Teaching climate science & action — the 4–7 year old version

Julia Steinberger
Jun 27 · 8 min read

Teaching climate science & action can seem daunting: for university-level lecturers, teaching to younger children can be quite intimidating. For primary-level teachers, the science and scope can seem too vast and fast changing to cover. For everyone, the content can be overwhelming. As adults, how do we present this topic to children: give them the information they need without crushing them?

I decided to face the challenge, and over the course of one rather sleepless night, put together some materials for my 6 year-old son’s class. This post summarizes and communicates that experience, in the hope that others can take ideas and inspiration, and will be encouraged to volunteer to teach about climate in primary schools. Teaching and engagement in schools is now part of all of our work, as researchers, academics, parents, activists, advocates, so I hope this idea spreads. The 4-part lesson plan worked quite well: the topics & materials held the children’s attention, gave them varied aspects to think about and interact with, and they seemed to come away with deeper understanding. The whole thing took roughly 1 hour. This is doable!

Part 1: Warming Emissions

After greeting the children, and asking their names, I asked them if they knew what global warming or climate change was. The children said yes! (They always say yes.) It’s about pollution. What kind? I called it “warming emissions” because that’s true & simple. I made a display with the big legos (duplo).

Duplo lego stacks! Each color represents a main activity source, each brick represents 1 Gigaton of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.

The duplo block to emissions conversion is straightforward: 1 brick = 1 GtCO2eq, or Gigatonne carbon dioxide equivalent. In 2014, the last year where I could find data allocating all greenhouse gas emissions (including methane and nitrous oxides) by source, the total emissions were 47 GtCO2eq (via https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions …). I felt allocation by activity of emissions was more relevant to the children than allocation by type of emissions (CO2, CH4, NOx, …), so I kept to that. Total emissions are now closer to 50 GtCO2eq, so 3 more bricks in just 4 years, but I don’t have exact numbers for all sources. I am happy to share my back-of-envelope allocation spreadsheet and the underlying data it came from. The allocation by activity is as follows:

  • 20 red bricks: electricity & heat;
  • 9 yellow bricks: transport;
  • 8 green bricks: industry;
  • 6 brown bricks: agriculture;
  • 4 blue bricks: residential.

Note: that this allocation far from perfect since electricity is used in industry & everywhere else. I showed the kids the lego stacks & stickers representing the emissions activity, and asked them to guess which was which? And stuck them on to each stack.

Emission stacks with sticker of each corresponding sector of emissions activity.

Then I stacked them up one on top of each other (shown next to real scale child!). They were impressed by the stacking! Good! Then the stack fell down! Even more impressive! (Kids are always pleased with grown-up lack of lego skills.)

Big stack of global emissions!

Part 2: Cumulative Impacts

This part worked so well and so fast, I can’t believe we as a science community have ever had a hard time explaining cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions. I can’t recommend this demonstration too much.

Props? one old beat up globe and a scarf.

I tell the children the warming emissions are like an invisible blanket in the air around the Earth. Every year we emit the warming gases is like wrapping another layer of blanket around our planet.

Prop: 1 beat up old globe (thanks mom!)
When we emit greenhouse gases into the air, we are wrapping the Earth in an invisible blanket.
Every year, the Earth is getting warmer and warmer, because the invisible blanket layers are getting heavier and heavier. It’s very uncomfortable and the Earth can’t shake the heavy blankets off.

I explain the planet is getting too warm, like the children would be if their parents kept adding and adding blankets on them, and they couldn’t shake them off. They. Get. It. Cumulative warming = explained to 4–7 year olds. My mission here is accomplished!

Part 3: Impacts

This part took the longest to prepare. I made a big flat cardboard planet, with removable polar ice caps! And lots of possible impacts as stickers. This lesson is brought to you by removable double-sided sticky tape. That stuff is the bomb.

Flat cardboard planet, showing all continents (projection). Polar ice caps are removable (sob).

The impact stickers (laminated print-outs with double-sided sticky tape) are shown below. Clockwise from top left:

  • drought;
  • storm (hurricane, tornado, cyclone …);
  • heavy rains;
  • glacier receding (especially important for Swiss children — but also for South Asia obviously);
  • flood (sea or land);
  • extinct land-based species (need many more of these, sob);
  • extinct sea-based species (coral reefs in this case);
  • deforestation or forest being harmed by climate;
  • Center: fires (not-so-fun note: that image was called “Camp fire”).

