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Earth day: Teaching sustainability and climate change for kids

We celebrate Earth Day in our guest post by Professor Helen Bilton from the University of Reading, exploring why it’s so important to teach climate change in schools

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We stand at a critical moment in human history. Faced with a global climate crisis, we must enact change in order to prevent the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. As Earth Day 2022 approaches, we take a look at why teaching climate change and sustainability is so vital. 

We spoke to Talia Fried, Climate & Sustainability Director and Jordan Devon, Digital Campaigns Manager at Global Citizen, an action platform we’ve partnered with to help educate the masses about climate change. They told us:

“Knowing how human impact leads to global warming, natural disasters, and extinction, and consequently poverty, hunger, and significant environmental justice issues, is crucial to comprehending our role and responsibility to act on these issues and participate in the fight against climate change.”

This highlights just how important raising awareness on a day like Earth Day is. To test your current knowledge on climate change, try our ‘Get Climate Smart’ challenge that we created in collaboration with Global Citizen.

As well as exploring what Earth Day is and why it’s important in this article, we also have a guest post from educators at the University of Reading, who discuss how to teach sustainability and climate change topics in primary schools. 

What is Earth Day?

Earth Day is an annual event observed worldwide on April 22 with the aim of raising support for and awareness of environmental protection. Organisers held the first event on April 22, 1970 and it has since grown to reach a global audience. 

An estimated 1 billion people from 193 countries around the world observe the day each year, making it the largest secular observance in the world. The aim is to encourage people to create climate policy change at a national and global level. 

Earth Day 2022

The theme for Earth Day 2022 is ‘invest in our planet’. With this theme, the organisation is hoping to diversify, educate, and activate the environmental movement. Each of us has the ability to invest in our planet, through learning, education, and making changes. Whether it’s reducing your carbon footprint or fundraising for green charities, we all have a say in the future of our planet.   

Why is Earth Day important?

Of course, it’s not just one day. Earth Day helps to raise awareness of climate issues throughout the year. Most scientists agree that we’re at a tipping point when it comes to the environment. Moments and movements such as Earth Day are a good chance to educate others and enact meaningful change. 

This need for change is becoming a trend across industries. As we explored in The Future of Learning Report 2022, people are already considering the environment and sustainability when making decisions about learning and their career. 

For example, 12% of respondents to the report have changed career to join a more environmentally responsible company. Similarly, 1 in 7 people said they join short educational courses to learn about sustainability. 

The need for education about climate issues is apparent, according to Dr Liz Marr, Pro-Vice Chancellor at The Open University: 

“We need to create opportunities for learners to understand what sustainability really means in their discipline. At our university, colleagues are developing the curriculum to give them the chance to do that.”

At present, almost a quarter (23%) of business leaders feel education about the environment is missing from the current school-to-university curriculum. An almost identical (24%) amount of individual respondents agree. Causes such as Earth Day are the perfect opportunity to help to raise awareness about such issues. 

And it’s not just at higher levels of education where this increased visibility of climate issues can make a difference. Below, we have a guest post from Professor Helen Bilton at the University of Reading. They explore how we can start making changes in education to support initiatives such as Earth Day and raise awareness about sustainability and climate change:

Why teach climate change and sustainability in schools? 

Nine out of ten teachers agree climate change education should be compulsory in schools, yet seven out of ten feel ill-equipped to teach it. There is much debate around improving the way climate change and sustainability are taught in schools. Governments, organisations, charities, universities and campaigners around the world are responding. 

For example, UNESCO’s Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development programme has many collaborative initiatives and the UK Department for Education has published its draft strategy to put ‘climate change at the heart of education’. 

My own institution, the University of Reading, has produced a National Climate Education Action plan which sets out nine ways climate education can be immediately improved in collaboration with organisations including the Department for Education, Met Office, Royal Meteorological Society, Office for Climate Education, the EAUC – Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, climate solutions charity Ashden, and young people, including climate youth campaigners.

Whilst these strategies demonstrate the importance of teaching climate change in schools, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer and it will take time to implement. And with Earth Day around the corner, you may want to think about what you can do as an individual now, to empower children to look after the world. 

How can I incorporate sustainability lessons into my teaching? 

Reflecting on the people who’ve inspired your interest in climate and sustainability illustrates the powerful impact an individual can have on our lives. Whether that’s Greta Thunberg, a friend running a bird-watching club or a family member who took you on long walks as a child yourself. 

As a Professor of Outdoor Learning and Play, I’m energised by the teachers who embrace the outdoors and use it effectively as a source of inspiration and development. When developing our new course Teaching Climate and Sustainability in Primary Schools: An Outdoor Learning Approach, I was struck by the confidence of teachers at a local school who are not just embedding climate change topics into their teaching, they are also building these important ideas and themes into the day-to-day life within the school. 

Examples of a sustainability lesson

Take sustainable food production for instance. Each class have their own vegetable garden to plant and grow the food as well as the responsibility for collecting their own food waste for compost. We filmed fantastic sustainability lessons outside which explored how this food waste was linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and a lively debate around veganism. 

