Can teaching young children about climate change and sustainability actually motivate climate action?

Shweta Bahri and Keya Lamba, Co-Founders of Earth Warriors, explain how climate education has the potential to lead to a reduction in future carbon emissions. Banner image: Shutterstock/PHILIPIMAGE
Can teaching young children about climate change and sustainability actually motivate climate action?

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Climate change is one of the biggest issues our planet faces, and children will be the most affected by it. In fact, a recent study by Save the Children found that children today will face many more extreme weather events than their grandparents' generation: seven times more heatwaves, three times more river flood and crop failures, and twice as many wildfires. In addition to the physical threat, climate change is taking a huge mental toll and children today are extremely anxious about climate change. A 2021 10-country survey found that 75% of young people think the future is frightening and 60% are extremely worried about climate change.

The good news is recent evidence shows that climate education has the potential to lead to a reduction in future carbon emissions, making it a powerful tool for climate action:

“16% of children receiving climate education…can lead to a 19 gigaton reduction in carbon emissions by 2050”.

To put that in perspective, 19 gigatons is half of the entire world’s carbon emissions in 2019. Climate education has an incredible potential to combat climate change and empower children with solutions and knowledge that will reduce their anxiety. In addition, teachers, parents and students themselves are demanding climate education, According to the Brookings Institute:

“In the U.S., 80 percent of parents (2 out of 3 Republicans and 9 out of 10 Democrats) and in the U.K. 77 percent of adults support teaching climate change in school. Teachers and school administrators are eager to take up the challenge but feel they need more training and relevant learning materials to do so”.

Read more on the Forum Network: The Climate Crisis: An existential threat to children and their rights, by Inger Ashing, CEO, Save the Children International

Yet despite this huge global demand and the groundbreaking evidence cited above, the majority of countries are not adequately responding. Italy is the only country in the world that has made climate education part of its national curriculum at all age-groups. Other countries like the United Kingdom and Mexico have made commitments to do the same but concrete action is still awaited. If we want to ensure a safe future for our children, we must educate them about climate change so that they can grow up with sustainable habits.

There are some that argue that children can be taught about these topics as teenagers but that in their early years they might feel stressed or anxious learning about climate change. From the Earth Warriors Global experience, we have found that teaching these complex topics through play and using a positive, solutions focused approach can allow children to learn about these topics in their early years without creating anxiety. Even the youngest children do not feel anxiety, but rather feel empowered and excited about their role as Earth Warriors to protect the planet.

Earth Warriors teaches young children (3-11 year-olds) about climate change and sustainability in an age-appropriate manner. Why did we decide to start with this age group? Research shows the need to teach children sustainable habits from a young age so they can become citizens that are conscious about planetary health and stewardship as adults (The Lancet, 2020). A study published in March 2020 by the OECD, found that:

"The cognitive and social-emotional skills that children develop in...early years have long-lasting impacts on their later outcomes throughout schooling and adulthood."

The fact is that 90% of brain development happens before five years of age (Harvard Center on the Developing Child), and research shows that learning through play is critical for children’s skill development for the future (The LEGO foundation). At this age, we focus on children building a bond with and love for nature, along with individual behaviour and action, which enables them to engage in systems level change later on.

Read more on the Forum Network: The Importance of Policies Promoting Children’s Outdoor Play, by Mariana Brussoni, Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia

Another important argument for climate education at a young age is evidence that children can successfully nudge their parents’ behaviour as well (The Lancet, 2020). This is backed by many anecdotal examples as well as our experience at Earth Warriors. Teachers have reported that Earth Warrior students are nudging their parents towards more sustainable behaviour themselves at home such as recycling and reducing plastic waste use, which the parents have reported back to the school. As another parent in the United Kingdom told us,

Yes- I’m much more aware of the need to be visible in my actions and choices with my children. And has got me thinking about what measures we can make as a family to live more sustainably e.g. growing more of our own foods”.

It is critical at this point that policymakers take steps that will enable climate education to become the powerful climate action tool that it is and equip the younger generations with the knowledge and skills they need to face the climate challenges that are inevitable in the years ahead. Children in their early years may be small but we truly believe that they can have lasting impact. They need to be taught about Earth’s biggest challenges, so they are equipped with the tools they need to protect our planet. There are 2 billion children on this planet who deserve a better future. 

Read the OECD report Think green: Education and climate change which discusses how education can provide foundational knowledge and skills to identify and resolve environmental challenges, and shape attitudes and behaviours that lead to both individual and collective action.

Related Topics

Child Well-being  Climate  Sustainable Development Goals