“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.