Climate Change for Preschoolers: ‘Octonauts’ Explores Unmapped Ground
Four-year-old Francis Gaskin, who lives with his family in Houston, has a favorite episode of his favorite new Netflix cartoon: When the Amazon rainforest canopy dries up from too much heat, the manic howler monkeys must move into the lower realms of the forest, creating havoc among the other rainforest residents. “They had to find a new home,” Francis explained during a video interview.
“I noticed something else,” the preschooler added. “The frogs were going to lay their eggs in the water, but there was no water in the stream because there was zero rain.”
“Sometimes the Earth warms up,” he said.
Francis’ favorite show is “Octonauts: Above and Beyond,” the recent spinoff of a long-running BBC program, and one of the first television shows directed at very young children to explicitly address climate change. The program attempts to strike a delicate balance: gently showing 3- and 4-year-olds that their world is already changing, without frightening them with the consequences.
Climate scientists say its depictions are largely accurate, with one striking omission. The program says nothing about why the Earth is heating up: the burning of oil, gas and coal.
Instead, “Octonauts” is heavy on adventurous heroes. A pair of pirate cats travel the world to rescue animals from islands that are being swallowed by the rising seas. A macaque hydrologist delivers water to a herd of elephants on the Namibian coast as worsening drought dries up their drinking water.
As the thawing permafrost of Siberia thwarts a canine scientist from conducting her research, she observes; “Temperatures have been rising all over the world. It may just not be cold enough for the ground to stay frozen anymore” without explaining the connection to greenhouse gases from fossil fuels.
In a way, the series is part of a long tradition of children’s programs that employ animal characters to teach about the natural world.
Still, “Octonauts” is treading unmapped ground.
“I don’t know of any other show about climate change for this age group,” said Polly Conway, the senior television editor at Common Sense Media, which reviews over 900 television programs for children.
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Some television shows for preschoolers, like “Let’s Go, Luna,” “Dora the Explorer” and “Doc McStuffins” have aired single episodes about global warming. But few programs address the impacts of climate change across multiple episodes. PBS, which for decades has been at the center of educational television for children, has little preschool programming depicting climate change.
“We feel pretty strongly that we don’t want kids to feel overwhelmed and depressed,” said Sara DeWitt, the senior vice president and general manager of PBS Kids. Ms. DeWitt said that, historically, PBS has built its educational children’s shows around existing school curriculums. But there is no agreement on the best way to teach the youngest children about the more powerful storms, wildfires, rising seas and extreme heat and drought that will shape their lives.
“Nobody really knows yet at what age kids can understand climate change,” said Gary Evans, an environmental and developmental psychologist at Cornell University who is conducting a study of children in kindergarten through third grade to find out what they know about climate change and how it makes them feel. “Anyone who tells you that they know the best way to talk to young kids about climate change is doing so without the guidance of data.”
Climate scientists say that needs to change. Children born within the last decade, sometimes known as “Generation Alpha,” will be first to live their entire lives on a planet that has been irrevocably altered by human-caused global warming.
And children are carrying particular burdens of climate change. A 2014 study commissioned by UNICEF found that children made up 80 percent of the deaths attributed to climate change in developing countries.
“More and more, there are kids who are living through this crisis themselves,” said Harriet Shugarman, director of ClimateMama, an organization aimed at helping parents communicate with their children about climate change, pointing to the recent devastating floods in Pakistan, which scientists say were worsened by climate change. So far, around 1,500 people have died, nearly half of whom are children, and more than 33 million have been displaced by the floods, which were caused by heavier-than-usual monsoon rains and glacial melt.
Children in the world’s richest country are also feeling the impacts, Ms. Shugarman noted. “If you live in Oregon or California and you couldn’t go to school because of wildfires — we can’t protect children from these realities,” she said.
“Our children are going to grow up and live through this transformational period in human history,” Ms. Shugarman said. “And parents don’t yet have enough data or education to have these conversations with their kids, especially little kids. Parents need help.”
Ms. Shugarman and others said that’s where “Octonauts: Above and Beyond” comes in.
The original “Octonauts” series, which debuted in 2010 on the BBC, features a crew of eight preternaturally adorable marine adventurers, including Captain Barnacles, a stalwart polar bear, Kwazii, a swashbuckling pirate cat, and Peso the penguin, a gentle medic. Together, they travel the seas in an octopus-shaped submarine, finding and rescuing imperiled sea creatures — a construct that is meant to evoke Jacques-Cousteau-meets-Star-Trek, but executed with extreme cuteness, said the show’s executive producer, Kurt Mueller.
