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How to Teach Kids About Climate Change Without Terrifying Them

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Climate change can be a heavy and controversial topic for both adults and children. However, as teachers, there are ways to educate our students about climate change in a way that empowers them to help change the world.

The Loaded Topic of Climate Change

As a science teacher, there are always topics that you are particularly passionate about. Some teachers go for botany, others geology, and for some, even physics. However, for me, climate change is that topic that gets my heart racing and blood pumping. Like many adults, it is a topic near and dear to my heart. However, it is also a topic on which you have to tread carefully within the classroom. One reason is beyond the comprehension of science teachers everywhere: it is a topic that gets people polarized often along political lines. It is also a topic that can be challenging for young minds to understand. Students may liken the effects of climate change to the events of movies like The Day After Tomorrow. So as a teacher, you have to approach teaching climate change in a way that empowers students rather than terrifies them.

Let Students Examine the Evidence Themselves

Teaching science to students is at its heart about teaching students to collect, analyze, and accurately interpret data. It is easy to stand up in front of your classroom on your soapbox and preach to them the perils of climate change. However, that would probably be the least productive approach you could take—students could misinterpret what you say, so it is better to let them 'discover' the evidence of climate change for themselves.

Explore How Our Climate is Changing

When students think of climate change, they probably have a lot of misconceptions about it that add to the terror of the conversation. The place to start teaching them about climate change is by getting them straight with the lingo. In the last few years in particular, there are more stories about how our catastrophic weather such as hurricanes and massive winter storms are the product of climate change. So, in their minds, they start to think of weather and climate as synonyms of each other. To help them understand climate change, they have to be able to distinguish the two. Weather is a short-term concept, such as whether it will rain on Saturday. Climate is the pattern of those weather events that happen over the course of the year during the seasons and over the entire history of the earth.

blizzard image

Time is a hard concept for kids to understand, and they often get scared because they can visualize spans of time such as 500 years. So, when we say them that the average temperature has increased two degrees Celsius over the last five years, to them, it is the blink of an eye. To teach climate change without frightening them, sometimes you have to help them visually see how the changes are occurring and the length of time it takes. You can use tools to help students visualize how Earth's temperature is changing. They can go websites such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) climate website to look up datasets by zip code. Students can graph weather data going back to the 1700s for some locations and look at the changes over time for themselves. Doing so helps them visualize the patterns and see how the subtle increases have occurred over time sometimes slowly, other times in more rapid succession.

The next step is to help students see how those temperature changes are affecting the planet. An easy place to start is by having students look at the change in sea level. Pose it to them as a question, such as 'How has our expanding industrialized society affected sea levels?' Let them then use data to arrive at an answer. There are many excellent sources of data students can look at, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA). Websites such as these will show students how sea levels have changed around the world in the last hundred years or so. You can have students do the math and calculate how long it would take, based on those trends, for the sea level to rise to various measurements.

sealevel image 1

Empower Kids to Make Changes

Finally, if we want to educate kids about climate change without frightening them, we need to empower them. Even for an adult, the impact of climate change on our society can be an overwhelming thing to think about. Now try facing it as a child. They may feel that the world will be destroyed before they are old enough to do anything about it, so we have to show them how they can impact climate change through changes in their own decisions. The way they do that is by reducing their carbon footprint. They don't realize it, but even everyday things that they do involve processes that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which increases the amount of heat the earth holds (global warming). Have students explore ways they can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide their actions put into the atmosphere.

For example, talk to students about easy changes they can make, such as not buying plastic bottles. There are the obvious impacts to the environment such as the petroleum it took to make the bottle, but also the actual amount of drinkable water it took to make the bottle of water which is about 1.5 times what you get in the bottle at the end of the process and double if you're talking about soda. Students can easily estimate the number of plastic bottles they use in a week, and the fossil fuels and water costs that go with them. Even the simple act of not purchasing plastic bottles can make a huge impact.

plastic bottles

There are lots of other changes students can make that empower them to help with the issue of climate change. They can look at the impact of riding a bike or using public transportation versus driving cars everywhere. Another change would be using reusable containers in their lunch boxes instead of plastic bags, or recycling and composting to reduce the amount of trash their family throws out every week. All those slight changes add up to a big deal for the earth.

Raising Kids to be Environmentally Aware

While climate change can be a scary topic, petrifying our students isn't the most productive way to raise them to be environmentally responsible citizens. Instead, we need to help them truly understand what climate change means for them and their families. The place to begin is by helping them understand climate change isn't an isolated weather event they see on the news, but rather, changes to our patterns of weather over time. To do so, they need a chance to look at the data for themselves from global warming to rising sea levels. Finally, we need to give them hope by educating them on minor changes they can make that impact climate change. By empowering them, we can help students become responsible climate citizens rather than traumatizing them, so they don't feel the situation is hopeless.

By Rachel Tustin
January 2018
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