The topic is curiously absent from shows for kids
Last February, my kids were thrilled with the huge snowfall we had. It’s rare to get snow in northern Texas, let alone enough to build snowmen and have snowball fights. But within days, the novelty had worn off, as the state grappled with the lowest temperatures in nearly a century. Millions had no power; hundreds died.”Climate change,” my 11-year-old promptly replied when I asked if he knew what had caused the storm.
Whether they are stuck inside because of arctic temperatures in one of the country’s hottest states, breathing smoke from rampaging wildfires across the West, or enduring a record-high Pacific Northwest heat wave, kids today are growing up in a world where the reality of climate change is inescapable. Most of them know—or will soon enough—that things are only going to get worse. What they don’t know is how to process this reality, or what to do about it. Children’s–oriented media has an important role to play in helping them prepare, but the topic of climate change has been largely absent from most children’s shows. That needs to change.
“We want to create some awareness without overwhelming kids or making them afraid. The message really for kids is, ‘Yes, this is happening, but through ingenuity and working together, we can solve problems.'”
“It’s going to become more and more obvious that [climate change] is an issue we need to be tackling with our programming,” science communication consultant Sara Poirier said. “Where [the industry] is missing the mark is on making it personally relevant to kids and showing that it’s impacting things that they’ve actually experienced or care about.”
There are some notable exceptions to the dearth of climate-change-related media for kids: Nature Cat, Wild Kratts, The Octonauts, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and Paw Patrolhave all touched on themes that have to do with climate change. A few podcasts, such as NPR’s Wow in the World and the UK’s Fun Kids Science Weekly, explore aspects of it now and then, as does the occasional movie, like the recent Bigfoot Family, in which kids work to protect a wildlife reserve from an oil company. (The film raised the ire of Canadian energy lobbyists, who called it “full of lies and misinformation.”) For the most part, though, shows for kids have avoided the topic.
Of course, climate change has become politically charged, but that alone doesn’t explain its absence from kid-oriented media. After all, children’s programming has handled contentious societal issues before. In the midst of white backlash against racial integration, Mr. Rogers famously invited the local Black police officer to soak his feet in a kiddie pool alongside him on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. When schools were debating whether to keep autistic students in mainstream classrooms or separate them, Sesame Street introduced its first autistic character—and this not long after having added a homeless character.
So why not take on the climate crisis?
One obvious reason is that climate change is frightening. It’s hard to portray an existential threat to humanity in a way that is emotionally manageable for children. “For decades, we were showing alarmist imagery of melting ice caps and polar bears that showed climate impacts in remote places,” Poirier said. By not recognizing what a complicated, emotional issue it is, “we ended up scaring people to death or overwhelming them so much that it caused everybody to sort of emotionally distance themselves from the issue for a couple of decades.”
But the absence of quality youth programming about climate change may actually be exacerbating young people’s climate anxiety. “By the time they become teenagers, kids are wondering if there’s going to be a world for them to grow up into, if there’s even a point in having dreams or going to college,” said Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist and an associate professor at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. “Now the question is, how do we fight climate despair and climate anxiety among us? Kids are seeing that the grown-ups haven’t done anything about climate change. They need to know that it’s still possible to do something, and that’s where the big gap is right now.”
Fortunately, there are ways to emotionally engage a young audience on the topic of climate change without fearmongering or provoking excessive anxiety. California filmmakers Talleah Bridges McMahon and Jim McMahon demonstrate as much in episode 2 of the Sesame Workshop’s four-part docuseries Through Our Eyes. The episode, Uprooted, is about two US families displaced by climate change. The story follows two sisters, 11 and nine years old, whose family may have to abandon their farm in Iowa in the face of unpredictable weather and a nine-year-old in Texas who is living in a motel because her home was severely damaged by Hurricane Harvey. Through Our Eyes, which explores four social problems through the perspectives of children, began streaming on HBO in July.
Bridges McMahon said that they kept hearing people talk about climate change as “an issue that is going to impact us at some point soon” and something “we should really do something about before it happens.” But it’s happening now, she says. “And people really need to understand that. That was the impetus for us.”
Since they were making a film aimed at young audiences with the goal of sparking questions and family conversations—not scaring the bejesus out of viewers—the filmmakers wanted to avoid lingering on how bad things could get and instead focus on how children are adapting, coping, and developing resilience in the face of climate change’s effects.
“One thing we grappled with was that climate change is not ending,” McMahon said. “It’s easier to leave a kid in a good place when you know the problem is behind us, and that’s not the case.” The challenge of evoking an emotional response in kids who haven’t experienced the effects of climate change yet (but who inevitably will) while not incapacitating them with fear may be what dissuades other filmmakers from tackling the topic. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean producers shouldn’t do it, Poirier said, and there are ways to do it well.
An April 2020 episode of the animated PBS Kids show Molly of Denali is a case in point. The main character, Molly, and her friends trek out to their clubhouse in the Alaskan wilderness only to discover that it has sunk several inches. Molly, an Alaska Native whose heritage includes a mix of Indigenous tribes, is crestfallen. “What happened to our clubhouse?” she asks. She and her friends later learn online that the permafrost under the clubhouse and other buildings is thawing, causing the ground to collapse. Molly’s grandfather informs them that this is because the planet is warming but reassures them that people are working on solutions. The kids then set about repairing their clubhouse.
In just 11 minutes, the episode checks all the boxes that Poirier recommends for communicating effectively and appropriately about climate change to a young audience: It shows how the impacts of climate change are relevant to kids’ lives, offers a visual representation of the problem, explains science in accessible language, relies on trusted messengers (Molly’s grandfather), and avoids fear and helplessness. Most important, it promotes agency. The children learn that they can do something about their clubhouse, even if they can’t solve the much-bigger problem of thawing permafrost.
“We want to create some awareness without overwhelming kids or making them afraid,” executive producer Dorothea Gillim said. “The message really for kids is, ‘Yes, this is happening, but through ingenuity and working together, we can solve problems.'”
Molly of Denali’s skillful weaving of climate change themes into kids’ programming remains an exception. Fortunately, there are signs that other producers may finally be turning their attention to the topic. Nickelodeon’s Nick News premiered a special episode, “Kids and the Impact of Climate Change,” for Earth Day 2021, and the upcoming reboot of Fraggle Rock on Apple TV will likely feature climate themes, given its history, said Jamie Donmoyer, an Orlando-based professional puppeteer and producer. The original Fraggle Rock—a 1980s show in which underground creatures sought wisdom from a compost pile and referred to humans as “silly creatures”—tackled environmental issues like pollution in amazing ways, Donmoyer said.
Just as it’s not too late for humans to take meaningful action to alleviate the effects of climate change, it’s not too late for producers to step up and create meaningful media about it for children. “We have to start answering kids’ questions,” Poirier said,” and we also have to help them feel like they can make a difference . . . because they’re the ones who are going to be left with the burden of the climate crisis that we’re leaving behind.”
This article was originally published by Sierra magazine (https://bit.ly/Sierra-children-W2021)