It's Time to Start Teaching Kids About Climate Change

The room was bustling with 28 3rd graders diligently working in pairs and practicing their scripts for the “People’s Climate Summit.” The 8- and 9-year-olds were discussing parts, devising props and costumes, and sounding out Bengali words and scientific terms.

“Ms. Shafer, what is a gla-ker?”

Paris, her partner Adrian, and I looked at their script and sounded out the word “glacier” together.

“I remember what a glacier is. That’s what’s melting in the North Pole!” Adrian exclaimed. 

“Exactly, Adrian. But does your character live in the North Pole?”

“No, Nancy Tanaka lives in Oregon,” he responded. We looked at a map of North America. Most of my New Orleanian students hadn’t heard of Oregon before.

“I didn’t know we had glaciers, are they melting here too? Isn’t that bad?” Paris asked.

This was one moment, of many, when I wondered how to answer an 8-year-old. 

When I began brainstorming this unit, the 2015 United Nations Climate Conference in Paris had just ended; I thought about how I could use this significant event as a way to teach my students about climate change. Was this global concern too big and abstract to address with 3rd graders? How could I bring up an issue so complex, so gloom and doom? How could I not? I was concerned about how environmental issues are often taught to young children in a way that is artificially divorced from social concerns, and I felt learning about the pressing issue of climate change could not wait until my students were older. 

I knew my students would have myriad experiences relating to this crucial topic, and that most of their knowledge wasn’t coming from school. In Louisiana, there are pretty clear real-life examples of climate change negatively affecting my students in their own backyard. Changing weather patterns, sea levels, and temperatures influenced the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina; rapid coastal erosion — at the rate of a football field per hour — is compounded by rising sea levels and the continued destruction of wetlands for human use (including for the Gulf Coast oil industry); and “Cancer Alley” is the nearby petrochemical industrial corridor in predominantly poor, African American communities between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. 

While most white and middle-class children attend private schools in New Orleans, my public charter has prioritized creating an institution that reflects the diverse neighborhood around it. With a majority African American and low-income student population, and a full-inclusion model, my school is known as one of the most diverse public charters in the city. I wanted to not just teach what climate change is, but to frame it as a social and environmental justice issue my students could directly relate to and take action to change.

The inspiration for this unit came from Bill Bigelow’s article “Climate Change Mixer” in Rethinking Schools’ A People’s Curriculum for the Earth . In the introductory activity, each student takes on the role of someone affected by climate change and, walking around the room, meets people from the world as they tell their stories based on short autobiographies. I was inspired by the active, yet profound way high school students were learning about the climate crisis and believed my 3rd-grade students could too. I created a unit around a “People’s Climate Summit” in which 3rd graders would present mostly underepresented voices of people around the world in a conference-like group performance. The conference was the culmination of students’ learning about the topic, and led to students taking action around Congress’ upcoming decision to adopt the U.N. agreement.

Setting the Stage

To begin this unit, I showed students a short clip from the U.N. conference panning all of the global leaders as they announced the agreement in various languages. “Hundreds of leaders who live in different places and speak different languages came together to make a decision about something that affects the whole world,” I explained. Animated chatter stirred in the classroom; many students excitedly pointed out President Obama on the screen. “These leaders from around the world had a big decision to make about the whole Earth. But only the leaders from each country were there. Not everyone’s voices were heard,” I told them, setting up a scenario. “It is going to be your job, in the next month, to prepare for our own conference where you will represent regular people from all over the world. This is so important that you’re each going to get to write President Obama and tell him what you think he should do. But first, we need to learn about something called global warming.”

Big Issues, Small Kids

“Who knows what global warming is?” Some students had never heard the term before while others had a lot to share. They referenced pollution from cars and garbage, concerns about endangered species, and changing temperatures at the beach.

During the first half of this unit, I focused on providing the scientific background students needed in order to interact with the larger concepts of climate change (such as the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and phases of matter). These were big, abstract ideas for 3rd graders. The notion that the air around us is composed of different molecules, let alone that this is changing, was hard to grasp. 

