On the way home from school last week, my daughter told me she’d learned about climate change in her classroom for Earth Week. She and her twin brother are in kindergarten, and because I work on climate change professionally, I’ve been talking with them about it at home for a few years.
In truth, I was a little nervous to hear about my daughter’s climate change experience in the classroom. Several summers ago, I took an online class on teaching climate change to elementary, middle, and high school students from a major national curriculum provider. I’m not a teacher, but I was curious about how my kids might someday be learning about climate change. While the scientific content of the curriculum was sound, I was shocked by the absence of emotional intelligence in the material presented. There was no acknowledgement in any part of the program that climate change might be difficult to learn about, or that it might spark emotions like fear, anxiety, or sadness. I felt frightened and sad throughout the online classroom experience that summer. I couldn’t imagine how these curricula might make young children feel.
Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, it’s hard to know how to talk about climate change with children so young. We instinctively want to protect our children from the horrors of the world, but we also want to prepare them for the world. It’s a difficult balance, especially in the absence of solid research to guide these painful conversations. While there’s a growing body of evidence detailing the impact of climate change on the mental health of older youth, there has been little research on how children as young as my own think and feel about climate change. The lack of research has limited educators’ ability to develop evidence-based climate curriculum for children. Parents need more evidence-based guidelines for talking to our children about climate change, too.
A research team at Cornell is studying how 5, 6, and 7-year-olds think and feel about climate change for exactly these reasons. In order to develop emotionally intelligent, age-appropriate curricula and conversation guidelines, we need to understand how younger children are conceptualizing climate change. If you have a child in this age group, you can participate in this research. The Cornell team is currently enrolling children ages 5, 6, and 7 to have 20-minute conversations about climate change, and you can sign up for one of these sessions here. I participated in the study with both of my twins. We found it to be an engaging, interactive experience, and the research team sent each child a book as a thank you for taking part.
Thankfully, my daughter’s classroom teachers are exceptionally compassionate. Per my daughter’s account, they talked about climate change in a way that was more empowering than frightening. She’s lucky, but my own experience with climate curriculum suggests that many kids may be hearing about climate change in the classroom in ways that are far from ideal. Cornell’s research is an important step forward in helping both teachers and parents learn best practices for talking to our younger children about climate change. These may be some of the most important conversations we’ll ever have with our kids, and we need all the support we can get to get them right.