By Lusi Alderslowe
Climate change is a huge, wide and important issue. It will affect children’s lives more than it has ours. In recent months, there has been a huge surge in interest, action and protest demonstrations from young people all over the world, showing that many young people understand this.
Children need to understand how human activities are affecting it, what the solutions are, how they can help, and the systemic changes which need to happen. However, children are young, are known to be cognitively different to adults, can be vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and these issues can be too big for them to deal with.
How do parents, teachers, grandparents, childminders, Forest School leaders, Scout leaders and anyone else interested in the education of children, navigate these complex issues?
How can we educators empower children, listen to them, work with the nature of that individual, and not talk about things which are too hard for them to grasp before they are ready? In this article we will address some big questions:
- What age is it appropriate to inform children about climate change?
- What about younger children?
- What are good ways to introduce the concept of climate change to children?
- What actions can children do to feel empowered in the face of climate change?
What age is it appropriate to inform a child about climate change?
Although there are many people who would prefer to be told a specific age … as many people who have studied permaculture may expect, the permaculture answer is…. “It depends”.
Children will be ready to learn about climate change at different rates, depending on various factors, such as their:
- Development – Cognitive, social, emotional, and linguistical development move at different rates for different people at different times. There can be times of little change, and then leaps, or steady increases in development.
- Previous experiences
- Personality. Some children want to know everything, others are just not ready yet.
Children’s sense of the world expands as they grow older. For example, if asked to draw their neighbourhood, children’s drawings become increasingly abstract and cover a larger area as they get older from age 4-15 years (Sobel, 1998). Thus a four year old’s concept of ‘the whole world’ may be just their home and places they visit regularly, which could be all within walking distance.
Remembering the permaculture principle of ‘Small and Slow Solutions’ will help educators to say enough to answer children’s questions age appropriately, and to know when to stop. Childhood is not a race – allowing children to be children will set them in good stead for the rest of their lives, there’s going to be plenty of time to worry when they are older.
Many people would say that very young (kindergarten-aged, i.e. up to 7 year old) children are not able to understand climate change, and it may frighten them.
For example, when a friend of mine explained to his 4 year old son that climate change could kill all the people in the world, the child was so distraught that he howled, ran out of the room and continued to worry about it for months afterwards with frequent nightmares.
This child couldn’t yet understand the timescale, perspective, or that there is time left for us to make changes. The full possibilities of climate change are genuinely scary, so it is important to be aware of when and how you speak to children about it.
What about younger children? ‘If we want children to flourish, to be truly empowered we must first allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it’ (Sobel, 1996).
Spending time in nature, appreciating everything about it – the colour of the sky, the texture of a tree trunk, the smell of a badger, the feeling of your toes squishing through mud, the song of the robin, the taste of wood sorrel… the list goes on and varies from one location to another as you explore with all your senses. This is a wonderful time to join children in expressing curiosity, joy, awe, wonder and love of our natural world.
There are hundreds of fantastic activities which you can do with children listed in the book Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share in Education: The Children in Permaculture Manual’ by Alderslowe, Amus and Deshaies (2018). For example, there are six different activities exploring the sub-topic “The big family of nature: all of nature is connected and we all need each other” (p63). These activities and more are also listed in the online database of Inspirations for Activities on childreninpermaculture.com.
How to talk to children about climate change
When children ask questions such as “Why don’t we drive to school?”, or “Why do we compost?” this could be a time that you can start to include climate-change in your response.
If they are interested, they will ask more, and it is possible to explain an age- appropriate way. This is a way of enabling conversations to be fluid and natural, so climate change is just part of their understanding of how the world is, which expands and deepens as they grow.
If a child is curious about climate change, these are some useful things to consider when talking to them about it:
- Observation / surveying is key. Observing the child, listening to their cues, and getting all your facts straight about what climate change is and what causes it. Think about how to explain that in a child-friendly way. There are lots of resources online which can help, such as videos, articles, and games which you and/or your child might like to research and discuss. Watch out for inappropriate resources such as those made by oil companies, according to Melia (2019) “The Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network… reviewed more than 30,000 free online resources and found only 700 acceptable for use in schools.”
- ‘Apply self-regulation and accept feedback’ – Regularly check in with the child about what they understand, don’t assume that just because you said something, that the child understands it! Similarly, If the child loses interest, then allow the conversation to naturally move on. Remember many children will struggle to stay interested for more than 5-20 minutes. Forcing them to ‘be quiet and listen’ will not make it more interesting or understandable!
- Remember Mollison’s principle ‘The problem is the solution’. Always come in with positive solutions – introduce children to permaculture! Focussing on the positive things which people do, and telling positive stories of people helping the planet can help empower children in the face of climate change. Introducing the permaculture ethics and principles, check out p28-p51 of Alderslowe et al (2018) for ideas of activities which you could do with a child or children.
- Giving examples which show how humans ‘Creatively use and respond to change’ (Holmgren, 2002) can support and empower children. For example, you could discuss the way people managed to stop using ozone-depleting substances in the 1980s, which averted the potentially devastating effects of UV radiation. Discussing Margaret Mead’s famous could also help: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
What actions can children do to feel empowered in the face of climate change? Encouraging and supporting children to take any actions they are interested in, will help them to be empowered in the face of climate change.
The permaculture principle ‘Use and Value Diversity’ can remind us that there are many different possible ways to do this, for example: writing to MPs/ councillors, asking their teachers to do a relevant class project, recycling, signing petitions, planting trees, reducing use of cars & electricity, sharing more, installing a wormery at school, holidaying without flying, playing in nature, saving worms, starting/joining in a local campaign/issue (such as fracking) and much more!
Don’t beat yourself up every time you are less than environmentally perfect, remember that we can only do what is possible with limited energy, time, money and other resources. If ever stuck, revisiting the permaculture ethics and principles can help to guide us to a future which is personally, socially and environmentally sustainable.
References Alderslowe, A., Amus, G. and Deshaies, D. (2018). Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share in Education: The Children in Permaculture Manual’. Children in Permaculture. https://www.permaculture.org.uk/books/children-in-permaculture-manual
Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Hampshire, UK. Permanent Publications.
Melia, M. (2019). Many online climate change lessons are actually junk. https://phys.org/news/2019-05-teachers-grapple-climate-pretty-scary.html
Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education. Great Barrington, MA, USA. The Orion Society and the Myrin Institute.
Sobel, D. (1998). Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Elementary Years. Heinemann Educational Books.