“The atmosphere is all around us, it’s the air we breathe. We can’t see it, but without it, humans, animals, and plants couldn’t live on Earth. It’s made up of tiny parts called molecules. Who’s heard of oxygen before?” Lots of hands shot up. “That’s one of the molecules! A really important one that plants breathe in is called carbon dioxide.” I used lots of visuals, including YouTube videos like Climate Change for Kids and Climate Change (according to a kid), to help students understand the science behind global warming. The videos shied away from a lot of scientific vocabulary and instead used animated representations like color-coded cartoon molecules of greenhouse gases to demonstrate how industrial sources are increasing the “blanket” of these molecules around the Earth, trapping heat inside. I used these visuals to build a common vocabulary and a conceptual understanding of the human impact of global warming: We are upsetting a natural balance of the Earth by producing more and more greenhouse gases that keep heat from the sun inside our atmosphere, while cutting down plants that use up carbon dioxide. The result is that our planet is getting warmer, which is causing dangerous changes. I then had students illustrate their own diagrams of global warming as a way to assess their understanding. Most drew pictures of the Earth getting hotter and hotter due to ball-like molecules of carbon dioxide forming a barrier and balls of solar energy bouncing around inside. Once I knew my students had a common foundation, I presented the problem of global warming as both an environmental and social issue. 

“Why is this a problem?” I asked. “Is this a problem just for animals?” 

“No,” Dante piped in. “We’re polluting the air, and people can’t breathe. Sometimes in other countries people have to wear masks because the air is bad to breathe.” This really concerned students, and I could tell it made an impression on them. 

“My mom said Hurricane Katrina happened because of global warming.” So far all of the class examples were about abstract, faraway places, so I was grateful to Janelle for bringing the issue close to home. 

Instead of discussing scientific concepts we hadn’t studied, such as how warmer waters influence air masses and weather patterns, I decided to focus on the connection between the storm surge, rising sea levels, and coastal erosion. So the next day I started with a question: “When ice melts and melts and melts in Antarctica, where does it go?” They were stumped. I tried again. “When an ice cube melts in your soda, what happens?” It gets watery, they agreed. “So when glaciers melt into the ocean what happens to the ocean?”

“There’s more water!” Paris exclaimed.

I used this analogy to help students visualize global rising sea levels and coastal land loss. To illustrate one of the ways climate change is affecting our state, I showed a video from the U.S. Geological Survey showing coastal land loss in Louisiana in fast motion over 50 years. You can literally see peninsulas about two hours from New Orleans shrink to tiny islands. “The land we’re losing in Louisiana is our natural sponge to soak up huge waves from hurricanes before they get to where people live. Now,” I asked the class, “do you think all those global leaders who met in Paris had an important job to do?”

I knew right away that a mixer in which students walk around the room and introduce their characters to each other was too advanced for my class; I needed to create a structure in which I could guide them through the complicated ideas each character would present. Making this into a presentation with an audience could motivate students to take more ownership over their role. So I modified the mixer into a performance modeled after an actual conference.

Adapting the Activity for Elementary School Students

Next, I set about adapting the content. I rewrote each script from Bigelow’s original high school mixer, replacing big words and concepts with more accessible ones. There were a few parts that were just too complex, but I tried to preserve the big ideas as much as possible. For example, part of a Russian oil executive’s write-up (one of the characters who “benefits” from climate change) read, “Already our competitors in Norway — Statoil — are working on project Snow White, which will generate an estimated $70 billion in liquefied natural gas over the next 30 years. I’m not going to sit back and let the Norwegians or anyone else beat me out of this new business opportunity.” I changed this to “A company in Norway is expected to make $70 billion from drilling in their part of the Arctic. It’s not fair for them to be the only ones to make money, I have a business to run!” I understood my students still weren’t going to internalize everything each character talked about, so I planned several ways to scaffold students through these concepts as we went through the preparation and performance. I also adapted the script so two students played one character together. The length was more suitable for 3rd graders and also provided each student a peer helper.

To introduce the activity to the class, we revisited the idea that there were many people around the world whose voices were not heard at the Paris summit. We watched Democracy Now! clips of groups protesting outside the summit, such as Indigenous women from Ecuador and youth leaders from some of the countries most affected by climate change. To really engage students in the importance of their role, I wanted to appeal to their sense of fairness. I used a clip of Kichwa activist Nina Gualinga from Ecuador to get my students thinking about the injustice of only a few making a decision for the whole world:

Indigenous people should be inside the actual negotiations, but we are not. Those who are actually negotiating right now, they might not have to live with the consequences of climate change, but I will. I will have to live with it. My sister, my little brother, and my children, they’re all going to have to live with the consequences of climate change.

