Engaging Elementary Aged Kids in Understanding Climate Change
4 Ways to Support The Natural Curiosity of Seven to Twelve-Year-Olds to Learn about Their Environment
Chances are your elementary school-aged children have already heard something about Climate Change. Whether it was from the news, at school, or by listening to you, their natural curiosity has probably been piqued and they are ready to learn more. Kids this age love to learn.
Because kids age seven to twelve are more aware of the world around them and are able to draw connections, now is a great time to help them understand that we humans have a huge impact on the planet. Because they are now able developmentally to think in simple logic you can begin to teach them about the cause and effect of the climate crisis.
However, since children in this age group are concrete thinkers and have shorter attention spans, it's important to engage them by focusing on local environmental issues they can connect to their daily lives. And keeping the lessons hands-on and fun will keep them interested and coming back for more.
The tips below will help you engage your elementary-aged children in understanding the challenges of a changing climate, and also feel empowered to take positive action. If you want to learn more about how to support the teens in your life on climate, check out my post, How to Be a Resource on Climate for Your Teens. You can also learn about how to teach your younger children (ages two to seven) about climate change here.
Tips for Engaging Seven to Twelve-Year-Old Kids on Climate Change
As your children get older, you can build on what you did with them when they younger and take your actions to the next level. And if you have school-age elementary school children and are just getting started, you can start the activities outlined here.
1. Explain the Science Simply
While many kids may not be ready to take on the more sophisticated science and stakes of the climate crisis until they’re older, you can still discuss important climate fundamentals. This age group can understand basic science.
Gauge what your kids may already know. If they’re familiar with the term climate change, ask them to tell you what they’ve heard about it. Then explain the more abstract idea of climate change by using one of these methods:
a. A blanket analogy. Robin Gurwitch recommends saying something like, “Humans are burning lots and lots of fossil fuels for energy, in planes, in cars, to light our houses, and that's putting greenhouse gases into the air. Those gases wrap around the planet like a blanket and make everything hotter. A hotter planet means bigger storms, it melts ice at the poles so oceans will rise, it makes it harder for animals to find places to live. And it's a really, really big problem, and there are a lot of smart people working hard on it, and there's also lots that we can do as a family to help.”
b. Animals with the blanket analogy. This connects the story to something your children care about. William Spitzer, the vice president in learning and community at the New England Aquarium, suggests talking about how the earth being covered by a blanket of heat is affecting an animal to which children can relate. For instance, at the aquarium children flock to Myrtle, an 90-year-old green sea turtle that weighs 500 pounds. Aquarium staff often talk about how the temperature of the ocean is rising, which affects the male-to-female ratio in sea turtles.
If your child is at the older end of the age group, you can add more scientific detail by exploring the carbon cycle at a global scale. Explain that for most of Earth’s history, our atmosphere had maintained a balance of carbon sources (processes that release carbon) and sinks (processes that capture carbon). But for about 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been throwing off that balance with activities that release a lot of extra carbon, like destroying forests and burning fossil fuels. That extra carbon dioxide is building up in the atmosphere and slowly warming the Earth.
Read facts about climate change together. Many sites provide information tailored to elementary-aged children. National Geographic Kids has lots of information on ways that children can protect the planet, as does Kids Against Climate Change. And many books provide information appropriate for this age group. If your child is 7-9, check out The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge. If they are 10-12 years old, read What Is Climate Change? by Gail Herman.
2. Encourage Scientific Exploration
Kids in this age group love learning by doing. They are ready for basic scientific exploration. At home, support their interest by engaging them in learning experiences and experiments.
Find games to help them understand climate science. For instance, kids can use the activities provided by the Rainforest Alliance to expand their learning. In their school curricula, they have a fun game where kids become a carbon atom and journey through the carbon cycle.
Help your kids understand the difference between climate and weather. It is hard for young people to imagine changes on a 20-to-30-year scale (climate) vs. everyday fluctuations (weather). Invite your child to interview a grandparent or older neighbor or other elder in their community about changes related to climate they have observed in their lifetimes.
