Krista Kurth, Ph.D.
Teaching Your Younger Children about Climate Change
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
Tips for Introducing Two to Seven-Year-Old Children to Climate Change
If you have small children curious about the world, you may be wondering:
Should I introduce them to climate change? Will it be too scary or too complicated for them?
At what age should I introduce this crucial issue?
What is the best way to introduce the climate crisis to them so they will understand?
I am of the belief that we need to prepare our children for the challenges of the world in which they will live. Luckily the experts say that we can do that in fun, age-appropriate ways from the time they are young.
Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist in the U.K. connected with the Climate Psychology Alliance, recommends teaching children about climate change beginning at age three.
Another expert, Wendy Greenspun, a NY based clinical psychologist engaged in climate issues, says that by introducing the topic early, we can set them up for later learning when they are old enough to understand more complex information.
Since children of different ages are in different developmental phases, it is important to engage them in a way that fits their abilities. I write about appropriate action for teens in the post, How to Be a Resource on Climate for Your Teens. And in my next post, I will write about how to engage your elementary age kids in climate action. In this post, I cover teaching kids ages two to seven.
According to Jean Piaget, children in this age category are still actively developing language, memory and imagination skills. Yet, they only have a low-level understanding of cause and effect and complex comparisons.
This means they won’t understand you if you talk about how the future is going to differ from the present. But you can definitely engage this age group in learning key ideas that will make climate change easier to understand later. Here are some appropriate ways to engage your young children now.
1. Connect Them with the Natural World
Children love to explore the world. They find wonder in everything around them. Support them in learning how precious the earth is and what is good in the environment. You will help them discover a lifetime appreciation for nature and lay the foundation for understanding climate change later.
I’ve experienced this first-hand. In January 2020, we took a trip to the Bahamas with our entire family. As the small plane we were taking from Nassau to another island became airborne, my then five-year-old granddaughter looked out the window with her mouth open in awe. She excitedly exclaimed over and over, “We’re flying over planet earth!”
Here are some suggestions for how to spark your kids’ curiosity and wonder:
Get outside with your children as often as you can. Go to the park or take a walk in the woods. Take them camping or create a small garden together.
Follow their interest. Get down low and look at what’s happening at their level.
Point out how nature moves in cycles, as Ronnie Citron-Fink, a former schoolteacher and now the editorial director of Moms Clean Air Force, suggests. For example, discuss how leaves fall from trees in autumn, then reappear as green shoots in spring.
Help them see that the environment is a part of where they live. And that we are all connected whether we live in big cities, sprawling suburbs, or rainforests.
Introduce interdependence by exploring where your water comes from, and where it goes after it circles down the drain. Or go to a nearby farm to talk about where your food comes from.
Turn trips into climate lessons. For example, having a quick conversation about sea-level rise when you are at the beach, when the tide rises higher.
2. Explore Climate Change Ideas in Simple Ways
While children of this age may not be able to understand the science and stakes of the climate crisis, you can lay a foundation by engaging in straightforward-but- age-appropriate discussions about climate fundamentals.
Start small and positive. For instance, talk about how and why we love the planet. Discuss how the living things they see right outside their front door grow and thrive when we care for them. Discuss how it is our responsibility to take care of each other and the earth.
Use vocabulary and relationships they understand. Talk about how it’s getting to warm where Santa lives or how plants breathe in the gases we breathe out in a mutually beneficial cycle.
Harriet Shugarman, author of How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change, suggests saying, “The planet is changing. It’s warmer in the winter, and in many places, some animals are dying.”
Explain that what we put in the air pollutes it and acts like a blanket around the earth. The earth is getting too warm, and that isn’t good for plants, animals, people and the ocean.
Find age-appropriate ways to connect climate issues to real life. For example, kindergarteners can understand that it rains more, or less, than it used to where you live.
Read books to them about climate change. My six-year-old granddaughter loves The Lorax, which was also made into an animated film. Other books for children this age include The Lonely Polar Bear, Winston of Churchill, The Problem of the Hot World, and The Tantrum that Saved the World. For more books, check out this Huffington Post article, 25 Books That Teach Kids To Care About The Environment.
3. Support Their Curiosity and Care for the Natural World by Taking Action Together
Children learn best through doing. So, when they ask questions about climate or the environment, support their curiosity by taking climate action together. Help them understand that they can play a role in helping the earth.
Plant seeds or trees and talk about how plants cool the planet by breathing in what makes the air too warm.
Involve them in climate actions at home, like recycling. Tell them why you put paper in the recycling bin.
Engage them in putting their food scraps in the compost bin. Last weekend, our six-year-old granddaughter and four-year-old grandson helped their grandfather turn the compost before shoveling some of it into holes they had dug for the ferns we were planting. They got to see how food became soil and how the worms helped and loved it. They asked if they could name the ferns they planted.
Pick up discarded trash together and talk about how, just like we clean up at home, we need to clean up where plants and animals live too. We are sharing the earth with other living things.
Encourage them to give toys they no longer play with to other children. Instead of buying new toys, help them find gently used ones.
Make a meal together and explain why you don’t want to waste food or why you are eating less meat.
Acknowledge your children when they take action on their own. For instance, thank them when they turn off lights when they leave a room. Tell them they are helping the planet. Robin Gurwitch, a professor and clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center and the Center for Child and Family Health. “When people most important to us notice our actions,” she says, “we’re more likely to do again and carry it forward.”
I encourage you to engage your younger children in appreciating nature 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 can have fun weaving nature lessons into many activities you do with your children. By beginning now, you are laying a foundation for understanding climate change when they are a bit older.
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