Climate change is a challenging topic for children, as it often involves scientific facts that can be difficult to understand. Related worldly issues—extreme weather, food shortages, or even pandemics—can be alarming or fear-inducing to discuss. Parents and caregivers may find it daunting to decide how and when to talk with their children about climate change.
As with other complex topics like racism, body autonomy, or alcohol use, conversations you have with your child about climate change should start early, be ongoing, and change based on your child’s developmental level. Here are some techniques you can use to introduce and build on conversations about climate change as your child grows.
Toddlers: Build a Love for Nature
Spend time outside with your toddler to help them cultivate respect for nature. Prioritizing outdoor play is increasingly important for children’s mental and physical health, but it also helps toddlers experience a sense of wonder at the beauty of nature. A toddler may not have the developmental capacity to understand the climate crisis, but their love for the environment will be foundational in caring about how they impact the earth when they’re older.
Preschool and Kindergarten: Nurture a Sense of Responsibility for the Planet
Give your preschool or kindergarten-aged child ways to nurture nature. Houseplants wither when we don’t feed them; gardens wilt if we don’t water them. Children can understand these cause-and-effect relationships at a very early age; by taking on responsibilities like watering and feeding indoor or outdoor plants, youngsters can begin to see how people impact the planet. These chores are also opportunities to discuss our larger responsibility to care for nature.
Elementary School: Make Real-Life Connections and Share the Science
Beginning in first grade, have more direct conversations about climate change with your child. While climate change is a global issue, it is important to show children in this age group how it impacts them personally. Ask your child how the weather affects them—how sunny days make them feel or how rainy days make it hard to play outside. Then, compare the weather today to the weather fifty or one hundred years ago. Explain that while weather variation is normal, humans cause expected weather conditions to change in an unexpected way.
Children in upper elementary school may also want more detailed explanations, like the difference between weather and climate, or the science behind the greenhouse effect. NASA Climate Kids has basic explanations, interesting visuals, and engaging videos to help.
Teenagers: Talk about Climate Inequity
With your teenager, talk about how the climate crisis reinforces inequalities—the ways in which poor or marginalized people are more harshly impacted by extreme weather. These issues naturally fit with conversations you have with your teenager about racial and socioeconomic inequity. Here are two examples of how climate change and inequity are connected:
When severe weather strikes a high-income country or community, people and governments have the resources to rebuild cities and homes. However, low-income countries and communities lack resources to deal with the major impacts. Climate change means low-income countries are more often impacted by natural disasters.
Recent heatwaves and drought are associated with increases in wheat prices. In wealthy countries, this may mean slightly higher prices at the grocery store; in lower-income places around the globe, climate change means that food has become scarce or completely unaffordable, resulting in widespread civil unrest.
All Ages: Focus on Making a Difference
Details about the climate crisis may be overwhelming for children (and adults). It can be reassuring for a child to hear that there are many people working together to solve the problems. Another way to combat fear is to focus on action: there are many ways to help! Below are a few options for you and your child to get involved.
Sustainable Living Tips from Conservation International: This list includes over seventy ways you and your child can live more sustainably. Some of these actions may not seem like much, but together, we can all make a big difference.
Conserve the Environment
Youth Conservation Corps: Youth ages fifteen to eighteen can apply to participate in regional environmental conservation projects like maintaining nature trails, cleaning up campgrounds, improving wildlife habitats, restoring streams, and more.
Advocate for the Planet
Become a member of YOUNGO: YOUNGO, the official youth constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is a network of youth organizations from all over the world. Their common goal is to mobilize youth to address the climate crisis.