How to talk to young children about the climate emergency

Talking to children about climate emergency
Talking to children about climate emergency. Photo by pxfuel ( CC BY 2.0)

There’s so much climate emergency news these days that children may be frightened and anxious about their future. This is not irrational so we shouldn’t dismiss it. They need to know the facts but also feel optimistic about life. We can help them understand it and develop a proactive attitude. Their natural helpfulness means they’ll want to do something.

Explaining the climate emergency to young children 

Keep it simple; explain that the world is always changing, in positive or negative ways. Tell them about your childhood when perhaps there were no personal computers or mobile phones. Older relatives may describe positive changes during their lives such as new medicines to prevent diseases. Children also need to know that humans have had negative impacts on the planet, but that we can still make good changes and lessen these effects. Tell them there are many adults and young people already involved in this challenge.

Sources of factual information about the climate emergency

There is an array of information and relevant activities to support parents.

  • Many books, both non-fiction and fiction, have been produced to help young people understand the subject and show ways to improve the situation.
  • There are websites which explain the science simply, like National Geographic and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
  • High quality films can help develop a fascination for the natural world and empathy for wild creatures, like March of the Penguins. (If your child is sensitive, be aware there are sad scenes of penguins freezing or being hunted.)
  • The BBC site, BBC Earth, has an excellent Kids section with links to wildlife shows such as Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60, and the best BBC nature documentaries including those by David Attenborough.
  • There are some charming interviews where Attenborough talks to children and answers their climate change questions.
  • The WWF recommends the Seek app for identifying plants, insects, fungi, birds and animals.

Help children develop a love of nature

Parents and carers can help children appreciate nature from a young age. The more they engage with it, the more they will like it. Wildlife can be seen anywhere: in the woods, the garden, the park or at the seaside. The East Anglian Wildlife Trusts offer many opportunities for fun family activities. You could also:

The National Trust have 50 great ideas for free outdoor activities. Why not see how many you can do? Or try some of The Wildlife Trusts’ 30 Random Acts of Wildness. What child wouldn’t want to make a grass trumpet, follow a bee or hug a tree? You don’t need money to have fun!

Help children understand their responsibility for their planet

By being aware of wildlife, children will start to recognise that we share the planet with other species, and have some responsibility for their survival. There is lots to learn about wildlife in East Anglia and what threatens it. Many youngsters have a natural affinity with animals and know we shouldn’t harm them. For example, they appreciate anti-littering messages if linked with learning how litter can hurt wild creatures, for example the seals on Horsey Beach.

Practical eco-friendly actions for families

There are many positive actions you can take at home which children will understand. For example, they may decide for themselves to reject plastic items when they witness the harm that plastic does. Explain how we use a plastic bottle for one day, but it can remain uselessly on Earth for centuries. Contrast this with how nature disposes of living things naturally at the end of their lives. Give children responsibility for sorting the recycling. This website shows how everything can be recycled. Here are craft ideas for toys made of junk.

Instead of driving, enjoy walking short distances with your children. This way you can give them your full attention, and look at what they spot. If you can, walk to school. This develops a greater awareness of traffic’s negative impact. Your family may also wish to start cycling.

Family gardening
Family Gardening. Photo by derrypubliclibrary via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Talking about sustainable food

Learn about modern farming methods and food, and their environmental impact. Talk about the possibility of eating less meat, the reasons why this may be important and ways to achieve it. Find out about about the ‘food miles’ of what you eat and agree to try and buy fruit and vegetables grown closer to home and in season. Point out how having strawberries at Christmas from the other side of the world uses fossil fuels, which is bad for the environment. It’s relatively easy to grow vegetables. You won’t become self-sufficient but it develops awareness of where food comes from and it’s fun. Young gardeners won’t want to waste what they’ve put effort into growing, so you are introducing the idea that food is valuable.

There is much to be hopeful about

There are many good news stories, like the reintroduction of lost species, for example sea eagles in Norfolk, cranes in Suffolk, or beavers in Essex. The next generation will have to be more aware than we were, and prioritise environmental issues. We can sow the seeds of this by helping them value the natural world. Contact with nature and the environment is proven to be good for children’s physical and mental health. Just being outdoors reduces anxiety and by bringing children closer to nature, they’ll want to preserve it.

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