rogers had that we do in a similar way.  It’s really about the child, instead of an adult view of what’s good for the children. I think it’s really about talking directly to them on their level.

Is there a danger or a tendency to talk at children, instead of with them?
Absolutely. People tend to talk down to them a bit, thinking that if they don’t know as much, they must not be very bright. We really try to talk to them on their level.

The Wiggles Celebration Tour arrives at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Saturday, July 14, for two shows at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., $19.50 – $84.50. 449-2787 or