Update Nov 2019: A shorter version of this article now exists:
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.
Update March 2019: I have added some additional material at the end by Megan Herbert, Yale Climate Communications and the Australian Psychological Society.
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. I also love this cute song about sharks that lets kids connect with their inner shark, instilling a love of sharks!
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. Children also often describe, and feel protective of, the creatures that live in their gardens or their blocks.
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.
I have summarised these suggested topics into a table of age appropriate environmental and climate topics for kids, so you can see my suggestions at a glance. The ideas suggested in the table are based on the Michelle Nijhaus article, David Sobel’s Neighbourhood maps, kids TV that my kids like, observation of my children’s kindy programs, interviews with ACE educators and the Zero Hour activist kids.
Further thoughts, part 1:
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
Further thoughts, part 2: Suggestions for parents taking part in front-line, non-violent, direct climate action:
During a presentation I gave on this topic for Citizens’ Climate Lobby Australia, I was asked a question by a mother of a 2-year-old boy, who was taking action on the front lines of climate action (civil disobedience or non-violent direct action). She asked for ideas on how she could best protect her young son from any harm to his current and future mental health while she was taking action like this. Here I want to share my answer and some additional insights.
Firstly, as we can see above, in David Sobel’s research into how children draw maps of their own neighbourhoods, he highlights how young children have views of the world that focus on their home and family, and on special creatures they see in their gardens and close to home. So I suggested that rather than talking to her son about the broader topic of climate change, she can make it personal and comprehendible to him. She can let him know that she is working to protect some iconic species that he loves, or perhaps one that lives in the vicinity of where she is taking action. Perhaps a special frog or a bird, something the young son is interested in. He needs a sense that he is loved, cared for and safe. With this in mind I want to recommend an Australian author who writes on how to nourish and care for our children’s healthy mental development, Steve Biddulph. Through his books “Raising Boys” and “Raising Girls” he offer insights into how can protect and nourish our children, and protect ourselves, as parents for their mental development. Another online audience member, during my presentation, put it beautifully to the mother “your son will be fine as long as you practice self-care”.
Children’s author Megan Herbert offers some excellent suggestions about talking to kids about climate in this article. Her suggestion to take the time to find out from the children what they already know makes a lot of sense. She also suggested to me in a personal conversation that you can talk about climate with even very young children but she agreed with my suggestion that they need it to be solutions focused and perhaps focused on protecting aspects of nature they care about from climate impacts. But you do need to take the lead from them about what they are ready for.
“Frogs and fish is a perfect way in! I spoke with a group of 6-y-o’s yesterday and we focussed a lot on ecosystems and how when they warm, plant/animal life is disrupted. They totally got it.”
Her book The Tantrum that Saved the World (co-produced with climate scientist Michale Mann) is something I have read to my own kids who are now 3 and 4. My eldest was fascinated by the illustrations of the animals. Though the one time I told my 3-year old that the story related to my own work and that she might be a Sophia (the heroine) one day she started play punching me near the end implying it was time to wrap up… was this too much info for her? Did I need to shorten the telling as per Megan’s suggestion below? Was I better off just reading it without this additional commentary? We all have to be sensitive to our own kids’ needs.
“Yes, that’s pretty young [2 -4 years]… mainly because of the book’s length! Also the language is a bit advanced. Perhaps go ‘off-script’ and focus on the ‘friends in trouble but she’ll help them!’ aspect. Then skip to the action plan, for ways they can help the people/animals too.”
Megan also directed me to some of the work by Yale Communications about talking to kids about climate.
Another great (and free) resource for kids 5 and over is this reading of a book for kids on climate change read by Lily Cole. It helps kids see that the world is their home and we have to look after it for everyone.
Advice from the Australian Psychological Society
The Australian Psychological Society (APS) has produced some useful leaflets about talking to kids about the environment (and climate) Self-regulation, adaptability and civic engagement are three aspects among many that we can help them develop to deal better in a climate-changing world. The APS reflect a similar approach as my table above to engaging with pre-school aged children such as focusing on caring for nature. They offer further suggestions for engaging primary and secondary students, being led by their questions and interest. As we have seen in the recent growing #schoolstrike4climate movement led by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg which really took off with massive strikes by Australian school students in November 2018 many secondary students know more about climate than their parents.
An updated summary:
So my mini update based on these new learnings is that even young (preschool) children may be able to engage on climate, but it’s best to ensure that you are solutions focused, and it’s best to focus the climate narrative on caring for nature. Let your child’s interests as they get older guide how you engage them. But a focus on caring for nature and leading with solutions remains a good initial approach at any age. As they get older, helping them connect with their own sense of agency can be an inroad to recognising the impacts that may affect their own lives, while empowering them to feel that they can be agents for change. The table above remains a useful guide, but adding in an element where you note what questions the child asks, or ask the child themselves what they know may help you to engage in the most appropriate way. Trust yourself and take your cues from your kids.
