Climate change is at the forefront of global policy and politics, and the issue has seeped its way onto kids’ TV shows.
It’s quite a tall order to teach young kids about the scary realities of global warming and the environmental changes that they’ll be seeing and hearing about—and may have even already noticed—as they grow up. Though nature and caring for the environment have been addressed in popular kids’ programming in the past (think of Bert and Ernie singing about saving water, Ms. Frizzle taking us to the rainforest on her magic school bus and even Captain Planet chanting “Earth! Wind! Fire! Water!” as he and his Planeteers scurry off to save the world), there has never been a higher demand for eco-themed kids’ series, and it’s with good reason.
Talk of the causes and consequences of climate change has reached fever pitch. Plus, a new generation of parents—millennials, who hold eco-friendly values nearer and dearer than any previous crop of consumers—are looking to explain these issues to their children in ways that little ones can understand.
“The kids’ industry has a heritage of stepping into this space, and this is certainly one of the areas that kids’ television has always mined for entertainment,” says Kimberly Dennison, Gaumont’s VP of creative development for animation and family. “But I do think that right now, broadcasters and platforms want to speak to kids in this space more than ever.”
“In particular, public broadcasters are hungry for shows that tackle environmental issues, but the demand also applies to the streaming services that are anxious to make shows with important messages for kids,” says Liliana Reyes, the senior VP of content at Portfolio Entertainment.
“The passion that today’s youth have for the environment stems from the real danger facing them and future generations if we don’t act in defense of our planet,” Reyes continues. “This has become a very real issue and kids today are certainly engaged with this topic more so than ever before.”
“We all see what’s happening around the planet, we see the kids standing up, and we think we have to do something from the entertainment side to help and send out a message,” says Ulli Stoef, the CEO of Toon2Tango.
Bob Higgins, executive VP of content for kids and family at Boat Rocker Studios, echoes Stoef’s statement, saying that he has never seen even the slightest pushback from broadcasters when it comes to environmental fare. “I think broadcasters across the board understand that it is something that kids have demonstrated an affinity for and always will,” he says.
As far as Higgins is concerned, “there’s never a ‘too soon’ with kids and the environment. There’s no point in not teaching them from the very earliest ages their global civic responsibility of taking care of the world in which we all live together. The same as you teach them to clean their room, we’re teaching them to clean and care for the bigger room.”
Most of the shows that end up teaching kids about the environment, especially those aimed at the preschool set, aren’t set up to be solely environmental shows. “We try not to take them to school again,” says Stoef. “The issues are [set] in a bigger, fun, eccentric story, and it’s more about self-exploration.”
Indeed, it has become necessary for many producers to pad a series’ ecological messages with storylines and characters that almost make young viewers forget that they’re absorbing positive environmental messaging while watching TV. Some programmers fear that pigeonholing a show into being a “green” series will isolate viewers, and they certainly don’t want to fill their slates with shows that have managed to politicize the once-benign sphere of kids’ TV. “Whenever you introduce that show to the broadcasters they say, We already have a ‘green’ story, that’s enough,” Stoef says.
Toon2Tango’s new series Rebel Nature, for example, follows a young girl who is raised on an oil rig by a robot that her parents built 50 years ago—before the entire planet was underwater. She believes that she is the only human on Earth and has no idea that world was indeed once full of her kind. When she meets some “leftover” humans, she begins a wild adventure of self-discovery, seeing firsthand the changes taking place in the natural world. “It’s been produced for the purpose of bringing across to kids the message of what can happen to our planet—what is happening currently and what the consequences are to the environment,” Stoef says.
Higgins notes that Boat Rocker’s series that explore environmental themes are, on the surface, not about the environment at all. “For example, Kingdom Force, which on its face may look to have the most opportunities to teach kids about environmental issues, is really a show about diversity,” he says. The series, which is currently being produced for the CBC, is about five animals from five very different ecosystems—among them are a polar bear from the Great White North, a gorilla who lives in the jungle and a savannah-dwelling cheetah—who come together to protect the universe. “It’s a way that we can talk about the political, if you will, with topics of global warming, but put it out there in a way that is being told on a level that kids understand,” says Higgins.
Boat Rocker also has Dino Ranch—which has been picked up by Disney Junior for a 2021 U.S. premiere—a series that centers on a crew of junior ranchers who work in a “pre-Westoric” setting where dinosaurs still roam. Kids see a happy group of friends playing with dinosaurs, and underneath that surface are the messages of conservation. “Yes, we’re dealing with [environmental issues], but we’re doing it in a fantasy way with dinosaurs, so that we can give kids the fun fantasy adventure while leaving in the current topical lessons,” he says.
The WildBrain-distributed dirtgirlworld, meanwhile, from mememe productions for ABC in Australia, is about a green-thumbed girl who grows vegetables in her backyard full of friends. It’s a “narrative-driven kind of story world that’s about friendship and love, fun and nature, and has this sort of embedded sustainable living theme, without it hitting anyone over the head with a hammer,” says Cate McQuillen, the series’ creative producer.
However, some producers and distributors, like Canada’s Portfolio Entertainment, have been able to find an audience for shows that do address environmentalism more directly. Hero Elementary, for example, is a co-pro with Twin Cities PBS that follows a group of kids in a school for budding superheroes. Though the show also teaches young kids the power of STEM skills, “We explore topics such as how littering destroys the natural habitats of wildlife, how the conservation of resources like paper serves to protect our forests and how wildlife and nature are so interconnected that one cannot exist without the other,” says Reyes.
