Climate change for preschoolers: a television program explores uncharted terrain

Francis Gaskin, 4, watching “Octonauts: Mission to Earth,” a spin-off series of a long-running BBC show available on Netflix that explicitly addresses climate change, with his mother, Stephanie, in Houston, on September 23, 2022. (Brandon Thibodeaux/The New York Times)

Francis Gaskin, 4, who lives with his family in Houston, has a favorite episode of his new favorite Netflix cartoon: When the Amazon rainforest canopy dries up from excess heat, frantic howler monkeys must move to the lower kingdoms of the jungle and cause chaos among the other inhabitants of it. “They had to find a new home,” Francis explained during a video interview.

“I noticed something else,” the boy added. “The frogs were going to lay their eggs in the water, but there was no water in the stream because it hadn’t rained.”

“Sometimes the Earth gets hot,” Francis said.

His favorite show is Octonauts: Mission to Earth, the spin-off series of a long-running BBC show and one of the first TV shows aimed at very young children to explicitly address climate change. The show seeks to strike a subtle balance: showing 3- and 4-year-olds that their world is changing, without scaring them with the consequences.

Climatologists say their representations are largely accurate, with one startling omission. The program says nothing about the causes of global warming: the burning of oil, gas and coal.

Instead, “Octonauts” focuses on adventurous heroes. A pair of pirate cats travel the world to rescue animals from islands that are disappearing due to rising sea levels. A hydrological macaque delivers water to a herd of elephants on the Namibian coast as increasing drought depletes their drinking water.

As the thawing Siberian permafrost prevents a canine scientist from carrying out her research, she observes: “Temperatures have risen all over the world. It is possible that it is no longer cold enough for the ground to remain frozen”, without explaining the relationship with greenhouse gases from fossil fuels.

Francis Gaskin, 4, plays with figures from 'Octonauts: Mission to Earth,' a long-running BBC spin-off series available on Netflix that explicitly addresses climate change, at his home in Houston, on September 23, 2022. (Brandon Thibodeaux/The New York Times)

Francis Gaskin, 4, plays with figures from “Octonauts: Mission to Earth,” a spin-off series of a long-running BBC show available on Netflix that explicitly addresses climate change, at his home in Houston , on September 23, 2022. (Brandon Thibodeaux/The New York Times)

In a way, the series is part of a long tradition of children’s shows that use animal characters to teach lessons about the natural world.

Even so, “Octonauts” treads on unexplored ground.

“I don’t know of any other climate change shows for this age group,” said Polly Conway, television editor-in-chief for Common Sense Media, which reviews more than 900 children’s television shows.

Some shows for preschoolers, such as “Go Moon!”, “Dora the Explorer” and “Doctor Toys,” have aired isolated episodes about global warming, but few shows address the effects of climate change in multiple episodes. . PBS, which for decades has been at the center of children’s educational television, has little preschool programming portraying climate change.

“We really don’t want kids to feel overwhelmed and depressed,” said Sara DeWitt, vice president and general manager of PBS Kids. DeWitt said that traditionally, PBS has built its educational children’s programs around existing curricula, but there is no consensus on the best way to teach youngsters about more powerful storms, wildfires, rising sea ​​level, extreme heat and drought that will mark their lives.

“No one yet knows at what age children can understand climate change,” said Gary Evans, a developmental and environmental psychologist at Cornell University, who is doing a study with participants from kindergarten through third grade to find out. what they know about climate change and how it makes them feel. “Anyone who tells you they know the best way to talk to young children about climate change is doing so without guidance from the data.”

Climate scientists say that must change. Children born in the last decade, sometimes referred to as the “Alpha generation,” will be the first to live their entire lives on a planet that has been irreparably altered by human-caused global warming.

Children are bearing a special burden from climate change. A 2014 study commissioned by UNICEF found that children account for 80 percent of deaths attributed to climate change in developing countries.

The original series “Octonauts”, which premiered in 2010 on the BBC, features a crew of eight lovable supernatural sea adventurers, including Captain Polar Polar, a loyal polar bear, Kwazii, a fearless pirate cat, and Pepe, the penguin, a friendly doctor. Together, they travel the seas in an octopus-shaped submarine, searching for and rescuing endangered sea creatures, something meant to evoke a Jacques Cousteau setting mixed with “Star Trek” but executed with extreme tenderness, the executive producer said. of the show, Kurt Mueller.

From the beginning, Mueller and his team at Silvergate Media, the company that produces the show, consulted with scientists at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories at San Jose State University in California to ensure the scientific accuracy of each episode. (apart from the talking animals who pilot submarines and drink hot chocolate).

In 2019, Mueller consulted with Netflix about expanding the series. “Octonauts: Mission on Earth”, which premiered its first season in September 2021, doubles the cast of characters and takes them ashore to rescue animals and plants. The initial idea, according to Mueller, was simply to expand the world in which the Octonauts find adventure.

Lacey Stanton, another executive producer, said that as the team develops new story lines, “it turns out that a lot of the situations that creatures find themselves in today are the result of climate change and global warming.”

“We take a lot of our story ideas straight from the news, and scientists review them,” Stanton said.

For the new series, Mueller and Stanton consulted with Susannah Sandrin, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Arizona, and Natascha Crandall, an educational media consultant, to make sure the episodes were scientifically sound and emotionally appropriate for the audience. preschool children.

Netflix has broadcast the show in 19 languages ​​and in 190 countries. Although the company declined to give figures, executives said its audience was among the top 10 most-watched children’s shows in 44 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Spain, South Korea, Colombia, and the United Arab Emirates. Joined.

Francis’s mother, Stephanie Gaskin, said she was grateful to the show for bringing up a difficult subject that she otherwise wouldn’t have discussed with her son.

His family lives in a region of Texas that has seen the impacts of a changing climate. “With Harvey, the Memorial Day flood and the big freeze, we’ve seen things that have never happened in the area before,” she recounted, referring to a 2017 hurricane, a 2015 flood and a 2021 winter storm.

Gaskin, a former first-grade teacher who hopes to return to the classroom when her children are older, said the series had given her ideas about how to address climate change with younger students.

“A lot of the scientific facts are spot on,” said Heather Goldstone, chief spokeswoman for the Woodwell Climate Research Center, referring to the episode in which the red fox wanders into arctic fox territory. “We are already seeing that change: the new interaction between species, animals and plants, which have not interacted throughout history.”

However, Goldstone and several climate scientists, who were asked to watch episodes of the show, were critical of what they called “temporary” solutions and the fact that the show never mentions that human activity is causing the crisis. .

Still, Goldstone considered the program a brave first effort to take on a new challenge. “The only way to improve is to test and experiment,” he said. “We have to get better at talking to other adults about climate change, and we have to do the same when talking to kids about it.”

“We must congratulate all those who try,” he concluded.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

Climate change for preschoolers: a television program explores uncharted terrain