As a science educator, I hope to create more eco-literate students . We want them ready to stir up creative solutions to the many challenges we face on this warming planet. From the threat of rising sea levels to higher rates of asthma, New York City children are at the center of many environmental problems. But how can you get first graders to understand something as big and complex as climate change without having mini meltdowns? A few weeks ago, I dubiously set out to have a conversation about climate change with our six year old after-school kids. Despite my fears of blank stares or horrified reactions, the conversation went extremely well! Here are some lessons I came away with.
How to talk to young kids about climate change:
Personal connections. In the week prior to this climate change talk, Hurricane Sandy passed through New York. The storm caused a huge amount of flooding and damage to Far Rockaway, Coney Island, Red Hook, and Lower Manhattan. Luckily, only a few of our staff and Kid’s Crew kids were directly affected by the flooding, but all of us felt impacted in some way.
Our kids all had stories of how they spent the hours of the storm. One girl described the howling wind outside her window, “I could hear the wind…it was really scary!” Another kid mentioned that he lives near the water and described seeing lots of dead fish on the beach afterwards. We talked about where the water comes from when it floods. I asked them what the water would taste like if they stuck their finger in the Hudson River or Rockaway Beach. “It would be salty!” they shouted. We learned how scary floods can happen when a storm makes the ocean water surge onto land where people live. I explained that something is happening on our planet that makes really strong storms occur more often — climate change.
Start your conversation by asking your students if they’ve ever experienced a strong storm, flood, or power outage. These visceral memories help kids connect to the concepts. Kids should understand that climate change isn’t something that’s coming in the far distant future. It’s happening now and we’re already feeling it’s effects.
Use a kid-friendly book. This is where I turned to the really great Scholastic book Climate Change for help. It puts a scary phenomenon in kid-friendly terms. I asked them if they remembered the animal on the cover of the book. Of course! It’s the mighty polar bear we learned about last week! This book sums up the climate crisis in 40 picture-heavy pages. It even has a picture of a hurricane that looks an awful lot like Sandy.
Get yourself a climate change icon. We had just studied polar bears the week before Sandy so the kids were already invested in the well-being of these gigantic creatures. We did a little review of what they remembered: Polar Bears live in ice dens, they’re good swimmers, and they hunt for seals.
Go outside to explain the greenhouse effect. Before we could get to why climate change matters to the polar bear, the kids needed to understand the greenhouse effect. I explained that climate change is happening because the sun’s heat is getting trapped inside its atmosphere. We were outside on the roof so I had all the kids look up into the sky. I explained that even though we can’t see it, there is stuff up in the sky that won’t let the sun’s heat escape back into space. I asked, “What do you think could be up in the sky?” They came up with air and clouds. So I asked, “What else? Can you think of anything that we burn that goes up into the sky? Have you ever stood behind a bus and seen anything coming out of the back?” They called out “Smoke! Pollution!” I explained that yes, all the smoke and pollution from cars and buildings are creating an invisible blanket in the sky. I had them feel the warmth inside their coats versus the chilly air outside their coats (kids understand coats better than greenhouses). The earth has a big coat of air pollution and it’s trapping in all the heat. So why does the polar bear care that the planet is getting warmer? Because she lives on the ice! I asked them if they remembered what their polar bear ice dens had started to do after sitting in the greenhouse for ten minutes. “They started to melt!”
Play a game. Kids can only take in so much information before they need to get up and moving. After all that talk, it was time to transform into polar bears and go on a hunt for seals. They lined up behind me and I pointed to an “iceberg” on the other side of the roof (hula hoops would make great “icebergs”). We got our strong swimming paws and legs ready and started paddling to the iceberg. When we got there, we feasted on some delicious seals. I explained that summer had arrived and we’d eaten all the seals on this iceberg. “The next iceberg is waaaaayyyy over there! Will we make it?!” We started swimming. This time when were about halfway across the roof and I narrated: “Oh no, we’re so hungry, we’re getting sooo tired, we’re not going to make it!” I had a couple kids feign dramatic polar bear deaths (a favorite natural sciences pantomime) and sink to the bottom of the icy sea! We traveled to a few more icebergs until our polar bear numbers had sufficiently dwindled.
Emphasize that we all share the same planet. Whenever we talk about an animal threatened by an environmental disaster, it’s important to remind the kids that we’re animals too and we all share the same planet and resources! I explained that we’ve lost a lot of polar bears over the past 30 years due to the ice melt. And where does that water go when it melts? Back into the ocean – uh oh, we know from Hurricane Sandy that it is not in our best interest to have higher sea levels! A safer planet for polar bears is a safer planet for us.
Brainstorm solutions. I didn’t want to leave a messages of hopelessness. We ended by brainstorming some ways that we could keep ice from melting and keep stronger storms from occurring How can we stop adding to that pollution blanket in the sky? They came up with a few solutions: “We could walk more places!” “Ride bikes!” and “Stop making so much smoke!”
Six-year-olds get it…why can’t everybody?