There’s more support for classroom discussions about climate change than you might think. According to a 2019 poll by NPR/Ipsos, over 80 percent of parents think climate change should be taught in schools. While 86 percent of teachers support that view, about half don’t teach it, with 65 percent saying that climate change is outside of their subject area.
Educators can make earth science cool and instill a passion for our planet that lasts for years. They can use science to tell stories about plants and animals that help students care about protecting the environment. Regardless of whether your school or state tries to politicize climate change, you can teach kids that nature is worth caring about.
Here are some Earth science and climate change lesson plans, ideas and resources for your classroom.
Students Can Handle Climate Change Discussions
The first thing to know when planning climate change lesson plans is that your students can handle this information. They are likely hearing about climate change outside of the classroom and have questions.
Leslie Davenport, author of “All the Feelings Under the Sun: How to Deal With Climate Change” — a workbook for kids — says children as young as eight are aware of the threats of climate change. Unfortunately, not talking about it with younger students can actually create more stress instead of protecting them from climate worries. Most kids will hear a news clip they don’t understand or a partial conversation by parents and then try to research the material on their own. This can lead to fear and anxiety as dramatic headlines draw them in.
“When talking with children about climate change, match the depth of conversation to the child’s age,” writes Kottie Christie-Blick, a climate change education consultant. “They want to understand this world they’re living in without being overwhelmed by too much information.”
Kids know that climate change is something to be worried about, and trying to hide it can only create more stress. Plus, kids can handle honest conversations about the planet, the food chain and how humans impact the lives of plants and animals.
Alan Hesse is a climate educator who uses comics to teach about climate change. He has a series of graphic novels called “The Adventures of Captain Polo.” One teacher complained about a scene where Captain Polo (a polar bear) stalks a walrus for his lunch. The walrus escapes, but the teacher said Captain Polo should have tried to make friends with the walrus instead of hunting it. Hesse says that approach would prevent children from learning about the true order of nature.
“This is not to say, of course, that we as educators should traumatize our children. Quite the contrary: with understanding comes empowerment,” Hesse writes. “Children who understand the natural order – even the part about polar bears hunting walrus – and how this order is upset by unsustainable, uncaring and short-sighted human behavior are in a much better position to grow up doing the right things.”
In other words, you don’t have to share every climate change article with students or show every nature show produced by National Geographic. However, it does mean that students want honesty from adults and have their questions answered truthfully.
Age-Appropriate Climate Change Lesson Plans and Resources Available
Don’t worry if you aren’t sure where to start in your climate change lesson plans. There are several activities and age-appropriate resources you can bring into your classroom. Davenport’s workbook and “The Adventures of Captain Polo” are two places to start, but there are other books out there.
“Coco’s Fire: Changing Climate Anxiety into Climate Action” can be used to explain climate change to elementary students. This book was written by Jeremy D. Wortzel and Lena K. Champlin and produced with the support of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry’s Climate Committee. It’s a story about a young squirrel worried about climate change. This is a useful resource if you are concerned about stressing out your students with climate change discussions.
Parenting blogger Nina Garcia shares several other books you can introduce to your students when talking about climate change. You can read these students directly to your class or keep them in your classroom for students to read on their own. Preschoolers can read “Greta and the Giants” or “We Are Water Protectors,” while upper elementary and middle school kids can read “It’s Your World” and “Dear World Leaders.”
Climate Talks Can Be Part of the Daily Classroom Experience
One way to make climate change discussions less taboo and scary is to make them a part of day-to-day life. Sophia Krysa, an elementary school teacher in Nashville, tells EcoWatch that she builds climate discussions into the everyday classroom. These conversations teach kids to make eco-conscious decisions in the long run while making them more comfortable talking about the climate and asking questions.
“We all know that kids are the future, but if we never talk with them and show them what that future could look like, then they’ll never know what they can do and what they’re capable of,” says Krysa.
Little choices throughout the day can highlight how you care about the planet. Explaining why you turn out the lights when you leave the classroom is a climate discussion. Using whiteboards instead of printouts to save paper is an environmental choice. You can even move the classroom outside a few times a month (weather permitting) to connect students to the world around them.
“Outdoor learning has also proven to boost the development of people skills in school children, such as critical and creative thinking, inquiry, problem-solving, communication with peers and adults,” writes the team at Earthwatch Europe. “Pupils who participated in outdoor learning programmes have shown to develop stronger pro-environmental behaviours, in comparison to their classroom peers.”
Use Interactive Experiments in Climate Change Lesson Plans
Discussions about the planet and climate change don’t always have to be serious and they don’t have to turn into debates if you have a few opinionated learners. You can introduce a variety of activities to your classroom and incorporate science lesson plans to engage students.
Emma Vanstone at Science Sparks shares several activities you can bring into your classroom to talk about climate change. These tap into a variety of other skills and lessons that you want to teach.
For example, there is an eco-friendly packaging worksheet for students to rethink how different items are packaged. You can ask students to find an item or assign different items in class. Each student will consider the materials, packing style and other features to create a design that is better for the environment.
Another activity developed by Shelley Brewer at STEAM Powered Family is about the greenhouse effect. This is when the Earth’s atmosphere traps the sun’s heat, which can be dangerous when the balance of gases on the planet is thrown off. The purpose of this science experiment is to show students how different gases can impact the environment.
Climate Change Isn’t Just for the Science Classroom
Many teachers don’t discuss climate change because they don’t cover Earth science. It can seem difficult to bring up the environment during a grammar lesson or math class. However, you can build climate discussions into almost any subject.
For example, Fridays for Future International is a youth-led movement to highlight the effects of climate change. There have been events in more than 7,500 cities across all continents to protest actions that harm the planet. Consider letting students in your social studies class participate in a mock strike for climate change at your school, even if they are only protesting outside the principal’s door.
Alternatively, you can have students create posters about the planet, including slogans supporting environmental protections. English students can write speeches or poems about what Earth means to them.
Subject To Climate is a resource hub for K-12 teachers looking to integrate climate change discussions in any classroom. You can filter the lesson plans for language arts topics, math, world languages, social students, science and social-emotional learning. You don’t have to avoid climate discussions just because you aren’t an Earth science teacher.
Another activity that students can do is creating art from recycled materials. Art teacher Abby Schukei shares an activity for students to create sculptures with recycled materials. You can ask students to bring in waste from home that would otherwise get thrown out or collect litter around the school. Trash is given a new life as students turn their found items into unique sculptures. Consider sharing photos of other sculptures made from recycled materials to inspire them.
More Resources for Climate Change Lesson Plans
If you are still searching for the right materials to develop Earth science and environmental protection lesson plans, check out a few of these websites.
The American Museum of Natural History has a section dedicated specifically to teaching kids about science and nature. It’s called “OLogy,” which means the study of, and you’ll find resources for all kinds of science topics. Use the “Be an Energy Saver” infographic to start a classroom brainstorming session on how to conserve energy. While many of the items on the list are useful, your students will likely come up with more ideas to protect the planet.
Climate Change Connection is a Canadian site with worksheets and activities that can be modified for your classroom. For example, there is a scavenger hunt for students or families where kids are asked to find rain barrels, different bugs, solar panels, pieces of litter that need to be picked up, and other items that tie into the environment. This activity brings environmental protection directly to students. Climate change isn’t a far-off issue where only the rainforest or oceans are affected — they can see the effects of Earth care (both good and bad) right in their own backyards.
Our Climate Our Future is another website that has several age-appropriate videos and educator resources. You can use this site if you teach younger students or if your older learners are ready for more adult discussions. This website focuses on additional action items that students can take beyond the classroom.
Ignoring climate change won’t make it go away. This applies both to adults who deny it and kids who are protected from sensitive discussions about the environment. If you aren’t talking about the planet with your students, they will learn about climate change elsewhere — and they might not get a correct picture of what it means. You could have stressed or misinformed students in your classroom. Whatever grade or subject you teach, climate change lesson plans have their place.