The next day I told students we were going to have a people’s climate conference right here at our school and that each of them would be representing a real person’s voice. “Similar to the United Nations Climate Conference that happened in Paris last month,” I read from the PowerPoint I had ready, “all your characters will meet at a conference and hear each different perspective. You will share your character’s experiences of climate change, and hear how other characters feel similarly or different.” I added, “There are also people who think climate change can mean good things for them. Some of you will be representing people in businesses who are making money from letting climate change continue. Is this wrong? You will have to decide what you think by listening to all the voices at the summit.”

I wanted to give my students some context for the people they would be representing and meeting at the conference, so I decided to organize each of the characters by continent. On a slide of each continent I highlighted the location of each country. I then paired the maps of country locations with pictures of people (I tried to include non-stereotypical pictures of children) from that nation. After showing the pictures, I addressed issues of cultural representation in our performance.

“Your characters are based off of real people whose voices weren’t heard at the conference in Paris. One way we’re going to respect their voices is by not making up things about them we don’t know,” I instructed. “No one is going to use accents in their performances, OK? Because we don’t know what the real people sound like, it’s not respectful to guess.” 

By the time we’d gone through the slideshow, viewing where each character was from, the students were hooked and couldn’t wait to get their parts. I passed out the role descriptions I had purposefully assigned to each pair considering students’ interests and strengths. Some scripts were even designed with a specific student in mind. For example, one might have simpler vocabulary for a student who was learning English as a second language, or a short passage for a student with autism to recite with prompts. I started to circulate, checking for conceptual understandings particular to each reading.

I also encouraged students to think of props they might bring to help illustrate something about their character. I used “clues from the text” to steer most students toward props like a basket of apples for Oregon farmers.

The People’s Climate Conference

We spent three days preparing for the performances. Students were more engaged than I had anticipated. Joseph, for example, one of my most struggling readers, came back after the weekend and had memorized his whole script, proudly reciting the Bengali river names he practiced. “I am the mayor of Antapara, a village in Bangladesh,” he proclaimed. “Antapara is on the Brahmaputra River that flows from the Himalaya Mountains in India.” Matthew was bursting to share the research he had done at home about the Ecuadorian Amazon, “I saw pictures of just dirt and mud where there used to be rainforest and homes, and those trees made the air cleaner too.” Students worked with their partners to research and make the flag of their country, which, stapled to a straw, they stuck into Play-Doh on the music stand I fashioned as a podium for their presentations. 

On performance day, our classroom was transformed into a conference room, with the chairs in rows facing the four-desk panel and podium. Performers were called up by their region, and sat at the desks facing the audience until it was their turn to speak. I projected the slideshow in the background, to help visually orient audience members to where we were in the world. As students performed, I wrote new keywords or significant phrases from their speeches on the whiteboard to help guide our debrief, and aid struggling students identify the big ideas on their guided notes handout. 

When they were part of the audience, each student had a scavenger hunt handout on their clipboard that was also adapted from A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. This was to help students organize the overload of information from these presentations into a recognizable, game-like framework. Students were asked to identify someone who is affected by climate change in a different way from their character or someone whose life will change because of climate change. Following each performer, I gave students a few minutes to finish scribbling down ideas or reading over what I wrote on the board. Then I asked volunteers to share one of the “find someone who” questions they answered and used this as a jumping-off point for a dialogue about the effects of climate change. 

Matthew and Jaelyn represented Moi Enomenga, a Huaorani leader from Eastern Ecuador: “We say, ‘leave the oil in the ground.’ Oil kills the Huaorani through pollution and kills everyone through global warming. Why do rich companies come here? People from the richest and most crowded countries come here to take our resources.” 

I wrote phrases on the board from their speech such as “spilled millions of gallons of oil,” “toxic rivers and streams,” and “oil burned to make energy.” Then I provided background information about oil extraction, describing the process of drilling and transporting oil across oceans to refineries. Paris made a connection to several oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and a barge spill on the Mississippi in New Orleans. “The air smelled so bad,” she said. Students responded to Enomenga’s statements about rich countries exploiting poor countries. “They don’t even want the oil!” Matthew exclaimed. “But getting it ruins their homes and poisons their water, and then they don’t get any money. It’s not fair.”

