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Story | 06/10/2021 05:59:07

How do we teach the next generation to understand the complexities of climate change?

Determining how to suitably educate the next generation in the fight against climate change without overwhelming them is a complex task, but one that cannot be overlooked.

“Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago,” declared Greta Thunberg in a speech made at the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference. Her call for action has been echoed by millions of youngsters around the world, with many taking to the streets and calling for greater action on climate change.

Their numbers are only growing. Faced with overwhelming evidence in the form of melting ice caps, extreme weather, drought and forest fires, the younger generation is emerging as a powerful voice in helping shape climate policy globally. 

This has, in turn, led to educators seeking new ways to nurture and support the schooling of children and teens in this vital subject. And one of the first steps, experts say, is to ensure that more youngsters are able to understand and tackle this complex situation, without being overwhelmed by anxiety and a sense of hopelessness.

Equipping children to grasp the realities

“In the broader context of climate education, we can’t be afraid of big and scary feelings when we’re teaching or parenting even young children because it’s a major developmental step,” begins Anya Kamenetz, a US-based author and education correspondent at National Public Radio, NPR.

The mother of two goes on to add, “Decades ago, the idea was to protect children from the pain of the world but it’s often easier for kids to grasp the reality because they haven’t been taught to have certain feelings about it. It also applies when talking about racial injustice or death.”

She believes that the elephant in the room for parents is climate anxiety and climate grief, both of which can lead to guilty feelings and a sense of grief that are inconducive to a constructive conversation. “Nothing is going to change if parents don’t acknowledge the fact that we have this uncertain world, but we will do our best to make it better for our kids.”

In a 2019 NPR article, Kamenetz offered tips on how to talk to kids about climate change, the first of which is to break the silence. “Children are fascinated by the natural world. When they are very young is the time to start slipping in the notion that our planet’s changing and we don’t fully understand the total nature of those changes,” she advises.

For example, preschool education could easily focus on the differences between climate and weather, as well as other tangible environmental topics like biodiversity, water conservation, waste reduction and how to use natural resources, such as forests.

Teachers are the key to success

More must be done to improve the inclusion of environmental education in primary and secondary schools, as well as in higher education. While role models can have a positive effect on attitudes and actions, skilful teachers are the key to success, says Professor Maija Aksela.

A teacher can affect about 100 years: first through their teaching and then through their students.
Maija Aksela

“Qualitative teacher education in the context of climate change is important,” says Aksela, head of the LUMA Centre at University of Helsinki.

There is not only a lack of initiatives that offer professional development for teachers to support them in teaching climate change, but if a national curriculum does not include the subject, then teachers can lack the motivation to get involved.

Curriculums should endeavour to provide students with more opportunities to find answers through teacher-guided inquiry and supported systems thinking. By addressing their questions holistically, it offers an understanding of the multifaceted nature of climate change and enhance their skills in systems thinking, stated Aksela in a report she co-wrote.

She adds that the most effective approaches have been student-centred in which ‘future makers’ co-design climate change teaching and actions with teachers, scientists and other specialists. “The more we listen to the questions and interests of youth and give opportunities to find solutions, the better. The more we can promote scientific literacy for all, the better,” she believes.

Collaboration is the way forward

While developing collaboration between students and teachers is essential, there is also an important role for companies to play in supporting the next generation in their fight for a better future.

“Climate change and environmental degradation pose significant challenges to economic growth and employment today, and risks will be greater in the medium-to long-term,” predicts the International Labour Organization. They add that transitioning to a low-carbon, greener economy could create new jobs in sustainable production processes and outputs.

By contributing to discussions about solutions and alternatives, companies can also offer the next generation the sustainable choices they demand via initiatives like the circular economy, as well as establishing a dialogue between young people, experts and policy makers, just as UPM is currently doing with the Guides and Scouts of Finland.

Last year, a new two-year partnership was signed that will include several joint projects, including events and social media campaigns. The scouts will also be provided with material derived from renewable resources to utilise in scout camps and their events.

The State Association of Forest Kindergartens in Bavaria – or Landesverband der Wald- und Naturkindergärten in Bayern e.V in its native German – is another UPM collaboration.

Founded in 1999, the association offers advice and support to municipalities planning to establish a forest kindergarten, including scientific, legal and educational support. As physical and emotional experiences improve cognition, communication, compassion, imagination, persistence and creativity, the association supports the development of children through direct interaction with nature.  

Collaboration, constructive discussion and asking the difficult questions are the foundation from which children and teens can prepare to take over the task of saving the world. As Thunberg said, it is time for them to take on that responsibility.

Text: Asa Butcher