From the beginning Mr. Mueller and his team consulted with scientists at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories at San Jose State University in California to ensure the scientific accuracy of each episode (other than talking animals who pilot submarines and drink hot cocoa).
In 2019, Mr. Mueller approached Neflix about expanding the show. “Octonauts: Above and Beyond,” which released its first season in September 2021, doubles the cast of characters and takes them on land to rescue animals and plants. The initial idea, Mr. Mueller said, was simply to broaden the world in which the Octonauts find adventure.
But as the team develops new story lines, said Lacy Stanton, another executive producer, “It just so happens that a lot of the situations that creatures are in currently are as a result of the changing and warming climate.”
“We gather a lot of our story ideas directly from the news, and are vetted by science,” Ms. Stanton said.
For the new series, Mr. Mueller and Ms. Stanton consulted with Susannah Sandrin, a professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona, and Natascha Crandall, an educational media consultant, to ensure that the episodes were both scientifically sound and emotionally appropriate for preschoolers.
“We are intentional,” Ms. Stanton said. “We’re considering how much is too much, how complex is too complex? But it all goes back to the creatures. They’re cute, they’re going on a roller coaster ride of adventure, and it always ends with the resolution of the creature in peril, and all is right with the characters.”
The program also shows preschoolers how climate change could affect their own lives. In one episode, the Octonauts experience a shortage of their essential beverage, hot cocoa, because heat is making the cocoa plants wither. The team sings, “Changing climate makes the temperature high, and in the heat the trees are thirsty and dry.”
Netfilx has released the show in 19 languages and in 190 countries. While the company declined to provide numbers, executives said that its viewership was among the top 10 children’s programs in 44 countries, including the United States, Britain, Australia, France, Spain, South Korea, Colombia and the United Arab Emirates.
Francis’s mother, Stephanie Gaskin, said she was grateful to the show for introducing a difficult subject that she might not otherwise have discussed with her son.
Her family is living in a region of Texas that has already experienced the impacts of a changing climate. “With Harvey, the Memorial Day flood, and the big freeze — we’ve seen things that the area really hasn’t ever seen before,” she said, referring to a 2017 hurricane, 2015 flood and a 2021 winter storm.
Ms. 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 discuss climate change with young students.
“Kids are a lot smarter than we sometimes think,” she said. “If I were to bring this up in this way in my classroom, I know kids would pick it up.”
She also said she thought the program had avoided frightening her son. When asked about the frogs who can’t lay their eggs in the stream or creatures losing their homes to rising seas as depicted in “The Octonauts,” Francis said, “It makes me feel sad.”
But he then happily described how the Octonauts swooped in to save the day, as they do at the end of every episode: airdropping water into the parched rainforest, creating shade for the withered cocoa trees, moving animals imperiled by sea level rise to higher ground.
“A lot of the science is spot on,” said Heather Goldstone, chief spokeswoman for the Woodwell Climate Research Center, pointing to the episode in which the red fox strays into territory of the arctic fox. “We’re already seeing that shift — the new interaction between species, animals and plants, that have historically not interacted.”
But Ms. Goldstone and several climate scientists, asked to view episodes of the show, were critical of what they called “band-aid” solutions and the fact the show never mentions that human activity is causing the crisis.
“The episodes don’t explain the broader context of why there is drought in the Amazon or melting glaciers,” Ms. Goldstone said. “There is a missed opportunity to teach the real fundamentals of climate change: that burning fossil fuels are warming the planet. And then you can say, that means human beings can stop warming the planet.”
Heather Tilert, head of preschool programming at Netflix, said she saw that as a step too far for preschoolers. “Kids need to know what to expect from the structure of the episodes,” she said. “That’s a problem that our characters can’t solve over the course of an episode. To have them take on something that they can’t reliably solve puts it in a scary situation.”
Still, Ms. Goldstone called the program a valiant first effort at meeting a new challenge. “The only way we get better is to try and experiment,” she said. “We need to get better at talking to other adults about climate change and we need to get better to talking to kids about it.
“Kudos to anyone who’s trying,” she said.