The children learn the value of the food they are eating as well as the impact their actions have on the environment as individuals and as a community. The teachers I spoke to for the course weren’t experts in climate and sustainability but their passion and enthusiasm to experiment with new ideas were key, and ultimately provided children with the space and opportunity to explore these topics for themselves.

As an educator, you’ll want a clear vision for what you want to achieve, what’s possible within your remit, and the demands you can make of leaders to help you to make a difference. Speaking to fellow educators using resources such as an online course, you can gather ideas for teaching climate and sustainability and identify where you need to further develop your own understanding of climate change topics. 

Why should sustainability for kids be taught outside? 

I believe that to care for the world, you need to love it. To love it, you need to be a part of it. To be a part of it, you need to spend lots of time out in it. In this way, you can appreciate the world’s power and fragility. Learning outdoors enables children to use their whole body and all of their senses to engage in the experience, begin to understand it and start constructing their own framework for making sense of the world. 

The fantastic children we interviewed for the course explain it perfectly: 

“You’re able to touch the trees. And in books you’re not able to, you’re just looking at pictures.”

Whilst a classroom may ‘belong’ to a teacher the same doesn’t apply to the outdoors and this empowers children to be themselves by just ‘being outside’, feeling the weather and observing what’s around them. Students at our case study school learn about seasonal changes and climate change topics by taking pictures, creating observational drawings and identifying flora and fauna on ‘meadow walks’ throughout the year. 

Outdoor activities that require observations over time also help children to understand the importance of collecting data to build our understanding of how the world is changing. These immersive, long-term experiences are also extremely effective in terms of helping to make the learning ‘stick’. 

Contributing observation data to citizen science projects such as the Woodland Trust’s Nature Calendar, uploading images to BioBlitz or one of the many other green activities listed on this National Geographic list provide children with a powerful demonstration of the value of their own observations. 

What about the barriers?

Of course, making changes is not always simple – teachers have a lot to think about. Whatever your context, you will be constantly juggling external and internal pressures. There’s a curriculum to deliver, government policy to satisfy, parents, carers and colleagues to collaborate and communicate with, and of course, the small matter of keeping young minds energised, supported and fulfilled.

The key is to ensure you can explain how green activities meet learning objectives. Younger children could explore colours through nature or create ice mobiles to demonstrate how flowing water changes to solid water. Older children could create their own weather station and regularly use a scale to measure rainfall, group animals into vertebrates and invertebrates as the starting point to help increase biodiversity in the playground, or identify examples of the Fibonacci sequence in nature as inspiration for writing Fibonacci poems. 

Additionally, our support and resources differ. I’ve seen sustainability lessons and outdoor learning fully integrated into the school’s approach or given limited support from senior management. I’ve visited schools with access to large and varied open spaces and city schools with only a tiny outdoor area.  

Improving the sustainability of your environment doesn’t necessarily mean having lots of space. Even small plots of abandoned playground can be developed into nature areas, a washing bowl can be turned into a mini-allotment, or a single tree can be ‘shaken down’ for bug exploration. There are plenty of fantastic environmental projects for schools on the RHS website

You’ll explore these challenges and more on the course, but my top advice is to do ‘one thing well’ rather than focus on everything at once. It can be as simple as just going for a walk outside, just being in nature and playing with natural resources which are free to all of us. If children see you celebrating and enjoying being in nature (whatever the weather!) – they will too. 

How can I start teaching climate and sustainability topics? 

Schools can play a vital role in empowering the next generation with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they’ll need to protect our natural environment and adapt to and help mitigate climate change. As one teacher interviewed for the course highlights: 

“Young children are a lot more aware than a lot of adults about climate change and about the things that are happening in the world around us. They offer a really unique perspective and I think teaching children from a young age allows them to take real ownership of knowledge of climate change for their whole lives, and then they can go on and educate the people around them as well.”

The online course I developed with Dr Catherine Foley and other colleagues at the University of Reading isn’t a roadmap for teaching climate change (as I’ve already mentioned, every school and nursery is different). Rather, the course is a space for you to learn from each other, discuss examples from case study schools and share your own experiences and suggestions for green activities. 

In this way, we hope that everyone can contribute to the discussion, build a list of new ideas and actions to apply to their working practice and finish with a better understanding of teaching sustainability and climate change. 

If this sounds like a helpful way to get started, do come, and join the conversation on the course – we‘d love to see you there!

Final thoughts 

As you can see, we have the chance to empower future generations and leaders to take a real stand against climate change. We just need the right tools and knowledge to do so, and we hope that our guest post above has provided you with some insight into how this is possible. 

For more information and resources, you can take a look at our climate action courses and find one that suits you and your personal climate mission. As Global Citizen tells us, “By taking into account the impacts of our decisions and actions on the climate, we can begin to create a collective movement towards a sustainable future”. Invest in your planet this Earth Day by learning to look after it.

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