How to Talk With Kids About Climate Change
How do you teach kids about the climate crisis without scaring them?
It may not be the “birds and the bees” talk you were anticipating having with your kids. But the truth is, the birds and bees are dying, and children aren’t oblivious to the adverse effects of climate change.
We know it sounds dark and gloomy, and as a trusted adult, you want to protect children from fear and sadness. However, research has shown that most kids are not only aware of climate change, but are anxious about it.1 Parents, teachers, family members and caregivers are the most trusted source of information for children, so they need to hear about climate change from you.
Why It’s Important to Talk to Kids About Climate Change
In 2021 alone, the U.S. saw an outrageous amount of severe weather events — a deep freeze in Texas, a heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, flooding in New York and a continuation of wildfires in California. One study estimates that today’s 6-year-olds will live through, on average, three times the number of climate disasters as their grandparents throughout their lifetimes.2
Climate change is an easy topic to shy away from because it’s scary even for most adults to grasp. But children are going to hear about climate change, either from their friends or in the media. And while 80% of U.S. parents support teaching climate change in schools, a poll found that less than 45% of teachers have it in their curriculum.3
Nashville elementary school teacher Sophia Krysa, M. Ed, told EcoWatch she incorporates climate change and sustainability teachings into her second-grade classroom. Krysa said talking to kids about climate change is not only beneficial for reducing disinformation or distrust in science, but it also gets your kids thinking about how to make more eco-conscious decisions that may slow the rate of climate change.
“We all know that kids are the future, but if we never talk with them and show them what that future could look like, then they’ll never know what they can do and what they’re capable of,” Krysa said.
How to Talk to Kids About Climate Change
Climate change is a contentious topic as is, but there are even bigger feelings when it comes to teaching children about it.
Most of us can agree that it’s probably not a good idea to tell a 4-year-old that an alarming number of birds are nearing extinction, or that we’re doomed if things don’t change. Still, we can teach awareness and empower children to make a difference without overwhelming them.
Here’s some advice on how to best approach the topic of climate change by age:
Young Children (Ages 0-5)
Some experts advise against getting into climate change specifics with young children, while others think it’s best to start as early as you can. It depends on what you feel comfortable with as a mentor and how well you think the child will be able to handle the information.
Krysa says one of the best things you can do with younger children is incorporate sustainability teachings into play.
“Play is very powerful for our littles. It could be something as simple as a timed recycling game or cleaning and making art from discarded craft materials,” Krysa said. “Showing kids the power of sustainability in a gamified way will ensure that the values stick while the kids have fun.”
Krysa also recommends teaching simple lessons to young ones and says something as small as pointing out an electric vehicle and explaining how it works can go a long way.
Another expert tip — get outside! Unfortunately, the average American child only spends about four to seven minutes a day playing outside and over seven hours in front of a screen.4 Spending time outside has numerous benefits for kids, but research shows that the best way to connect young people to a lifelong concern for nature and wildlife is through regular, positive outdoor experiences.5
For outdoor lesson ideas, check out this guide from Forest Holidays.
School-Age Children (Ages 6-11)
Once children enter school, they’re able to better grasp the science behind climate change and why it’s happening. NASA scientists have created a wonderful guide to climate change for kids that simplifies what it is, how scientists track it and what we can do to help.
Krysa said at this age, it’s not just important to talk to kids about climate change, but to demonstrate actionable ways to combat it.
“People never think about how young kids repeat what they see,” Krysa said. “As adults, it’s our job to show kids how to live ethically so they can carry that on.”
At home, you can start as simple as teaching your kids to turn off lights or the TV when they leave the room or encourage them to take shorter showers — maybe turn it into a contest to see who can be quickest!
If you have the means to, Krysa suggests getting kids involved in sustainable activities, like backyard gardening, composting or recycling. Krysa said giving your kids fun “jobs” is another great way to let them learn the responsibility of taking care of the planet — whether at home or in the classroom.
“Make a student the ‘recycling monitor’ and you’ll quickly watch your entire class get invested in separating the trash,” Krysa said of her own classroom experience.
For teachers who want to take it to the next step, see if you can get your classroom to come up with a sustainability initiative.
“Sadly, many schools don’t have recycling programs. Any age class can do a study on where their school could do better,” Krysa said. “You can even incorporate reading and writing lessons by doing research and writing an opinion letter or action proposal to your principal or superintendent.”
Preteens (Ages 12-14)
Don’t think preteens can make a big difference? Think again.
Anya Schoolman, founder of solar advocacy group Solar United Neighbors (SUN), told EcoWatch the idea for SUN essentially started with two 12-year-old boys. Schoolman’s son Walter and his friend Diego watched The Inconvenient Truth in 2007 and decided they wanted to install solar panels on their homes to help fight climate change.
“They came back sort of fired up and ready to take action,” Schoolman said. “They were like, ‘We got to do something ourselves and we can’t wait for others.’”
SUN has since grown into a powerful nonprofit that’s helped thousands of people go solar across 12 states. All that to say, media certainly has a way of getting people fired up — even your preteens.
Don’t be afraid to share interesting climate change news articles or videos with your kid and discuss different actions you can take as a family. Encourage them to ask questions and seek out answers together.
Krysa recommends teachers create a weekly “eco-spotlight,” during which they take five minutes in the morning one day a week for students to share and teach each other about current environmental news.
She also encourages teachers and parents to seek out green initiative programs. Through these, local experts can visit classrooms to teach students about eco-friendly practices at no cost. For example, Nashville has the Urban Green Lab.
Teens (Ages 15-18)
At this age, chances are curious teens are going to be diving into far more research and problem-solving efforts on their own, but that doesn’t mean your job is over.
While media is a helpful tool, it also poses the risk of getting bogged down with negative climate change stories. If your teen is struggling with climate anxiety, brainstorm ways you can make a difference together. Maybe you become solar advocates or transform your lawn into an eco-friendly oasis.
Be sure you’re having conversations about all of the people out there making a difference, too — maybe even those closer to their age, like Greta Thunberg. Focusing on the good news and solutions is a great way to reassure your teens that it’s not all doom and gloom.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to let your kids teach you about climate change. At this age, your kids might be learning more about fossil fuels and species extinction than you are. If they confront you over an area where you may be lacking, experts suggest taking a step back, listening and staying open to solutions and compromises.6
Educational Resources About Climate Change for Kids
The best thing about teaching your kids about climate change is that you don’t have to do it on your own. Several great resources tackle this mighty topic in a way that’s suited for kids of all ages. Here are a few of our favorites:
- NASA’s Climate Kids
- Climate Change Lessons: JPL Education
- Climate Literacy & Energy Awareness Network
- U.S. Department of Energy Education Resources
- Guide to Managing Climate Anxiety
Kristina Zagame is a journalist and content writer with expertise in solar and other energy-related topics. Before joining EcoWatch, Kristina was a TV news reporter and producer, covering a wide variety of topics including West Coast wildfires and hurricane relief efforts. Kristina’s reporting has taken her all over the U.S., as well as to Puerto Rico and Chile.