Teacher's Advice: Kids and the Environment

Teacher's Advice

How to talk to kids about the environmental crisis


We were half a million people walking the streets of Montreal last Friday. I was there, my friends were there, you were probably there too. Also present were some of my students, kids of all ages, even babies who don’t even know how to talk yet they were there, asking for change. Seeing all these young people taking part in this historic movement made me really happy, but also very sad.

I looked at this 5 years old holding a sign saying “Do it for my future” and wondered how much he knew about this. And I probably am not the only one concerned about exposing children to the truth about the environmental crisis.


Because the truth is ugly: if we don’t do anything, we die. Maybe not our parents, maybe not even us, but these kids, and their kids, the could be the generations who will have to deal with worst of it. And that’s scary.


But if we scare these kids by telling the truth, how will they be motivated to make changes and to keep asking for changes?


So I came up with a way of talking to kids (and my students) about the environmental crisis.



1. Start with what they can observe


“Hey Timmy, do you know where your juice box goes after you’re done drinking it?”

“In the trash.”

“And where does the trash go?”


Until they are teenagers, children have difficulty understanding abstract concepts. Of course, for you, global warming, melting ice caps, and dying ecosystems mean something in your mind, but for kids these words mean nothing. They can’t picture these words or subjects in their eye of mind, because they haven’t actually seen these things with their own eyes.


To make kids understand pollution, global warming, and environmental problems, you need to start with what they can observe in their day-to-day lives. Where does the water from the shower go? What materials make up their toys? What about the iPads? The food at the store, where does it come from? How does it get to the store?


Explaining small things will help kids grasp small parts of the issue, until they are old enough to see the real deal.



2. Don’t talk about statistics


“Hey Timmy, did you know that 71% of the planet is covered by oceans?”

“Does that mean that the planet is old?”


For kids, numbers mean either things they can count or age. Statistics don’t mean much. Until they are 9-10 years old, a child who receives an exam with a mark on 100 will simply ask you if they did well, they won’t understand that the numbers come from the number of points they received for answers.


100 and a million mean essentially the same thing to kids, but words and expressions like “a lot” and “a whole lot” and “so much you can’t even see it” mean much more. If you want to talk about deforestation, don’t say “they are cutting down 73 000 km2 of forest per year,” but say “they are cutting down so many trees that you couldn’t count them even if all your friends helped you”. If you want to talk about tons of plastic in the ocean, compare it to a space they know: it’s like if we filled your whole school with trash, or 4 football fields.


Understanding how big the problem is doesn’t mean they have to know what percentages are.


3. Stay realistic, but also hopeful


“Miss, when the planet explodes, will we go to another one?”

This sentence was said to me by a 7-year-old girl in a grade 2 class. Obviously, she knows there is an environmental problem, but someone either misinformed her or didn’t answer her question and this child’s imagination took over.


Don’t tell kids the planet will explode. 

Don’t tell kids we’ll be saved by aliens.

Don’t tell kids we’ll build spaceships or underground bunkers for us to live in.

These answers are all science fiction, and if they turn out to be true, cool, but probabilities of us being saved by aliens are as high as my chances of getting married to Cleopatra.


Don’t tell kids that “they” will fix it, because “they” doesn’t exist, “they” is us, and because there is no easy fix.


Instead, tell kids that awesome people called scientists are working all over the world to look for solutions to fix little problems here and there. Apartment buildings covered with plants, so there’s more trees, awesome! Nets that catch plastic in the ocean, amazing!


Let them know that there are some solutions to the problem, and celebrate with them when someone creates a new gadget to help save the planet, but don’t feed them lies.


4. Listen to their concerns


“Miss, someone told me plastic isn’t good for the environment. And that we should stop using it.”

“That’s right.”

“Does that mean that they’ll take away my glasses because they are made of plastic?”


Kids have concerns that are very different from ours. Their world is mostly built of what they can see and experience every day. And they get very attached to little objects, which can become indispensable in their eyes. When we say things like “let’s not use plastic anymore,” we adults think of piles of plastic bags in the ocean, straws being swallowed by turtles, etc. Kids, they think of their toys, and that someone will take them away.

But telling them that their concerns are silly won’t help. Answering their questions, even the simplest ones, will helps them feel more confident about this subject.


A child who is scared of consequences will not act. If you make them understand that change is not a punishment but can be very exciting, that it's a way of becoming better, more empowered, children will feel safe and will want to partake in change.


No Timmy, no one will take away your glasses, but the next pair we buy, let’s try to buy a metal frame instead. I know it’s fun to drink with straws, but metal straws are even more fun because they become cold if the drink is cold and warm if the drink is warm! 



5. Motivate them to make changes


Making them feel involved, that’s important. And giving them small solutions that will help them make a difference is how you foster a long-lasting desire to make changes.


Get them to design their own tote bag, they won’t want to use a plastic bag ever again. Help them plant a garden and teach them how to take care of plants, they’ll be so proud to eat “their” carrots. Teach them how to recycle, but also reuse. Your toy came in a box, now let’s use this box for storage, or to build a boat for your doll. Bamboo toothbrushes are less colorful, yes, but you can draw on them!


Teaching kids how to be environmentally friendly can be stressful, but children want to learn and they want to see that their actions have impacts. And if they learn it young, they will have less trouble with reducing and reusing later on.


Pictures obtained from: