For anyone reading this, a brief Public Service Announcement: I have not been providing lots of references or links in these essays so far. I will remedy that over the next week, by adding a “Climate Education References Starter Kit” in the Library. It’ll be a document that will grow over time, and will wherever possible include links to freely available resources. When I upload it, and when I update it , I’ll post a brief note here on Amor vincat.
I’d like to outline strategies for teaching young children about climate change — up to or into middle school, depending on the child. At this stage, there are two primary goals for you to keep in mind: Young children at this age are establishing the foundations for hope and for positive (loving) response to their world. These are essential if children are to have the resilience and love that drive courage, hope, persistence, and imagination in the face of crisis or paradox. Anxiety is NOT productive at this age (well, probably never, but we should not be teaching fear to the young)!
Now, I realize that these two goals are generic, and that is part of the point. During these years, children are learning to learn, learning to care, and learning how to turn a wish to do something into the thing done. “Care” here does not mean “feeling positive,” but “taking care of” — moving from feeling to constructive act, based on the experience of being taken care of, and watching people take care of each other. This is precious work, as personalities are taking shape!
With this preliminary, I will group my recommendations for this age around two words: “earth” and “care.” I am flirting with “earth care” intentionally, because I want to emphasize that “care for the earth” is rooted at this age in “caring” in general, and the earth becomes a recipient of this caring as the child comes to know it personally.
Earth. So let’s start with “earth.” Remember that kids at this age don’t have lots of experience, and American kids in particular have remarkably little direct encounter with the non-human world. The key here is knowing (and enjoying) the great cycles of the year, and how the lives of organisms (animals including invertebrates, but also plants). This starts by noticing, and giving value to such things. Kids take cues from the adults in their lives, so if the adults pay attention to weather, the seasons, and the lives of creatures, children will get the message that this noticing and knowing is part of how one is a human being.
Your work may lie in two areas: First, in making the noticing a daily habit. If you are not a noticer of nature, start right now! Second, you may not be well acquainted with the clouds, phases of the moon, birds, plants, etc. Encyclopedic knowledge is not necessary! Just make it a habit to notice, to ask questions, and to seek answers.
Remember, too, that for younger children, simpler is better. Long mechanistic explanations about the reasons for the seasons, or biochemistry, or whatever, are not needed. As with other big topics like sex, death, and politics, children mostly need enough to get on with, and they are not yet at the stage of building big theoretical models of How It All Works. Remember, too, that story is at the basis of human cognition and all other explaining, including science. This doesn’t mean fiction, necessary, or fable (though these are not bad resources!!) It just means being able to talk about how a creature gets through its day or year.
So cultivate conversations and simple explorations that address fundamentals like “What’s the moon doing tonight? Clouds’ re coming in, wonder if it’s going to rain? Boy, it’s really coming down, I wonder what the squirrels do on a night like this? What color do you think that tree will turn in the fall? Look at all the tiny little bees on that flower!” Simple!! (It also helps to cultivate an attitude of curiosity about things that you may not have a lot of comfort with, like spiders in your house, snakes in the grass, thunder storms, etc.)
Related to such observations are natural narratives about how plants and animals make their livings: “What lives down there, do you think? Do you think those two birds are quarreling, or what? What does this bird do in the winter time? Does anything eat slugs?” These are stories, or the nub of stories, in which you can together build up an account of the lives of other living things on the earth.
Make sure NOT TO SUBSTITUTE VIRTUAL REALITY FOR THE REAL. Videos and museums etc. are all fine, in their place, but the goal is to help the child incorporate their world and its extraordinary diversity (as visible in their own native habitat!) into the child’s sense of identity and belonging. If you watch a nature video, look for ways to ask, “I wonder if that creature lives around here? Do you think it could? Have you ever seen the birds at our bird feeder doing that? Well, I wonder what they do instead….?”
Care. In the first instance, responsible use of resources is an early and basic lesson — not to waste things, to be aware that other people and creatures may be sharing the same resource (space, water, air, sound space, city park, etc.)
A second important lesson is celebration and appreciation of the world, including both human and non human. Some things to do:
• Get to know the neighborhood in all seasons — take walks just to do it, just to see, hear, smell.
• Get to know specific organisms, and learn to love them– pick a flower, a tree, a bird, a toad, and visit (or observe) every day, as you would a family member.
• Make a point of celebrating seasons and other cultural rhythms — solstice and equinox, first flower of spring, first frog call, returning hawks, Easter/Passover, Hallowe’en and harvest, New Year’s and the mid-winter festivals of light. Build in these rhythms, and learn about the times they mark — and use them for more questions about the world.
• Develop simple chores that represent practical caring: you know the sort of thing I mean — planting and weeding a garden or window box; watering indoor plants; picking up trash in the neighborhood; shoveling the sidewalk really well, and talking about how it’ll help someone walk without falling…
All these very simple and obvious recommendations are aimed at helping children notice the world in which they live, and feel that they are citizens of it. Moreover, they should be given the sense that the world works, that animals and plants are going about their business of creating and recreating their own lives, and the landscape on which we live; that there are such things as resources (food, water, air, space, time) which are not endless, and which are shared. Finally, during this time, the children should be helped to develop habits of delight, wonder, and gratitude. These are inexhaustible resources.
I close with a passage from George Elliot which says it all better than I could, and which repays frequent meditation:
A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood. At five years old, mortals are not prepared to be citizens of the world, to be stimulated by abstract nouns, to soar above preference into impartiality; and that prejudice in favor of milk with which we blindly begin, is a type of the way body and soul must get nourished at least for a time. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead. George Eliot: Daniel Deronda