How to talk to kids of different ages to engage them on climate change and environmental issues
As a climate concerned parent I often wondered how to talk about climate change with my kids.
The Australian Psychological Society (APS) has produced some useful leaflets about talking to kids about the environment (and climate) Self-regulation, adaptability and civic engagement are three aspects among many that we can help them develop to deal better in a climate-changing world. The APS suggest that for pre-school aged children focusing on caring for nature is a great way to fuel their sense of motivation for protecting their world in positive ways as they get older, that will help them engage on climate later, when they are ready.
The APS offer further suggestions for engaging primary and secondary students, being led by their questions and interest, making acting to protect the climate an everyday activity that we might share with our primary school aged children e.g. suggesting that we walk to school rather than take the car, so we can use less fossil fuel to help reduce pollution and its impact on the climate.
As we have seen in the recent growing #schoolstrike4climate movement led by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg which really took off with massive strikes by Australian school students in November 2018 many secondary students know more about climate than their parents. Asking our secondary school students what they already know, and even researching climate change together is a good approach for this age group.
For all age groups, a solutions focus, and talking about the many people working hard to protect the climate is an approach that is likely to engage kids and empower them to feel like they can make a difference.
The work of David Sobel offers what could be a good framework for considering when and how to present climate science (and climate advocacy), and generally supports the recommendations of the APS. Neighbourhood maps drawn by children aged 4-15 were used to draw out ways in which they engaged with their environment. The children, from diverse countries including USA, UK and the Caribbean, all imagined themselves in ”close, knowable worlds.”
The presentation of potentially scary information on climate change and its likely impacts may not be appropriate for children 11 and under. However parents and teachers can use their own judgement and the lead of the children’s curiosity to guide what they present.
Summary of child development stages and suggested topics to foster a sense of connection with and care of the environment and nature, and, when appropriate, climate change:
Kids aged 1 to 3:
Kids under 4 weren’t studied by David Sobel for the neighbourhood drawing study but I the Australian Psychological Society recommends engaging them on nature and caring for nature at this age. I know from my own experience observing my 4-year-old daughter’s kindy class that she can accept that we need to protect fish from plastic pollution (they made paper plate glitter fish and dangled plastic bags off them after a sea life touch and feel class with live sea stars, sea cucumbers and a baby shark). On ABC kids television, Australian content for pre-kindy kids shown here in Queensland include Peppa Pig presenting recycling as a matter of fact way to sort our garbage. The Octonauts rescue sea creatures from various dangers in the sea. In Charlie and Lola, Lola becomes passionate about helping to protect endangered pandas. Solutions focused, action oriented engagement is presented. Kids can be heroes. I also love this cute song about sharks that lets kids connect with their inner shark, instilling a love of sharks!
The Australian Psychological Society recommends books about caring for nature like the Lorax by Dr Seuss for this age group.
Kids aged 4 to 7:
Children aged 4 to 7 drew their maps with their homes filling up the centre. Children also often describe, and feel protective of, the creatures that live in their gardens or their blocks.
A useful book for this age is “The Tantrum that Saved the World”
Also, a great free online resource for kids 5 and over is this reading of a book for kids on climate change read by Lily Cole. It helps kids see that the world is their home and we have to look after it for everyone.
Kids aged 8 to 11:
Kids ages 8 to 11 drew their homes as smaller elements, often on the margins of their maps. Maps included elements of the children's “explorable landscape”of forests and neighbourhoods.
Kids aged 12 to 15:
Kids aged 12 to 15 drew maps of greater scope that were more abstract, but still anchored in familiar, often social places. Less focus was on forests and more on social places like malls, town parks, and places downtown to eat lunch.
A good resource for this ages group and over that presents climate change as simple, serious and solvable is the Alliance for Climate Education.
Journalist Michelle Nijhaus suggests that for kids in the 12 to 15 years age group “climate change had become part of their explorable landscape—and they were ready to face it.” She makes this claim based on her experience talking to them and their excited questioning while they were working on a student film about recent climate exacerbated wildfires.
Kids aged 16+:
Kids aged 16+ were not studied by David Sobel that I know of, however I am well aware of young teenage activists such as those involved with Zero Hour who are assuming climate leadership rolls for their peers.
I have summarised suggested topics into a table of age appropriate environmental and climate topics for kids, so you can see my suggestions at a glance. The ideas suggested in the table are based on the Michelle Nijhaus article, David Sobel's Neighbourhood maps, kids TV that my kids like, observation of my children’s kindy programs, interviews with ACE educators and the Zero Hour activist kids.
Another approach: ask the kids what they know:
Sunni Tang from the Alliance for Climate Education tells me “It's never too early to have the talk about climate change. Climate change isn't just a science issue, it's a human justice issue and the fight for climate justice is a fight for values such as equity, justice, and sustainable living.”
Children's author Megan Herbert offers some excellent suggestions about talking to kids about climate in this article. Her suggestion to take the time to find out from the children what they already know makes a lot of sense. She suggests you can talk about climate with even very young children but you need to keep the conversation solutions focused and perhaps focused on protecting aspects of nature they care about from climate impacts.
