I am starting a series of blog posts aimed at children and parents about climate change. But first I wanted to start with a look at what type of topics and content are appropriate for children of different ages. This working document combines my own research and other writers’ work, especially inspired by a well-written recent article in the The Atlantic. It is also inspired by passionate and engaging teenage climate activists from the @ThisIsZeroHour movement and other movements. I have tried to present here the key points I have discovered around the current thinking on age-appropriateness with some suggestions for appropriate content. I hope this overview can act as a guide for parents and teachers regarding how to talk to children about climate change. Initially, for very young children, it is enough to foster an interest in our natural world and its creatures, to nourish their sense of caring for the Earth they will inherit. I would appreciate feedback from climate educators, kindy, primary and secondary school teachers in Australia (or elsewhere) as well as environmental psychologists.
As I have found myself, the journalist Michelle Nijhuis argues in a recent article in The Atlantic that the majority of climate-change education materials “focus on how to explain climate change” but rarely focus on “when and why teachers ought to discuss climate change in class”, that is, when are kids actually ready, “intellectually and emotionally” to engage with various aspects of climate change science and more specifically the implications of how their futures may be affected.
She asks “what, exactly, do we want kids to learn from their first lessons about climate change?”
Do elementary students (ages 4-11 in the USA) really need to learn that “the sea ice is melting and polar bears are starving” or are we prematurely burdening them with our own worries that they aren’t yet ready to take on?
For children under 12, she suggests referring to global warming as “a kind of pollution” that “a lot of people are working on fixing”, an explanation that satisfies her daughter’s curiosity. Children are likely to hear the terms “global warming” and “climate change” elsewhere so such simple and empowering explanations may be important to have on hand.
The work of David Sobel offers what could be a good framework for considering when and how to present climate science (and climate advocacy). Neighbourhood maps drawn by children aged 4-15 were used to draw out ways in which they engaged with their environment. The children, from diverse countries including USA, UK and the Caribbean, all imagined themselves in ”close, knowable worlds.”
I have combined my own research with the insights of David Sobel and Michelle Nijhuis to summarise what I think makes for age-appropriate environmental and climate content for engaging kids. These suggestions are listed below. The presentation of potentially scary information on climate change and its likely impacts may not be appropriate for children 11 and under. However parents and teachers can use their own judgement and the lead of the children’s curiosity to guide what they present.
Summary of child development stages and suggested topics to foster a sense of connection with and care of the environment and nature, and, when appropriate, climate change:
Kids aged 1 to 3:
Kids under 4 weren’t studied by David Sobel for the neighbourhood drawing study (that I know of) but I know from my own experience observing my 4-year-old daughter’s kindy class that she can accept that we need to protect fish from plastic pollution (they made paper plate glitter fish and dangled plastic bags off them after a sea life touch and feel class with live sea stars, sea cucumbers and a baby shark). On ABC kids television, Australian content for pre-kindy kids shown here in Queensland include Peppa Pig presenting recycling as a matter of fact way to sort our garbage. The Octonauts rescue sea creatures from various dangers in the sea. In Charlie and Lola, Lola becomes passionate about helping to protect endangered pandas. Solutions focused, action oriented engagement is presented. Kids can be heroes.
Suggested topics for kids aged 1-3 include: amazing animals, amazing nature, gardening, plastic pollution, saving water for fish etc. possibly climate change as pollution.
Kids aged 4 to 7:
Children aged 4 to 7 drew their maps with their homes filling up the centre.
Suggested topics for kids aged 4 to 7 include: amazing animals, amazing nature, gardening, plastic pollution, saving water and resources, etc. for fish etc., endangered animals, possibly climate change as pollution.
Kids aged 8 to 11:
Kids ages 8 to 11 drew their homes as smaller elements, often on the margins of their maps. Maps included elements of the children’s “explorable landscape”of forests and neighbourhoods.
Suggested topics for kids aged 8 to 11 include: amazing animals, amazing nature, gardening, plastic pollution and resource use minimisation, with the addition of climate change as pollution and what to do about it.
