As environmental educators, one could argue the EV is duty-bound to teach about climate change. It is a crisis unfolding before our eyes and we need to be acting on it now.

However, widely accepted guidance for teaching about environmental crises is to avoid teaching about tragedies before students are in 4th grade. This was first suggested by David Sobel, professor from Antioch University, in his book Beyond Ecophobia. Young students are still falling in love with the Earth and they can easily become overwhelmed with a feeling that they can’t do anything about these catastrophes. 

And yet, kids are smart. These days they have certainly heard about climate change. Even preschoolers know to ask which trash can they should use when throwing things away. It seems pretty silly to try to ignore climate change with our young students. So, if we can’t ignore it, but we aren’t supposed to teach about it, what do we do?

This is the perfect time to start laying the foundations – basic knowledge that is needed to build understanding about more complicated topics. In math we don’t jump straight to teaching calculus. We learn our numbers, then arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, and then calculus. In science, sometimes we forget, and/or take for granted importance of basic concepts. When the foundations are missing it can be surprising how hard it is to get someone to understand something that, to others, is quite simple. 

As an example of the importance of solid foundations related to climate change consider the following statement:

“We are experiencing a freak snowstorm. What happened to global warming?”

When the argument is put out there that climate change isn’t real (for malicious and/or ignorant reasons) and someone doesn’t have a solid foundational knowledge about the difference between climate and weather, then this freak snowstorm helps reinforce the denial of climate change. The result is we spend far too long trying to get folks to accept the existence of climate change when we could have been busy making changes to stop it.

So often educators, with a goal of teaching about climate change, jump straight to the concepts of the greenhouse effect, extreme weather, sea level rise, melting ice caps, etc. The point is understanding the difference between weather and climate is foundational to all of that. And is much more age appropriate for the younger students. When we teach the foundations we should credit ourselves for teaching about the big topics.

To be clear, the idea of focusing on foundations to learning about important environmental topics is not instead of helping students with the emotional aspects. Students of any age may have seen images on tv, they may have evacuated due to an extreme weather event, or know someone who has. There is great work out there related to Social-Emotional Learning as well as Trauma Informed Practices. But there is no need to introduce trauma that wasn’t there before and building the solid foundational knowledge around weather and climate is invaluable. 

Environmental Volunteers has been working on developing a program about weather and climate for 3rd graders and we maintained a focus on foundation building throughout the development process. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the completion of the program. But laying solid foundations can be applied to any topic. Do you want to teach about habitat loss? Make sure your students understand adaptations. Mass extinctions? Teach about biodiversity. Droughts and desertification? The water cycle is key. An early elementary classroom filled with lessons on these foundational topics is doing a whole lot to teach about the big environmental issues.

A few parting thoughts

  • Interested in learning more about the impact of missing foundational knowledge? Check out this excellent documentary from Annenberg Learner.
  • Trying to figure out how to explain the difference of climate and weather to the young (or misinformed) in your life? Try this one – the clothes that you keep in your closet is driven by the climate where you live. The outfit you choose to wear today is driven by the weather. So, today may be a freak snowstorm and we want to wear a sweater, but the number of hot days is going up and we may need to add more shorts to our closet.