Missing? Heat waves, ocean acidification, many other species extinctions, disease spread … this could obviously be more thoroughly prepared. The World Resources Institute summary of 1.5 degree warming impacts vs 2 degrees could help here.

Images of impacts to stick on the map.

Then I asked them what warming the Earth would do. During the discussion, they came up with most of the impacts on their own. As they mentioned the impacts, I stuck them on the globe at appropriate locations, discussing where they had been happening recently. They mentioned extinctions a lot. I should have had many more of those stickers. I ended up putting a sticker with panda bears & rhinos up at the North Pole because they all mentioned polar bears. Whoops.

Impact stickers placed on the map of the Earth at appropriate locations.

We placed the impact stickers all over the planet (and also removed ice caps). Note the fires over the UK, the storms in Mozambique. This is the part that caused me to break down in tears at 2am when I was trying it out the night before. Not a part of the goddamn planet untouched. Oog. Poor kids.

Note that this cardboard planet could also be used to discuss tipping points and their probability at different levels of warming, as per this figure. Original source here.

Tipping points & their likely temperatures from Steffen et al 2018, PNAS.

Part 4: Action

Just a note: this part is not optional. You cannot leave a classroom full of children and their teacher(s) facing planetary breakdown and not give them something they can do about it. I don’t care how small or young they are. I don’t care if it’s considered “political.” Just leaving them with scientific facts of horror, without going into their potential to act against this horror through civic action, would in my view be really harmful to their mental health. And remember that you can’t leave it at individual action. Collective action is what matters most, and kids are great at this.

Good production & consumption.

First we figured out what needs to change in production & consumption systems. I made a good & bad column on the black board, and, you guessed it, stuck pictures on each side. Lots of discussion & excitement. This part was mostly fun.

Bad production & consumption. Should probably have included pictures of fossil fuels.

And then we got to the civics part. I explained we needed to make these changes before they grow up, before they can vote. So they have the right to demand these big changes of their grown-ups: teachers, parents, politicians, all of us. I said they could write letters (for the 6–7 year olds). I didn’t have a structured activity in mind here for the 4–5 year olds, since I taught them with 5 minutes notice, but would probably have opted for drawings of what they want and don’t want to share with politicians and community leaders. I handed out superhero masks to color in, saying they could be planetary superheroes, because that’s what we all have to be now.

Letters from the children.

Thoughts on future iterations & improvements

Things I would consider more carefully in the future (aside the “more stickers of endangered animals” type changes I already mentioned above):

  1. Electricity is a HUGE source of emissions, but it doesn’t have to be. So making a bigger distinction between clean and dirty electricity is important. This was especially confusing for Swiss children (where I gave this class) since Swiss electricity is basically carbon-free already. So that part has to be done more carefully, and possibly deserves its own segment.
  2. I wish I had better allocations of all greenhouse gases to core activities relevant to children, like in the house, in shopping, in food, in transport. I also wish there were more clarity on the importance of reducing consumption overall, and how that can be done while maintaining or improving both jobs (for them in the future, and their parents now) and well-being.
  3. We didn’t discuss global vs national vs personal emissions levels. That might have been quite good in some ways? Would have to be part of a longer lesson series, with good visualization.

Other climate teaching resources, sort of random

This is not a systematic list, but resources I have been made aware of in the past few months. Please feel free to add in replies!

Junior & high school level

Dr Genevieve Guenther wrote a great “Climate Change for High Schoolers” resource.

I gave a talk to high school, junior high-school and non-specialist university students: English and French (longer) slides are free to download and use. They include links to the original sources in the comments.

French teaching dossier here (pdf), courtesy of Jean-Pascal van Ypersele’s team.

Training

UN Climate Change Learn Teachers Academy is trying to train teachers to be climate, and aims to train one lead climate teacher per UK school: https://www.unccteacheracademy.com/

The amazing Meryl Batchelder wrote a lovely blog about how to think through teaching about climate and sustainable development. Follow her on twitter!

Aggregated resources

#TeachersAgainstClimateBreakdown has a lovely webpage which I believe one can add to.

Julia Steinberger

Written by

Immigrant, Swiss-American ecological economist at the University of Leeds. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.

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