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Maddie Moate: We are seeing fewer and fewer faces of actual human beings on children's television

The BAFTA award-winning children’s presenter, YouTuber, educator and author on why, how and when children need to be included in the conversation on climate. 

It's really important that we never underestimate the ability of young people to understand what's going on in the world. Yes, it’s down to individual parents and caregivers to know when their children are ready to try to understand things, but we should never shy away from the facts.

The most important thing is to instill in children a love for nature and a fascination with the natural world, especially when they’re under six. It's about informing them of the fun they can have and the amazing things they can see. And if they can feel empowered to take care of the natural world, then that’s a really good place to start.

With that in mind, I don't think we should ever shy away from talking about climate change to children. For instance, it's okay to tell very young people that there is this thing called pollution, and the burning of fossil fuels creates gasses that act like a blanket that warms the planet, and that has consequences.

Primary school age is an amazing time to talk about climate change. Children then are still naturally curious; they’re activists, and they want to do something and take apart. So when they’re that engaged, it’s the perfect time to fill them with ideas and encourage them to take action.

That's something that I try to do. On CBeebies, my role is to encourage little people to look at the world around them, to notice things, observe things, and be excited about asking questions, especially when it comes to the natural world. It's about filling them with wonder. 

But on my YouTube channel and through my book, Stuff – which is aimed at the over sevens – I seek out stories that are going to excite young kids but have sustainability or climate change at their core. I want children to be curious and feel encouraged that there are amazing things being made or invented that are great for the planet.

How you frame an issue is key. For instance, instead of calling a video “What is plastic pollution?”, I’ll title it, “What is a seabin?” The cool part is that there's this really amazing invention called a seabin that floats in the sea. Children think, “why would you have a rubbish bin floating in the sea?” I’ll say that it works in this really amazing way to collect ocean plastic, and now they want to know why that is important. Suddenly you're into a discussion about the plastic problem.

Poo paper” is another great invention to explain to kids of all ages, because you're talking about paper, which is something that all children understand and use all the time. But then you're saying, hey, it's not just made out of trees, it's made out of poo. And their response is “wow” and “why?” Of course, it's funny because it's poo, so already you've engaged them. But at the heart of the story is the fact that “poo paper” is a circular loop process, and in learning about that you're interrogating why we shouldn't always chop down trees. 

Crucially, this is not stealth science. I'm always wary of that term because I don't want to ever suggest that science is boring in any way. But I do think some children decide when they enter school, especially early secondary school, that science isn't for them. That’s when they start to see subjects in terms of lessons. And if you don't have a good experience with chemistry or biology, children will say they don't like chemistry or give up on biology. So when I write a book or create a story, I will always search for topics or points of interest that everyone has in common and weave in as much science as I possibly can.

It's okay to tell very young people that there is this thing called pollution.

To be honest, it's hard to separate how I feel about the way children's television is going and whether it's doing enough when it comes to climate change. I think that there are some brilliant programmes out there that do amazing things, but a lot of them are animations. 

I'm not discrediting animation at all. I think it’s wonderful, incredibly accessible, and can be used all over the world. But I do think that we are seeing fewer and fewer faces of actual human beings on children's television. And I think it's important for young people to see humans - with expressions on their faces - caring about the environment and other big issues. Kids need to see it’s people, and not just the Octonauts, who give a shit. Children can't be Octonauts or a Go Jetter, sadly, so they need to see that people care as well.

I understand it’s tricky. At that CBeebies age group, parents are really invested in what their children are watching. They know that with CBeebies, they can sit their children down and trust that what they're going to be fed is at least enriching, if not immediately educational. But when kids begin independently watching Netflix, YouTube, Disney+, or whatever it is, at that point parents clock out a little bit. 

With my YouTube channel, I try not to alienate anybody so it can be enjoyed by young children, but also can be co-viewed with older siblings or the entire family. I want to encourage discussion or activities that families or educational groups try together, because it's really important to provide a discussion point or an idea to get families talking about these big subjects. That's something that can stop when children move into that secondary phase of watching media.

I think it's important for young people to see humans - with expressions on their faces - caring about the environment and other big issues.

For me, without question, the environment crisis is the biggest problem facing the entire world. And I don't understand how we can ignore it. It's endlessly infuriating that it isn't taken as seriously as it should be. I still can't understand why, given the information that we currently have, this isn't treated as the number one problem. We saw how the world came together to tackle COVID. We know it is possible, so why is that not happening on a massive scale? I don't understand. 

The truth is pretty bleak. But we should tell children the truth and make sure that young, impressionable kids are engaged in conversations which allow them to feel empowered. They need to know that there are people out there doing amazing things, having brilliant adventures, creating awesome inventions - all because they are fighting for that change we need.

As told to Edward Owen-Burge on 27 February 2024. This conversation was edited & condensed for clarity.


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