When Ghanaian-Canadian animator Gyimah Gariba thinks back to his childhood, he recalls watching ’90s TV animation Captain Planet and the Planeteers, about a ragtag team of superhero environmentalists whose slogan “The power is yours!” enticed a new generation of kids to champion Earth.
“Even then, as a child, I understood that it was completely natural to care about the place that you live in and the place that is nurturing you consistently,” Gariba said.
Now, Gariba is the creator and illustrator of an upcoming CBC Kids television series called Big Blue, a quirky sci-fi animation that follows a crew of youngsters aboard a submarine, exploring the natural wonders of the ocean. Their aquatic adventures teach them about teamwork, family and protecting Planet Earth.
Big Blue is one case of kids programming gone green, as broadcasters around the world seek out children’s content that entertains while informing them — and their parents — about climate change. Fart jokes and climate consciousness are equally important parts of the package.
“I thought kind of filling the space of hope was a fun, interesting way to approach the climate conversation,” Gariba said, as an antidote to what he calls “doom and gloom” coverage of the climate crisis.
The intention of this kind of programming, experts say, is to keep the content age-appropriate without keeping kids in the dark.
Kids concerned about fate of the planet
On the tails of the global climate conference COP26, where world leaders have been meeting to discuss rising emissions, environmental conservation and a united approach to fighting climate change, it’s no wonder kids are feeling the heat.
A study conducted by Cartoon Network last summer found that 91 per cent of 4,000 children surveyed in Europe, the Middle East and Africa are worried about climate change.
The crop of six- to 12-year-olds expressed worry, fear and sadness as common emotional responses to the subject, with 83 per cent saying they want to do more to protect the planet and the environment.
Because so much of kids’ media is animated, and this type of content spends years in production, we’re only now seeing the fruits of creators who were inspired by the youth-led global climate protests of 2018 and 2019, said Colleen Russo Johnson, co-founder of the Children’s Media Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“I think that was really the moment a few years ago that people started to realize this is a topic that is on children’s minds, and that it’s a topic that’s causing them a lot of stress,” Russo Johnson said.
WATCH | Gyimah Gariba and Colleen Russo Johnson talk kid-friendly climate content:
Just five years ago, explicit discussion of climate change was largely unaddressed in children’s television, even among series that had environmental themes. Many shows approached the topic by easing into it, not wanting to overwhelm their young audience with the details.
Russo Johnson said that there are two common schools of thought when it comes to addressing climate change for younger viewers: some believe that avoiding the topic altogether will save kids undue anxiety. And others believe that the topic is, by nature, completely unavoidable.
“It is a different time. They are getting these messages [about climate change],” Russo Johnson said. “The question is, what do we do about that? And we do not want to just give kids messages of doom and gloom.”
“We need solutions that empower children to be part of the solution and empower them to feel that they have a voice and a way to make a difference.”
Broadcasters worldwide airing kid-friendly climate content
From South Africa to the United Kingdom, children’s TV shows are tackling the climate crisis, imbuing serious subject matter with youthful energy, colourful scenery and a sense of humour.
Isaura, an animated TV series from the Cape Town-based production company Lucan, tells the story of a young girl from a fishing village in Mozambique who can breathe underwater and fights to protect her beloved ocean from harm. In Obki, a show from U.K. broadcaster Sky, two lovable aliens journey to Earth, learning that small changes can make a big difference along the way.
A new Octonauts spinoff, which takes its sea-bound crew of animal explorers to land, is now streaming on Netflix, offering a greater focus on climate change.
The Cartoon Network has launched a multilingual, multi-platform campaign to educate their young audience about the climate crisis. Another CBC show for children and young teens, Endlings, is set 20 years into the future and follows a group of foster kids tasked with caring for the universe’s last living elephant. A host of other shows are on the horizon.
WATCH | The trailer for South African animated series Isaura:
According to reporting by industry publication Kidscreen, broadcasters from PBS to BBC to ABC Australia are actively pursuing content that addresses environmental concerns geared toward children.
As Russo Johnson notes, content aimed at toddlers is different from that aimed at tweens. For the former demographic, the first step is to establish a basic appreciation for the environment and how the planet works. Using the planet as a point of common interest is an effective way of teaching children the importance of unity, she said.
“When you do sort of teach them, as they get older into the school-age years, about the problems we’re facing, they will have a reason to care because, of course, they want to protect the planet that they’ve grown to love [during] their pre-school years.”
But the children’s media industry has a tricky task ahead: How can these shows convey the urgency of the climate crisis without compromising on entertaining stories and likeable characters? Marie McCann, senior director of children’s content for CBC Kids, says that “mindful, proactive storytelling” from an authentic voice is key.
“In a scripted series like Big Blue, where we’ve got two young heroes, basically they’re on the hero’s journey. They’re on the hero’s quest and they’re not killing dragons or other people,” McCann said. “They’re there to save a planet and care for each other and take care of other beings on the planet.”
Parents have much to learn, too
Gariba notes that Big Blue turns an environmental archetype on its head by making Bacon Berry, the younger sister of the two lead protagonists, a stand-in for Mother Nature. Instead of the character being a maternal figure who cares for everyone around her, the others have to look out for Bacon Berry.
It’s an analogy meant to teach kids independence — and, more directly, that they have to take on a nurturing role when it comes to protecting the planet.
WATCH | Colleen Russo Johnson discusses what children learn from television:
When it comes to creating climate-conscious content for children, McCann said that there is no desire to “dumb it down.” Instead, CBC Kids is seeking shows that encourage their young audience to use their own resources without relying on adults to solve the problem for them.
In fact, because today’s adults didn’t grow up with an influx of eco-educational shows, they might not be as informed as they think they are, Russo Johnson said.
“We don’t want to talk down to grownups, but the truth is they could benefit from overhearing their kids being taught, because these are complicated topics. And if we break it down for children, it’s going to be broken down naturally for parents as well.”
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