As the saying goes, children are our future. Because they will be the next voice in striving toward a sustainable planet, they must first be aware of the problems and possible solutions. But implying that the earth will eventually burst into a fiery ball and there’s little we can do about it might not be the best approach. When educating children about climate change, it’s important to make sure the information is age-appropriate, you use positive, empowering language and you remember to revisit the conversation often. Here are a few pointers to get you, and your potentially earth-saving discussion, headed in the right direction.
Make it age-appropriate
Children are both imaginative and literal, so a phrase like, “We’re killing the planet” can set the conversation off on the wrong path. Remember that those developing minds are a blank slate when it comes to climate change. They don’t have decades of knowledge, facts and fallacies from which to work. For children under the age of eight, keep the conversation focused around a love of nature. Impress upon them the beauty around them. Talk about the importance of picking up garbage, helping animals and growing plants. With an understanding of nature, children will have a better comprehension of climate change down the road. Around the age of nine or 10, children are able to consume more abstract concepts. This means that they can absorb information through discussion and hands-on activities.
Make it tangible
Although children become capable of engaging in the discussion, it’s always better to help them see the problem through hands-on activities. The goal is to visually express the point. For example, create a science experiment in your kitchen where you grow plants in an aquarium and add chemicals to the water. Show them images of environmental pollution and talk about how the food chain is affected by the loss of a species. When thinking about examples that will resonate with your child, keep in mind his or her interests. Are they passionate about a particular animal? What about babies, trees, bugs or food? Meet them where their interests lie for the best results.
Be factual, not inflammatory
For children to have an understanding that might lead to change, they must first understand the facts. Using fear tactics is not likely to net the result you’re looking for. Instead, focus on facts that are easily digestible. Don’t worry about statistics and hard data. Instead, discuss things that interest them. Make it a regular conversation. While washing the vegetables at the kitchen sink, discuss where the water comes from, how it’s treated and where it goes after it heads down the drain. Explain how chemicals in that water end up back in the system. When planting the garden, talk about how the plants benefit from sunlight and water, and how that ultimately brings energy into our bodies.
Remember that the conversation regarding climate change will be ongoing. As they get older, discuss reports, news and articles. Educate them about how the fossil fuels that plastic is made from affects the planet, and challenge them to think about changes you could make as a family to eliminate plastic in your home.
Your children will have questions. When they do, admit if you don’t have the answers. Empower them by showing them how to perform effective research and find the answers together (within the allowed boundaries of internet usage in your home). While you’re online, track down a carbon footprint calculator and have your children complete it with you as a measurement of your electrical and water consumption.
Find resources for every age
The idea of climate change is certainly not new, and generations of teachers and parents have found interesting ways to discuss the issues with children of all ages. Books and videos that cover the effects of climate change on our planet are prevalent and allow you to preview material before sharing it with children. Read books that are engaging and informative. Start with “The Magic School Bus” or “Bill Nye the Science Guy” for digestible and entertaining content.
Keep it positive
Although a virtual dark cloud sometimes goes hand-in-hand with discussions around climate change, try to focus conversations around positive actions. Discussing the topic by showing your child news reports of other children picking up plastic trash or businesses aimed at sustainable practices. This shows them that many, many people are making tangible changes already and offers encouragement that they too can make a difference through small or large actions.
Do as you say
The most powerful statement you can make to your child is living the life that you talk about. Although children hear what you say, when they see you taking your own shopping bags to the grocery store and they understand why, it drives home the message. Work with your children to avoid single-use plastic by making your own yogurt and applesauce, taking a reusable water bottle everywhere you go and declining straws at the restaurant. Recycle at home and explain the process as you go. Nurture their environmentalist tendencies by signing up for a beach clean up day or a community tree planting event.
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