Italy’s Mondo TV is also co-producing a series that focuses on the environment in a fairly straightforward way. Called MeteoHeroes, the series is jointly produced with MOPI (Meteo Operations Italia), a weather forecasting and meteorological research group. MeteoHeroes has also gained the patronage of three prestigious Italian public institutions: the ministries of the environment and education, and Legambiente, a leading Italian environmentalist association. “Through our programs, we want to entertain youngsters everywhere, but also to transfer knowledge and to help them enjoy a better life in a more peaceful, friendly and safe planet—in an ecologically aware environment,” says Luana Perrero, the company’s head of content sales.
To accompany MeteoHeroes, Mondo also has on its slate less direct “edutainment” shows about the environment, with a duo of series billed as “eco-adventures.” The shows “engage kids with great storytelling and delightful stars that kids will identify with or would like to have as best friends,” says Perrero. YooHoo to the Rescue, for one, follows the titular fluffy character and his gang of friends as they travel from the magical forest of YooTopia to Earth to confront threats to nature and wildlife, meeting endangered animal species from around the world along the way. The second season of Robot Trains, meanwhile, sees the group of characters known as Rail Watch transform from trains to robots to protect their home—which is made up of Water Land, Sunny Land, Wind Land and Mountain Land—and its vital energy supplies. “Our series don’t present issues as daunting; we believe for every problem there is a solution, and teamwork leads to a successful mission!” Perrero says.
“We find the best approach is to help kids fall in love with the environment, as opposed to scaring them with doomsday scenarios,” says Portfolio’s Reyes. Shows like The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That, which teaches kids about topics like animal migration and how flowers feed entire ecosystems, and Doki, which takes viewers around the world to learn about its natural wonders, do just that. Fostering a love for the environment first is also the goal of dirtgirlworld’s creators. “We wanted to make this world that had an absolute beauty about it to remind people that the world is beautiful,” says McQuillen. “You protect what you love, and the notion of making this project was to engender that love of nature.”
Kids’ comprehension skills tend to limit the ways in which environmental issues can be presented, as the early stages of brain development don’t allow them to comprehend and retain complex information about scientific studies, weather patterns or the more traditional ways you might present analytics to an adult. “Obviously, you can’t go into very high-concept things,” comments Gaumont’s Dennison. “It’s about providing some really concrete, simple, kid-friendly adventures that kids can then relate to the world that they live in back home.”
Dennison points to Touch the Earth, a show based on the series of preschool picture books co-written by Julian Lennon and Bart Davis that have come into the marketplace on Earth Day for the past three years. The books themselves deal with “concrete issues that are environmental and also social in nature,” says Dennison, themes that are carried into the series. “The types of stories that we’re looking to tell range from animal stewardship to sharing the Earth with other creatures to finding ways to recycle and upcycle and be conscious of the way that we use the planet’s resources,” she continues. “And the other storylines are about lending a hand to other people that you meet on your adventures and your journeys, so it really is about being a global citizen.”
The music and design of these shows are just as important as their characters and storylines. “Music, especially in a preschool space, is well-received and it’s both something kids remember and is also entertaining at the same time,” says Dennison.
dirtgirlworld is also a music-centric show, and McQuillen and her mememe productions partner, Hewey Eustace, who wrote, arranged and produced the series’ award-winning soundtrack, were musicians before they made their way into the kids’ TV industry. Songs from the show include “Every Little Drop,” about the importance of conserving water, and “Gettin’ Grubby,” which encourages kids to go outside and get dirty.
In the absence of music, keeping kids’ attention can come down to a show’s design, especially for the youngest sets. Mondo TV’s series “are distinctive in look and approach; the story and design stand out in their own right in each show,” says Perrero. “That’s important to us. While the messages may sometimes overlap, each show needs to be unique.”
Not only do kids shows seek to educate young viewers about the natural world, but they also implore them to take action themselves, gently bestowing upon them the message that they are indeed the next stewards of this planet. “For us, [a show’s takeaway] is twofold: it’s the concrete, simple messaging combined with allowing kids to see that they can enact change by their choices and that really creates a pathway to hope,” says Gaumont’s Dennison. “I think that’s the biggest thing for these shows: kids, especially in the preschool set, need to see that there’s hope and they need to see a pathway to action.”
Portfolio’s Reyes agrees: “In Hero Elementary, we tackle issues like forest conservation in a way that’s approachable to kids by focusing on what they can do to help, such as not wasting paper. It’s important to distill these large and complex issues into actionable small steps for our young viewers, so they feel empowered to make a difference.”
She continues, “It’s important to empower kids with steps they can take by themselves to recycle, conserve and reuse. Our aim is to educate and inspire future generations of activists and informed citizens who will move the needle on policy issues surrounding climate change.”
“Our kids don’t want to be the generation who [are always told] what’s wrong and how to live with it,” says Toon2Tango’s Stoef. Instead, TV shows should encourage young viewers to be the change they wish to see, making them feel powerful and inspired to do something to help. Mondo’s Perrero echoes this sentiment, saying all of the company’s eco-themed shows make kids “feel part of something worthwhile.”
“We all live on this big blue marble, and it’s our responsibility to make sure it remains big and blue,” adds Boat Rocker’s Higgins. “I mean what’s the worst that can happen, we live in a cleaner community?”
The interviews in this report were conducted prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic.