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Teaching Kids to Protect the Environment and Their Health

by Mitchell Kriegman

Mitchell Kriegman

Mitchell Kriegman is the creator of PBS KIDS' "It's a Big Big World." He is an award-winning screenwriter and producer. Read more »

Sorry, Mitchell Kriegman is no longer taking questions.

Hello Parents!

Phew! Am I glad to talk to you! I'm always talking to kids, especially my own. So it's nice to communicate with adults sometimes. I'm a single dad with three kids --  two boys and a girl, ages 16, 13 and 11.  And I remind them sometimes when we're in the throes of interrupting each other at dinner with the latest argument about the lyrics of "Swing Life Away" by Rise Against or the joy of getting Google Maps on a Blackberry, that I have adult friends too, and we talk about very adult things sometimes like how cool it is to get Google Maps on your Blackberry and other adult stuff.

I don't know if you know my other work but in the kids business I'm known for creating new paradigms -- or, as they say in the biz, signature programming -- like Clarissa Explains it Al, the first show with a girl character that boys and girls watched equally, and  Bear in the Big Blue House.

I'm a creative guy and, as someone once said, an "irritator" for change. What this means is I question some of those truly crazy conclusions the big kid networks come up with through their "focus groups." Sometimes I get to prove them wrong. For instance, they used to say that  boys wouldn't watch girls on tv   And the conclusions that are pervasive now, in these "High School Musical" days,  is that kids don't want to watch an underdog and every lead character has to be a popular kid.

Being an "irritator" is stressful (being a single parent is too!). That's why I'm glad that Snook came into my life. Snook's so laid back. He is a sloth, after all.  He plays air guitar. He thinks about sleeping upside down from a branch and what Quetzal birds eat. And what about Butterflies -- what if you followed them all day? And he'll listen to the marmosets argue the fine points of banana eating all day long -- do you peel from the bottom or the top? Do bananas have a bottom and top?

Snook is the perfect antidote to our stressful times, and he's in touch with nature. One of the things I love is when Snook and I visit the city together he'll remark: "The city is a lot like the world tree but instead of a Giant Canopy of Trees and Vines, you have Skyscrapers and Taxi Cabs." It reminds me that we need to be natural, real and sustainable wherever we are; and also how things have changed.

So let's talk about how things have changed for us in the last 5-to-10 years. Ten years ago, I created Bear in the Big Blue House, a series that taught a pro-social and developmental curriculum to preschoolers and parents. Now, as I look at Snook and It's Big Big World, I've found that those concerns and that curriculum have evolved. The essential relationship between caregiver/parent and child is still the centerpiece of our lives, but today parents and teachers have to look deeper into the issues of health and wellness and the environment of the world we live in.

There are a lot of things we don't take for granted anymore. In the past, did we ever worry if toothpaste was ok? Did we worry if dog food would kill our pets? That toys would contain lead? Or about chemicals on our lawns?  Kids have always been afraid of lightning and storms, but they now worry about tsunamis on the other side of the world.  Does that worry, or simply their parents talking about it,  translate into fear of a local rainstorm?

The state of the world, concerns about global warming and things like lead-based paint on toys have changed the nature of parents' relationship to their children's well-being.

We've come out of a time period when we didn't have to worry about wars, or tsunamis, or global threats, or recessions, and now we do. And we can't ignore that kids are aware of these things, too.

We still need to reassure and teach and help children grow, but it takes a new kind of approach that's not alarming or shrill, that makes things better not worse. We need to look at individual health and wellness based on the reality of living in a more difficult environment.

Here's the good news: Addressing issues of environmental stewardship and health and wellness goes to the core of a lot of these concerns and offers a manageable and emotionally positive way for parents and teachers to talk to kids about big scary things and work to change them.

There's a reason why all the environmental advocates have made the transition from talking about polar bears and rising seas to talking about health and wellness and how we behave in our own environment. Polar bears still matter, but you can't change everything. You can change your life. People like Majora Carter with Sustainable South Bronx and parents, like Kimberly Pinkson and her EcoMom Alliance, are already leading the way.

The most powerful agents for change are moms, dads and teachers -- and kids! And we're all coming up with new ways to talk about all the basic things we've always been concerned about. Some examples:

·        Now parents aren't just teaching kids to brush their teeth, they're teaching them to turn off the faucet while they do it.

·        Eating from the basic food pyramid has been replaced by an emphasis on seasonal, local eating and organic food.

·        Things that used to be about saving money -- kids turning off the lights, closing the door when they go outside to play -- are now being encouraged from an environmental point of view.

·        Chores include bringing reusable bags when they shop and being in charge of the recycling.

·        R Cubed -- reduce, reuse and recycle is not just good for the planet it's good behavior to teach kids.

·        Conservative or liberal you want your kids to be considerate and care for the world around them in your home and everywhere.

Being concerned about the environment is one of the giant ways we can move beyond the place we are in now. And hopefully our kids will find a way and teach us to improve the state of the world. I hope someday it's something they take for granted and laugh about -- how wasteful we old people were. It's one of Snook's other mottos: "children need to teach parents how to clean up after themselves!"

Sorry, Mitchell Kriegman is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


gabrielle writes...

Hi Mitchell. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on getting kids to protect the environment. At what age do you think kids start to understand these concepts? I have a 2 year old and a 4 year old. I often tell my older child not to let the water run while brushing her teeth, but she doesn't quite get it yet. Just wondering at what point these concepts will start making sense to her. Thanks. p.s. Hi Snook!

