How to Teach Young Children to Preserve Our Planet Without Scaring Them
Melting ice caps. Sick and dying polar bears. Disappearing water supplies. Increasingly frequent and uncontrollable wildfires. Climate change can be overwhelming for adults, and it can be downright scary for kids. Preschools, particularly nature-based ones, have a responsibility to grow the next generation of planetary stewards. However, it can be a challenge to address climate change with young children in a developmentally appropriate manner.
Inspire Instead of Frighten
At worst, well-meaning discussions about the effects of climate change can be overwhelming, paralyzing or scary. In our area, forest fires are indeed something that children are exposed to and learning that they will become more frequent and harder to contain may keep children out of the forest all together. Multiple studies (see references) have shown that fear is not a motivator for adults to address climate change. When adults feel like a problem is too big for their actions to matter, there is no reason to change their behavior. This feeling of powerlessness is certainly not what any teacher wants to instill in young children.
When I attended the Natural Start Alliance’s annual conference in August, a good number of sessions were held at the Hamill Family Play Zoo inside the Brookfield Zoo. The Hamill Family Play Zoo is an area set aside specifically for the under 5 set and their caregivers. Posted on a bathroom stall door was a poster titled, “Mommy, Are Tigers Extinct?” In a few paragraphs the poster explained that while conservation was an important part of the Brookfield Zoo’s mission, the Play Zoo was focused solely on encouraging children to see the wonder and beauty of the natural world.
In my preschool program as well, we do not talk about climate change or its effects, nor do we exhort children to “save the planet.” Most children in the developed world do not tangibly experience the direct effects of global warming and climate change. The information can be incredibly abstract for young children, making it difficult for them to learn anything. Young children learn best from hands on, real life experiences and not from something happening in a “faraway place” or “awhile from now.” By keeping the focus on the beauty and helping children learn to love nature, teachers set a far better foundation for preserving the earth than they would by scaring them.
Focus on the Environment Children Experience First-Hand
The best way to address climate change with young children is to remain focused on the small areas of their world that they can touch and effect. Instead of worrying about an abstract, scary future, we teach children to appreciate and respect the ways in which they are connected to and depend on nature. When we are in the forest, we respect the many habitats of forest creatures. We carefully step around spider webs. We refrain from tracking inorganic substances into the woods. We learn to leave the moss on the trees so that it remains a home for insects and other small creatures.
In the garden, we learn how food is produced, the importance of healthy soil and water, and how we depend on the sun’s energy. We talk about garden helpers, like butterflies, bees, ladybugs and spiders, who protect and pollenate our plants in exchange for their own food and shelter. And when we do need to remove a garden pest, we do so with care.
Throughout the days and years, we teachers nurture children’s instincts to be protectors and help them see their own power to affect their environment. The children are often motivated to create homes for snails or slugs displaced from our garden. I like to lead them through thinking about the creature’s needs – food, shelter, room to move – so that the home they thoughtfully create takes the animal into account rather than being a pile of leaves stacked on top of the animal. When the children wanted to attract bees and butterflies to pollenate our apple tree, I facilitated their research into the types of plants we might want and coached their design of a new butterfly garden at the preschool. Through all of these nature lessons, children learn how to take care of the environment, but in small, tangible ways that relate to their every-day life.
Nurture Children’s Desire to Protect Wildlife
While your program may or may not have a forest to explore or an open space for a large garden, you can certainly find small ways to encourage children to think about how all nature, including humans, rely on the rest of nature being in balance. Help children cultivate indoor plants in the classroom and discover the symbiotic relationships between humans who breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide and plants who do the opposite. Or include an inquiry about how food gets to our tables in a community helpers unit to make explicit the inter-connectedness of many different kinds of people and nature working together to fill an essential need.
The goal in addressing climate change with young children should be to implicitly stress how humans’ interactions with nature, and vice versa, can have large and small effects. Rather than creating children who are afraid of nature’s destruction, we want to create future environmental stewards who know their power to positively affect all life on earth.
References (Studies on Children’s and Adult’s Attitudes to Climate Change)
Aitkin, Christopher, et al. Climate change, powerlessness and the commons dilemma: Assessing New
Zealanders’ preparedness to act. Global Environmental Change, May 2011.
Ojala, Maria. Regulating Worry, Promoting Hope: How Do Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults Cope with Climate Change? International Journal of Environmental and Science Education, October 2012.
Kenis, Analeen, et al. Beyond individual behaviour change: the role of power, knowledge and strategy in tackling climate change. Environmental Education Research, July 2011.