Australian Parents for Climate Action shared with me how they raise the topic with their kids. The differences in responses highlights that you do need to trust your own instincts and consider the child’s readiness:
My son has just turned 5, and I’ve talked to him about climate change all his life. He doesn’t seem scared at all (I haven’t told him that he needs to be – that won’t help!). As far as I can tell he just understands that it’s a problem and he expects everyone to deal with that problem, just like people deal with other problems when they arise. He came to the last school strike with me, and there were several toddlers and babies there. I just see this as another part of life and think that while we have to protect our children from the impacts of climate change, we don’t have to protect them from the concept. My son asks to come to the rallies and meetings. His Mum is doing it, so he thinks it’s something cool and exciting that he wants to be part of! I think that’s good role modelling. I totally recognise everyone’s individual choices though, and just like with every other aspect of parenting, you have to do what you feel is right.
I think just explain the facts. Tell them the world is getting hotter because we are burning too many fossil fuels – explain that they are coal, oil and gas, they are found underground and we burn them to make energy for our lights, electricity and cars. Tell them we’ve got to stop burning those fossil fuels because we don’t want our world getting even hotter – it’s hot enough! Then explain that there are new ways of making electricity that don’t make our world hot – solar, wind, etc. My son is now 5 and I’ve been explaining that to him since he was about 2. I haven’t told him how serious the emergency is, but he sure understands that it matters and that there are solutions.
I’m sure it will be harder when they ask us about impacts on their own lives, but again I think I’ll stick to facts and drip feed it, certainly not present all the concerns in one go! And i always try to remind him (and everyone) that we have a choice and there are great solutions.
One thing I’d like to share was something my 11 year old told me when we were on a bushwalk. How one part of her was very happy. She loves her school, has good friends, loves her family etc. And then the other part was just very worried about climate change. We talk about climate and the environment a lot but I try and shield her from the worst expected consequences. My eight year old doesn’t want to talk about it or the future. He tends to walk away when we do.
I have explained the concept to mine (7 and 4) because it’s been unavoidable because they are with me so much of the time. I just explained that burning coal causes air pollution and perhaps I also said that the world is getting warmer, which can make it complicated to grow crops and things. I have explained that there are alternatives to coal and that lots of people are trying to make the world a better place. They don’t find it terrifying because I haven’t expressed my fear to them. I hope they aren’t scarred by being exposed to this concept so young!!! I really had no alternative because I am basically with at least one of them 100% of the time, so they have heard me talk about it (but always in an age appropriate ways when they are in ear shot).
Parents and grandparents are the ones who do it, then the kids are around listening to us talking, singing and chanting so it’s part of their world. They come in and out of interest as they want. Some have no interest at all and others are quite attentive.
I just spoke to a very close friend. Her son is 10 years old. He is learning about climate change at school at the moment. My friend is now dealing with her son crying himself to sleep most nights! I love her son! I feel absolute dread that he is now suffering.
My kids are 3 and 4. Until kids are around 8 (probably even age 11) it’s best to keep the focus of climate change on the impacts on nature like fish and frogs… we don’t need to draw the dots that their future is on the line. I think it’s very personal whether the child is ready to hear about climate or just to be engaged on the concept of caring for nature. But i talk about climate all the time at home. I try to keep it age appropriate in front of the kids, but it’s hard to know just how to approach it. I think I am returning to the idea of not talking about it too much but keeping the focus on nature and protecting what we love. Instilling caring for nature seems the best way to help kids then also engage on climate when they are ready. it’s also important to point out that lots of people are working to protect the future. talk about it in a way that shows you can see how it can be solved. One time, after the IPCC report came out and Scott Morrison ignored it, I got really upset. I had to tell the girls something. Why was I crying? I told them I work on protecting frogs and fish and sometimes it’s hard (even though by that I mean climate action). They seemed to get it and have started to take protecting frogs and fish from plastic etc. very seriously.
I’m taking our 3 year old [to a school strike 4 climate event], who has come to other rallies before (on coal and climate). We go with friends or stay near other families, and it has been a positive experience so far. I tell her that we all care about nature and children, and that by acting together we can pollute less, and protect the things we love.
She understands that pollution can harm things, and what’s currently happening is not good. I tell her that things like burning coal need to change, and these changes will make the world better in many ways. She understands ‘climate’ as being part of the world around us that affects weather, rain and all kinds of water, and knows that it can be affected by pollution. (I wouldn’t choose to emphasise climate, but she encounters the word often, especially at rallies, so I try to help her have some idea of what it means.) She does not know all the scary impacts, and I think it’s important to protect her from feeling hopeless or that her future is threatened.
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.
My presentation on talking to kids about climate and environment for Citizens’ Climate Lobby Australia:
David Sobel Neighbourhood map making with children:
How I Talk to My Daughter About Climate Change
Alliance for Climate Education:
Youth Climate March Washington DC July 21 2018
Australian Psychological Society:
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:
Slides + video from my presentation: How to talk to kids of different ages to engage them on climate change and environmental issues: https://climatekiss.com/2018/06/14/slides-video-conversations-with-kids-on-climate-environment/
My article for kids 12+ about adults and children who are protecting the climate for the future. “Dear kids, I am an adult working to protect your safe, liveable planet. And I just want to say… hello…”: https://climatekiss.com/2018/08/20/dear-kids-i-am-an-adult-working-to-protect-your-safe-liveable-planet-and-i-just-want-to-say-hello/
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)