Kids aged 12 to 15:
Kids aged 12 to 15 drew maps of greater scope that were more abstract, but still anchored in familiar, often social places. Less focus was on forests and more on social places like malls, town parks, and places downtown to eat lunch.
Suggested topics for kids aged 12 to 15 include: amazing animals, amazing nature, gardening, plastic pollution and resource use minimisation, climate change as pollution and what to do about it, with additional material: ocean acidification, rising seas, extreme weather, impacts on people and what to do about it. Let them know about the inspiring children and adults working to make change. One good resource I have found that presents climate change as simple, serious and solvable is the Alliance for Climate Education: https://acespace.org/the-deal
Nijhaus suggests that for kids in the 12 to 15 years age group “climate change had become part of their explorable landscape—and they were ready to face it.” She makes this claim based on her experience talking to them and their excited questioning while they were working on a student film about recent climate exacerbated wildfires.
Kids aged 16+:
Kids aged 16+ were not studied by David Sobel that I know of, however I am well aware of young teenage activists such as those involved with Zero Hour who are assuming climate leadership rolls for their peers.
Suggested topics for kids aged 16+ include: amazing animals, amazing nature, gardening, plastic pollution and resource use minimization, climate change as pollution and what to do about it, +ocean acidification, rising seas, extreme weather, impacts on people and what to do about it. Let them know about the inspiring children and adults working to make change. As mentioned above, a good resource is available via the Alliance for Climate Education which presents climate change as simple, serious and solvable: https://acespace.org/the-deal.
Sunni Tang from the Alliance for Climate Education (https://acespace.org) and Emelly Villa, a 17-year-old activist involved with the forthcoming @Zero Hour march (http://thisiszerohour.org) recommend starting at any age to teach about climate change. Emelly stresses making it age appropriate. She says “It’s a lot harder to grasp what climate change really is at a young age, so I would start by teaching them about endangered species and use a hands-on approach. Then as they get older, start including much more of the scientific research on climate change and also teach them to speak out about the topic as it will have an impact on their future.” Sunni Tang from the Alliance for Climate Education tells me “When our young people communicate about climate change, they always tie the story of climate change back to their own personal experiences of how climate change threatens something they love.” And this approach is perhaps more accessible to young people at any age. She says “It’s never too early to have the talk about climate change. Climate change isn’t just a science issue, it’s a human justice issue and the fight for climate justice is a fight for values such as equity, justice, and sustainable living.”
Emelly Villa thisiszerohour.org
The above age appropriate content suggestions are part of my own interpretation of the information on climate change and child development. I am not a child development expert, I am a science communicator and a mother passionate about protecting our climate and our kids. So I hope you find this information useful, but you may wish to speak with your child’s teachers to get more insights into how to positively engage them in caring for their habitat, planet Earth. Thank you to everyone who has offered me feedback on this article so far.
David Sobel Neighbourhood map making with children:
Alliance for Climate Education:
How I Talk to My Daughter About Climate Change
Youth Climate March Washington DC July 21 2018
Talking about climate change is very important:
Project Drawdown 100 best solutions to reverse global warming:
Project Drawdown EcoChallenge by the North West Earth Institute:
Parachutes for the planet (for kids of any age):
Principles of Climate Literacy: outline of major concepts and subconcepts that can be adapted as appropriate for each age:
NAAEE and NWF Climate Change Education guidelines. Suggests starting Climate Change education in Grade 4.
NASA’s Climate Kids resource:
Image credits: Samantha Sophia via Unsplash and Emelly Villa courtesy of http://thisiszerohour.org
About the author:
Dr Heidi Edmonds is an ecologist / environmental engineer with a PhD in freshwater ecology who is currently a freelance research scientist while raising two young children. As a science communicator and a mother, she is especially interested in making climate science and climate action accessible, simple and easy to understand for more people. Check out her blog at climatekiss.com (www.climatekiss.com)