By Gabby Cushman
When I was a high schooler, I considered myself to be a fierce social justice advocate. I had conversations with my friends about LGBTQ+ rights, wrote articles about feminism for our school newspaper, and spent most of my free time on Tumblr, learning about issues outside my immediate experience. Yet an issue that was difficult for me to understand was climate change. I knew it was happening, and I understood that it was essential to take action on it. Still, the complexity of the issue was a barrier to me grasping why it was an important social justice issue. It didn’t help that most adults in my life avoided the topic around me other than providing general teachings about protecting the environment, like “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” It honestly took me until my adulthood to do my own research on the subject and begin to understand the gravity of the climate crisis.
So how can we as adults help our future generation of leaders understand climate change at a young age? You may be a parent or teacher that cares about climate change, but perhaps you don’t feel confident in your own knowledge on the subject. Or maybe you do know a lot about it, but you’re not sure how to explain it to kids in a way that doesn’t make them scared of the future. If you’re concerned or confused about how to approach this conversation, we have five quick tips you can use to break down climate change for your little ones.
Make sure they understand what “climate change” really means
Even as adults, we can struggle to understand the language used when discussing climate change. Now imagine how confusing these scientific terms can get for your little ones. More often than not, the word “climate” gets mistaken as a different word for “weather” when in all actuality, they mean entirely different things. It’s a good idea to ask your students questions first to gauge their understanding of climate change, then provide any additional explanations or definitions they may need for this conversation. Here are some examples of climate change terminology broken down for kids:
Present the topic of climate change as a way to respect nature instead of something that’s anxiety-inducing
As adults, we are often concerned with the negative impacts of climate change. The conversation around climate change has turned into a discussion about the climate crisis, emphasizing the need to act sooner rather than later before permanent changes are made to our world. Although our young advocates need to understand why climate change is critical to talk about, we want to ensure we don’t present the issue in a way that makes them anxious or fearful about the future. Instead, it’s best to explain climate change to your learners as an issue about our love for nature and our planet. Spend some time outdoors and hone in on your students’ passions for plants, animals, and the local weather.
If you teach older kids and want to dive into some of the more critical aspects of the climate crisis, reassure them of their safety at this moment and leave time for them to express their feelings about the subject. That way, they’re not leaving the lesson with a looming fear about climate change and unsure how to talk about it.
Discuss ways to decrease your carbon footprint while also emphasizing how climate change is a systemic issue
Calculating your individual, family, or class carbon footprint is a great activity to work into a climate change discussion. Discovering the amount of greenhouse gas we emit each year helps us better recognize how humans contribute to global warming. It also gives us personal agency to do something to contribute to fighting climate change. This is especially important for young advocates as climate change can often feel like a BIG social justice issue that they can’t impact. After calculating their carbon footprint, you can work with your learners to brainstorm individual actions they can take to reduce it over time.
However, kids (and adults) must understand that, like many other social justice issues, climate change is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions along with individual action. A small number of large businesses produce the majority of carbon emissions in the world. To fight climate change, we need significant efforts to reduce these businesses' emissions. The good thing is we can put pressure on companies to change their ways and improve Earth’s future outlook. But at the end of the day, your learners must understand that even though they have actions they can take, the whole climate crisis isn’t resting on their shoulders.
Emphasize how climate change is connected to almost all other social justice issues
Intersectionality is a crucial part of understanding climate change. Marginalized communities will likely feel the impact of the climate crisis more quickly and at a higher intensity than privileged communities. Alongside that, climate change is more likely to affect lower-income countries when it is primarily rich nations (and the international companies from these nations) causing our current climate predicament. When weather-related disasters occur, wealthier individuals can likely relocate when their homes are threatened. People who are poor or disabled, however, can have a much harder time trying to relocate. When teaching our young learners about climate change, it’s important to showcase how intersectional issues will affect how specific individuals and communities will be impacted by it.
There’s also intersectionality to consider with our actions to fight climate change. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities have been practicing sustainable steps for years, yet these are often presented as ideas white people created to live a greener lifestyle. Examples include minimalism, veganism, thrifting, shopping at farmer’s markets, recycling, and more. BIPOC people were often ridiculed for these practices before they became trendy in white communities. Indigenous populations specifically have been some of the most prominent groups pushing for action on climate change and working to preserve our natural world. Discussing individual efforts we can take to reduce our carbon footprint shouldn’t happen without acknowledging the communities that have been sustainable and concerned about the environment for years before us.
Engage your learners in hands-on and outdoor activities
The best way to get kids passionate about protecting the environment is by showing them how amazing our natural world is! If you can, take your lesson outside and let your students explore the nature around you. Talk about the various plants and animals that live in your local area. When they understand what we’re trying to protect against climate change, they’ll better understand why environmental activism is vital.
You can also show your learners hands-on how to reduce waste and reuse materials with sustainable activities. You could start a class composting project, create a craft out of reused and repurposed materials around you, or challenge students to recycle more in the classroom. Having kids complete these actions with you at school could encourage them to adopt these practices in other parts of their lives.
Although climate change is a complicated issue affecting people and the world in various ways, these five tips can serve as a starting point for approaching the topic with your little ones. It’s never too early or too late to get young people passionate about protecting the Earth.
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