We talked briefly after each performance, but I saved a lot of the conversations for the next few days. The purpose of the debrief was to unpack what students learned from the conference using their handouts and my notes on the board. It was an informal conversation in which I used students’ questions and comments to draw a global picture of the climate crisis and the responses to it. I also explained some concepts I could tell were not understood during the performances, such as the new possibility of drilling in the Arctic or the processes of extracting, transporting, and storing fossil fuels and uranium.

Elementary Students Take Action

One performance discussed at length during our debrief was about Tuvalu. Aaron and Janelle, playing the prime minister of Tuvalu, shared that there will be no more Tuvalu in 20 years. “How can anyone say that people in Tuvalu should suffer so that people on higher land can continue to fill our atmosphere with carbon dioxide by driving their big cars and buying stuff made halfway around the world?” Janelle implored. “This is sick.” 

These words really stuck out to the class, and they referred over and over again to the disappearance of this Pacific island because of the choices of rich countries to not curb fossil fuel consumption. 

I used this as an opportunity to talk about the institutional versus individual changes that curbing climate change would require because I wanted to make sure my students left this unit with a bigger picture. I steered the solutions we discussed to focus on larger systems such as governments holding polluters accountable, and whole countries curbing emissions. “It’s important that we make sure we turn off the lights when we don’t need them, or that we use fewer plastic water bottles. But that’s not enough to help Tuvalu,” I told them. “Prime Minister Sopoaga knows that it’s companies that pull the oil out of the ground, or use energy in huge amounts that can make a big difference. Moi Enomenga knows that some of these American businesses go to other countries like Ecuador and damage his communities to get materials to sell, while they stay poor. But we can speak up and speak out like your characters, and tell these companies to change or tell the government to make them change.” 

The empathy that came from embodying characters whose voices were marginalized led to outrage and a sense of purpose. At this point, one of my students suggested that the biggest polluters — China and the United States — should be paying the people of Tuvalu when they have to move. I also shared videos of local environmental justice activists fighting oil refineries in mostly rural, poor, Black neighborhoods of Louisiana. 

This unit illustrates my constant struggle with how to present and discuss complex issues with young kids, particularly because there is no easy solution for something like climate change. I wanted to discuss a relevant issue without reinforcing a feeling of helplessness. When dealing with such issues with elementary students, I tend to focus on education as the way students can take action because this can take the form of many age-appropriate activities like writing, performing, and/or creating a school-wide campaign. I emphasized the agency of “ordinary people” by making the conference a people’s climate summit and empowering them to feel that all of us can use our voices to make change.

We ended the unit analyzing the Paris Climate Conference agreement and writing letters to President Obama. We used modified versions of a DOGO News article and an IndyKids article written by a 10-year-old to break down how the agreement sets out commitments to prevent global temperatures from rising past the two degrees Celsius threshold. The whole class was adamant that climate change was a pressing issue that our government needed to address. However, the group was divided about whether this agreement should be adopted. Some students thought it was a good goal. Others thought that because there weren’t penalties for breaking the rules, it didn’t hold polluters accountable. 

Jewel wrote, “Dear President Obama, I think you and the U.S. government should not adopt the U.N. Climate Conference agreement because I don’t think it will help. I think this because I’m very concerned about global warming because 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases come from the United States. . . . When people signed they could raise the limit. And nothing or nobody is making them live up to their goal.” 

Dante referenced the institutional equity issues we discussed: “(Kenya) is not even polluting that much, and they’re experiencing the worst effects. A woman named Wangari Maathai works in the Green Belt Movement and this is what she said: ‘Wealthy countries who are polluting more should raise money for the ultimate victims of the crisis: the poor people of the world.’ I agree with that! And I know that you might say that you are donating money to poor countries. But that’s poor countries, not poor people.”   

I reflected on the unit after it was over and decided there were parts that worked well and parts I would do differently on the next go-around. I would have liked my students to be able to do more research about the countries and cultures they were representing, and less of me presenting. Also, our post-conference discussions were so rich that I would have liked more time with them and less time presenting background scientific information.

Climate change will undoubtedly be a pressing issue throughout my students’ lifetimes.  Now, more than ever, I strongly believe that we can — and must — trust in young people’s abilities to grapple with issues that impact them. My hope is that through exploring the scientific and social impacts of climate change early in their education, we can better prepare students to face the challenges of their world.


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