Stories from Parents and Carers
Australian Parents for Climate Action shared with me how they raise the topic with their kids. The differences in responses highlights that you do need to trust your own instincts and consider the child's readiness:
My son has just turned 5, and I've talked to him about climate change all his life. He doesn't seem scared at all (I haven't told him that he needs to be - that won't help!). As far as I can tell he just understands that it's a problem and he expects everyone to deal with that problem, just like people deal with other problems when they arise. He came to the last school strike with me, and there were several toddlers and babies there. I just see this as another part of life and think that while we have to protect our children from the impacts of climate change, we don't have to protect them from the concept. My son asks to come to the rallies and meetings. His Mum is doing it, so he thinks it's something cool and exciting that he wants to be part of! I think that's good role modelling. I totally recognise everyone's individual choices though, and just like with every other aspect of parenting, you have to do what you feel is right.
I think just explain the facts. Tell them the world is getting hotter because we are burning too many fossil fuels - explain that they are coal, oil and gas, they are found underground and we burn them to make energy for our lights, electricity and cars. Tell them we've got to stop burning those fossil fuels because we don't want our world getting even hotter - it's hot enough! Then explain that there are new ways of making electricity that don't make our world hot - solar, wind, etc. My son is now 5 and I've been explaining that to him since he was about 2. I haven't told him how serious the emergency is, but he sure understands that it matters and that there are solutions.
I'm sure it will be harder when they ask us about impacts on their own lives, but again I think I'll stick to facts and drip feed it, certainly not present all the concerns in one go! And i always try to remind him (and everyone) that we have a choice and there are great solutions.
One thing I'd like to share was something my 11 year old told me when we were on a bushwalk. How one part of her was very happy. She loves her school, has good friends, loves her family etc. And then the other part was just very worried about climate change. We talk about climate and the environment a lot but I try and shield her from the worst expected consequences. My eight year old doesn't want to talk about it or the future. He tends to walk away when we do.
I have explained the concept to mine (7 and 4) because it’s been unavoidable because they are with me so much of the time. I just explained that burning coal causes air pollution and perhaps I also said that the world is getting warmer, which can make it complicated to grow crops and things. I have explained that there are alternatives to coal and that lots of people are trying to make the world a better place. They don’t find it terrifying because I haven’t expressed my fear to them. I hope they aren’t scarred by being exposed to this concept so young!!! I really had no alternative because I am basically with at least one of them 100% of the time, so they have heard me talk about it (but always in an age appropriate ways when they are in ear shot).
Parents and grandparents are the ones who do it, then the kids are around listening to us talking, singing and chanting so it’s part of their world. They come in and out of interest as they want. Some have no interest at all and others are quite attentive.
I just spoke to a very close friend. Her son is 10 years old. He is learning about climate change at school at the moment. My friend is now dealing with her son crying himself to sleep most nights! I love her son! I feel absolute dread that he is now suffering.
My kids are 3 and 4. Until kids are around 8 (probably even age 11) it's best to keep the focus of climate change on the impacts on nature like fish and frogs... we don't need to draw the dots that their future is on the line. I think it's very personal whether the child is ready to hear about climate or just to be engaged on the concept of caring for nature. But i talk about climate all the time at home. I try to keep it age appropriate in front of the kids, but it's hard to know just how to approach it. I think I am returning to the idea of not talking about it too much but keeping the focus on nature and protecting what we love. Instilling caring for nature seems the best way to help kids then also engage on climate when they are ready. it's also important to point out that lots of people are working to protect the future. talk about it in a way that shows you can see how it can be solved. One time, after the IPCC report came out and Scott Morrison ignored it, I got really upset. I had to tell the girls something. Why was I crying? I told them I work on protecting frogs and fish and sometimes it's hard (even though by that I mean climate action). They seemed to get it and have started to take protecting frogs and fish from plastic etc. very seriously.
I'm taking our 3 year old [to a school strike 4 climate event], who has come to other rallies before (on coal and climate). We go with friends or stay near other families, and it has been a positive experience so far. I tell her that we all care about nature and children, and that by acting together we can pollute less, and protect the things we love.
She understands that pollution can harm things, and what's currently happening is not good. I tell her that things like burning coal need to change, and these changes will make the world better in many ways. She understands 'climate' as being part of the world around us that affects weather, rain and all kinds of water, and knows that it can be affected by pollution. (I wouldn't choose to emphasise climate, but she encounters the word often, especially at rallies, so I try to help her have some idea of what it means.) She does not know all the scary impacts, and I think it's important to protect her from feeling hopeless or that her future is threatened.
The above age appropriate content suggestions are part of my own interpretation of the information on climate change and child development. I am not a child development expert, I am a science communicator and a mother passionate about protecting our climate and our kids. So I hope you find this information useful, but you may wish to speak with your child’s teachers to get more insights into how to positively engage them in caring for their habitat, planet Earth. Thank you to everyone who has offered me feedback on this article so far.
David Sobel Neighbourhood map making with children:
How I Talk to My Daughter About Climate Change
Alliance for Climate Education:
Youth Climate March Washington DC July 21 2018
Megan Herbert, author and illustrator of “The Tantrum that Saved the World”:
Yale Climate Communications:
A great free online resource for kids 5 and over is this reading of a book for kids on climate change read by Lily Cole. It helps kids see that the world is their home and we have to look after it for everyone.
Australian Psychological Society: