How To Teach Climate Change Without Panicking Your Students

Climate change is one of the most important challenges faced by current and future generations. According to an NPR poll, 86 percent of teachers believe that climate change should be taught, but only 42 percent of teachers actually teach it. Most say they don’t teach about climate change because it’s irrelevant to their subjects, writes reporter Anya Kamenetz

It’s a difficult topic to talk about, let alone teach. Climate change can make children feel scared and powerless, so it’s important to approach any conversation with care.

However, teaching about climate change can prepare students for the future. Here’s how to introduce this topic in your classroom and incorporate it into lessons across history, science, social studies and more.

Resources for Teaching Climate Change

The best way to teach about a challenging topic is to find the right resources and examples for doing so. When it comes to climate change, there are a wealth of websites and lesson plans available to educate elementary students about this topic. 

One example is Climate Kids from NASA. This project spans topics on water, energy, plants and animals, atmosphere and weather and climate. They also answer important questions that students may have about climate change such as: What is global climate change? Why is carbon important? and What is the greenhouse effect? These are answered in-depth and also provide a launch pad for discussions and lesson plans. 

Another reputable resource is the National Center for Science Education. Minda Berbeco, director of the San Francisco Bay Chapter Sierra Club, says teaching young children about climate change isn’t a political issue. Rather, she explains that it’s a science topic with societal implications. She also says that today’s teachers have no choice but to educate students on these matters.

“The data is readily available; we know Earth is warming. If children understand why, they can begin working towards slowing down the effects. Their future quality of life depends on it.” 

Additional lesson plan resources are shared by Common Sense Education senior editor Danny Wagner. He points out that understanding climate change isn’t just an ethical issue — it’s now part of the Next Generation Science Standards. 

This means that students will need to be able to explain how climate change occurs and what contributes to it. Wagner provides four digital tools and accompanying lesson plans that can be used in the classroom to advance climate change learning.

Teachers might also refer to the National Ocean Service’s Planet Stewards Education Project (PSEP). This initiative “provides formal and informal educators working with elementary through college aged students the knowledge and resources to build scientifically-literate individuals and communities who are prepared to respond to environmental challenges monitored by NOAA.”

Teachers who feel uncertain about teaching climate change topics will find this to be a useful resource for educating both themselves and their students. PSEP has also sponsored numerous environmental stewardship projects in elementary schools. Teachers interested in starting projects can apply to PSEP for funding. They can also look to the website for examples of successful past projects which include a rain garden and recycling and composting systems.

Younger students can also benefit from watching climate change videos that make scientific processes more digestible. A number of videos are collected by Project Learning Tree. These videos feature animals and easy-to-understand visuals. They’re used to explain things like the carbon cycle, climate science and biology topics like how trees store and capture carbon.

Teach climate change

Connect Climate Change to the Real World

Incorporating visuals and real-world information into climate change lessons can help students better grasp the extent of the problem. According to the National Education Association, a real-world connection is crucial for properly teaching climate change.

“One of the essential principles of teaching climate change to students is the message that it has consequences for the earth and human lives.”

A great place to start is asking students to consider how their daily actions might contribute to climate change. Climate Change Connection is a Manitoba-based resource that helps educate the public about climate change. They also have specific resources to engage and inform teachers, students and schools in taking action on climate change. 

One of their free resources for students is a carbon footprint worksheet. This asks students questions about transportation, housing and eating habits to help them better understand how their daily activities affect the planet. They also have an ecological footprint, which is a positive spin on the carbon footprint activity. This lesson helps students conduct self-assessments to see what good is being done for the environment.

Teaching students these real-world connections can also be done through activities. For example, sixth grade teacher Melissa Lau uses dice to teach her students how probability affects extreme weather. Some of these dice have extra sides, which symbolize additional carbon in the atmosphere.

“The students then sent the dice clattering again and again across tables to test the extent to which the extra carbon contributed over time to high tallies, which indicated extreme weather events.”

While this is in a middle school classroom, the same activity could be used by fourth or fifth grade students as well. Lau also collects data from her travels to provide them with real-world information on how climate change affects other areas. After a trip to Alaska, for example, she showed students measurements and photographs of the impacts of climate change. This shows students that climate change is a real and current problem, even if they can’t see the influence in their hometown.

Teach climate change

Inspire Change and Action

Learning about climate change can be stressful, especially if students feel that nothing can be done to help. That’s why it’s important for teachers to pair elementary climate change lessons with actionable, hands-on activities that cultivate compassion. This will empower and inspire students to make a difference in their daily lives. For younger elementary students, start by spending time outside and teaching students about the local environment.

“Understanding that humans have impacts on the natural world and that wildlife is impacted by changing ecosystems is a must in grades K-2. Spending time exploring local wildlife/habitats and learning about any current risks will establish the ground-work for more abstract climate-related thinking later on,” says Lindsey Bailey, teacher training manager at Population Education.

For every lesson that focuses on a problem or challenge related to climate change, consider adding a positive and actionable point. “An elementary school child can understand why it’s better to walk to their friend’s house instead of being driven, or why they can wear a sweater in the house instead of just cranking up the heat,” says pediatrician Samantha Ahdoot, lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Policy Statement on Climate Change and Children’s Health, by way of example.

Consider encouraging small daily changes that can make students feel empowered about making a difference. “My goal is to inspire students, not scare them to death! I stress that we can do something about this. It’s very much empowering,” says climate change education consultant Kottie Christie-Blick.

She facilitates a website called Kids Against Climate Change, which explains why the world’s climate is changing and encourages and empowers students to get involved in things like recycling and reducing air pollution.

Images by: Spencer Gurley, Valentin Antonucci, Vincent M.A. Janssen

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