How to teach climate change to kids at home

As the coronavirus crisis has forced school closures across the United States, teachers, students, and parents alike are facing the practical and technological challenges of rapidly shifting millions of students with varying needs from in-person classrooms to digital communities.

But as we’ve pointed out in previous blog posts, with the myriad challenges of this crisis come new opportunities to innovate and experiment. We hope some of this time spent learning at home can help students foster new levels of curiosity and appreciation for the natural world.

Recognizing this, we’ve updated our Climate Basics for Kids page to be more accessible to students and parents alike, and our Educator Resources page to provide a curated list of resources suited for the home classroom, including printables, engaging educational videos, and hands-on activities requiring only household materials.

Climate literacy

Across the United States, 40 states require some form of climate education—with most states following common standards—and a 2016 survey found that climate change is taught in 75 percent of science classrooms in the U.S. However, across these classrooms, the amount and depth of climate change content can vary widely.

In order to gain a solid understanding of the planet’s complex climate system and how humans contribute to it, it’s important for students to engage with key concepts like the greenhouse effect, human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise, and extreme weather impacts of climate change. Students should understand that the planet’s average temperature is rising due largely to human activities, and that this will have severe effects around the globe. Our Climate Basics for Kids page is dedicated to explaining these concepts for older students or even adults who are not familiar with the topic.

It is also important for students to understand that we are already seeing the effects of climate change, and that its impacts are not evenly spread throughout the world. Parents and teachers can also use unusually warm days or severe weather events to talk to their students about how climate change is making the “abnormal” normal. As global warming intensifies, we can expect to see more warm days in the middle of winter, more intense hurricanes, more frequent droughts and floods, and in some areas, much more precipitation.

Our Educator Resources page has a list of activities and lesson plans for students of all ages to learn more about climate change and the natural world.

Climate anxiety

When we talk to kids about topics like coronavirus and climate change, it’s important to recognize that these concepts can be scary and overwhelming. Abstract concepts like infectious diseases and global change can be hard for young minds to grasp or to compartmentalize from other concrete dangers. Additionally, younger students may feel especially deep, personal connections to nature; because they do not yet have the life experience to put the effects of climate change into context, children may struggle when hearing about environmental destruction and severe weather disasters.

To help students process their climate anxiety, a 2019 New York Times article featured advice from experts recommending that we use our own feelings about the topic to help our children process theirs. The experts recommended beginning with positive learning experiences about nature and wildlife, then discussing the process of climate change and its effect on the planet. But importantly, they also recommended encouraging students to engage proactively with their communities in activities to protect the planet – such as helping their school recycling club or planting a community garden. (We have a list of 10 actions you can do in one day to fight climate change, which could be a good place to start!)

We can use these lessons to help our students combat their anxiety around the coronavirus crisis as well. By giving our children a safe space to process their emotions while helping them channel their feelings into helpful actions, we can help them put their fears into context and give them some control over the situation.

It can be scary to have these conversations about the uncertainty of the future under climate change, but many of our children are already encountering these concepts outside of the home and classroom. Today’s students are inspired, educated, and driven to push for positive change. As adults, talking to them about humans and nature and why we need to protect them can help show their feelings around climate change are valid, and can inspire them to act to protect the planet.