Mitchell? writes...

i personally think that we should teach them just as a manner of behavior whether they can understand it or not. because it's about creating good habits. and honestly we learn tons of stuff that way. we don't know necessarily know the reasons for so much that we learn young. it's just a habit. toilet training is exactly that way. the steps involved with toilet training are way over the head of little kids other than cleanliness. but at any rate i'm sure they start understanding it all by 4. i think the hardest thing is to do it oursleves! we have to break the habit! i'll say hi to snook for you. mitchell

Sophia writes...

Hi Mitchell,

I am a great fan of It's a Big Big World. I think you've developed a really engaging group of characters. How did you decide which animals to base your characters on? Do you have plans to develop any new characters? Ever thought of introducing a human character, perhaps a little kid? Just wondering....Keep up the great work!

Mitchell? writes...

hi sophia! i had the dancing sloth snook from the beginning. and i knew i wanted monkeys and a tortoise with a map of the world on her back. and i had a bunch of characters that never made it into the show - like zig and zag two long necked birds, but it wasn't until i walked into my daughters 2nd grade class that i saw they had all these pictures posted around the room of rainforest creatures. and i thought that's it! not just any old monkey but marmosets! how cool is that? i wouldn't introduce a human into the the world tree - but i have decided in the second season to take snook into the real world! we're going to see snook travel to meet important people - and kids of course - in the environmental cause world. like kimberly pinkson of the eco mom alliance! and thanks i will keep it up as long as i can! mitchell

Jeffrey writes...

Hi Mitchell! Do you have any thoughts on how to make kids conscious of the challenge we face with the environment without, well, scaring the heck out of them?

Daniel writes...

May I ask what the argument about the song "Swing life away" consists of? I often sing that song to my 1 yr old son. By the way, my family and I love your show and we're totally on board with health and with the environment.

Mitchell? writes...

it's all so random i can't recall! but thanks for the input. watch for more exciting news soon about big big world soon!

Jason writes...

Hey want you to know your show is great i have a 10month old she loves it she has been watching it since she was 4 months old. I have a big big problem though she loves Snook and i have seen some hard dolls and tree houses but nothing soft. Do u have some Ideas where i can look for a soft snook doll or do you know how i can come across a snook doll for her?

Mitchell? writes...

thanks so much we want to have a big sloth and we're working on it! watch for more exciting news soon!

Angela writes...

Hi Mitchell, I was surprised to read you are a single dad and with such creative talents. I, too, am a single mom and am finally OK with the "label." Anyway, my daughter (5) and I really enjoy The Big Big World. I was so happy to see that something like this was available for children on TV. Your show made TV watching a good thing for us to do. My question is are your kids in school and what are your thoughts about kids in school, the impact of that on our environment/community, and if your kids are in school, would you have them at home if you felt like you could?
Thank you

Mitchell? writes...

i'm pretty proud of the label actually being a single dad is great my kids are cool. i'm so glad you like the show i think home schooling is great if you have the time. but it's very hard to have that much time. my kids started an environmental club at their school called r cubed. schools should be the heart of the environmental movement. thank you! mitchell

Vanessa writes...

I’m admiring the program “It's a Big Big World". It’s good for kids to learn about environment and to learn what is right and wrong. Keep up the good work. I’m really enjoying your show, but im sad because the program is only on in the morning. My son sometimes wakes up late. Could the show also air in the afternoon? Hope you can change the schedule.

Thank you!

Mitchell? writes...

make sure you check your schedule go to
and put in your zip code! and look for some exciting new announcements!

Amie writes...

It is very important that we get kids eating well at an early age. Our country is facing an epidemic and many times it is too hard to change a person's habits when they are older. We need to have more educational programs like this one that will show people the healthy way to diet and stay in shape!

Mitchell? writes...

thanks so much! i agree the whole idea is to reach kids early by the time they are five they are already set in their ways!

Rhonda writes...

I am a park naturalist. I guide children through a beautiful southern pine, oak, hickory forest every day. My grandchildren and I watch It's A Big, Big World and enjoy it together. They often join me in looking up information on the rain forest characters the show portrays. Are you aware of the "No Child Left Inside" movement? Have you read Richard Louv's NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER? I am impressed with your work and often recommend that teachers view and use It's A Big, Big World in teaching their young charges Environmental Responsibility. Thanks and keep up the great work!
Rhonda Clay, Park Naturalist
Walter Jacobs Memorial Nature Park
Shreveport, Louisiana

okesiji adeola writes...

I read your piece on teaching kids to protect their environment and their health and i find it very educating.I however would want to know if their are any environmental kid pages that deals with issues like errosion,biodiversity,desertification and land degradation.Your kind assistance shall be appreciated.

lhagyal writes...

I am really interested to do something like you according to the environment here in Tibet.
it will be very helpful for me to learn about how to teach to the adults and children in Tibet.
I also appreciate to hear more from you

Christine writes...

Dear Mr. Kriegman,
It is a great pleasure for my child and I to watch "It's a Big Big World". And it was even greater pleasure in reading your view points. Thank You for such creativity and insight. You are so very blessed with such talent and energy. I pray that someday my daughter and I will obtain the same. Thank You for sharing and caring.
Sincerely, Christine and Marie Beckman
at Dated Mon. January 18, 2010

Matt Cardle writes...

The problem that we have in the UK (and I'm sure it's the same in the US) is that we now have a generation of poorly educated (both morally/ethically and college) that are bringing up kids and those kids really don't have a hope in hell. How can a child learn right from wrong if his or her own parents don't know?

-Matt Cardle

baba writes...

First of all thanks to write on this needy issue. I think parents have the main roll in their children life. If we as a parents are doing things right like we are following rules, we are keeping our environment clean and clear, we are taking healthy food and many other things than definitely children will follow us. They will learn from us. And if we are doing things wrong than there actions will be worst. Secondly government play the big roll as well. Government should provide the precise environment to citizens and fulfill their basic requirements as well.
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