Explore the NASA’s climate website for kids. The site has many climate games, activities and videos to explore.
Suggest they take the National Geographic Kids Planet Protector Personality Quiz to find out if they are a Habitat Hero, Biodiversity Champion, Climate Change Warrior, or Pollution Preventer. Use the outcome to explore their environmental interests further.
Download the Earth Speakr app, which allows kids to record their ideas about the wellbeing of our planet via the voice of a natural element, like a tree or a rock. The app comes in the 24 official languages of the European Union and can be accessed throughout the world.
3. Involve them in Taking Further Climate Action at Home
Your children are now old enough to take an active role in reducing your carbon footprint. And climate action at home starts with you. Modeling and discussing behavior changes at home for your kids can instil a strong sense of personal responsibility for the planet, and helping to make the larger climate solutions we need seem infinitely more achievable.
Discuss the power of personal action. Children in grade school now understand cause and effect. So, they will understand that taking action at home will help decrease carbon emissions.
Share stories about actions other kids are taking. Check out Young Voices for the Planet together. Kids tend to learn better and model behavior when they see other kids their age engaging in climate activities.
Brainstorm ways to decrease your carbon footprint at home. First calculate your current footprint using a kids’ calculator tool. Then research activities you can do to have an impact. Maybe for you this will mean biking to school, switching out incandescent light bulbs for energy-efficient LEDs, taking cloth bags to the grocery store, setting the thermostat at a reasonable temperature, or unplugging electronics at night.
Involve your children in local climate action. For instance, sign up as a family for a local community clean up or tree planting effort. Take them to a local climate rally.
Invite them to write songs or poems or draw pictures about the climate. Or help them write letters to leaders in the government, or to a climate hero or expert on climate change to get answers to their questions. Sara Peach at Yale Climate Connections has a column called Ask Sara, geared towards answering kids’ questions.
4. Support their Climate Education Outside the Home
Since children in this age group are spending more time at school than they do at home, it’s important that they learn about climate change at school and camp. Environmental curricula vary by school district and camp focus. Not all schools and camps teach climate change, or they just touch on it briefly. According to NPR, fewer than half of K-12 teachers interviewed talk about climate change with their students. It’s important for you to get to know your school’s approach to climate science education. And then, advocate for a robust curriculum in your child’s school and after-hours care programs.
Provide your child’s teacher with resources to help them teach about climate change. This NPR article outlines eight ways to teach climate change in the classroom.
Stand up with and for teachers trying to implement climate science curricula but face resistance from other parents, the community, and other teachers and the school administration.
Let your school leadership team know that climate education is a priority for you. Send them a link to lesson plans, like those from the Resilient Educator, or curricula like the Rainforest Alliance’s free, pre-K through eighth grade environmental curricula, which include a climate educator guide.
Talk to leaders of extra-curricular groups like scouts about leading some climate-related activities—maybe even help the kids earn a climate change badge!
Set up an after-school group to take part National Wildlife Federation’s Green Hour Program, which they designed to encourage parents, schools, childcare centers, park agencies, camps, grandparents, and others to adopt a goal of an hour per day of time for children to play and learn outdoors in nature.
Ask your child’s school to involve the children in implementing climate friendly activities. Encourage them to green all aspects of the school. Send the administration and Board of Education a copy of this NRDC article outlining eight ways for schools to become more environmentally friendly.
I encourage you to engage your children on climate change now. It doesn’t matter where you start. Pick one or two things that appeal to you and begin there. Eventually, you’ll discover that you can weave a climate lesson into most activities you do with your children. By taking action now to educate your kids about climate change, you will plant the seeds for them to grow into responsible, compassionate adults who care as much about the future of the planet as you do and will establish the ground-work for more abstract climate-related thinking later on.
I’d love to know what’s grabbing your attention or what questions are running through your mind. Let me know in the comments section. I’ll respond in one of my blog posts.
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All the best,
Krista / Eco-Omi