<< Return to Tip Sheets index
This information booklet has been prepared for adults who want to talk with children and adolescents about the environment. It provides parents with tips on helping children to develop environmentally-friendly values and behaviours, helping them to understand the environmental challenges we face, and easing their anxiety about the threat of climate change.
Teaching children about the natural world is not just a nice thing to do - it is vital for the future of our children and the future of all life. Children are naturally curious and open to learning about nature, but in an increasingly urban society we often need to consciously create opportunities to help children bond with nature and learn about the environment.
These days, learning about nature is inextricably tied up with learning about climate change and other environmental problems. Climate change is now the subject of much concern and discussion amongst adults, and is often the subject of alarming and catastrophic news reports in the media. These problems are large, complex to understand, and have the potential to bring up strong feelings like fear, anxiety, frustration, anger or despair.
It is likely that many children are aware of the threat of climate change. However it is also quite likely that they are confused about the facts and the extent of the threat they personally face, and might feel anxious, concerned or confused. Worries and anxieties about these threats can become difficult for children of all ages to deal with.
On the other hand, children can also be very quick to grasp problems and are able to apply great energy and enthusiasm to putting solutions in place. The good thing about environmental problems is that we know what many of the solutions are, and many of them are very simple. Indeed, children are often reported to be better at getting going with environmental solutions than the adults are!
Teaching children of different ages and stages
How children learn about nature, their ability to understand environmental challenges and solutions, and their reactions to hearing and learning about environmental problems, all depend on a number of factors, including:
- Their age, temperament and stage of development
- Their sense of security
- Their parents' feelings/reactions to environmental problems
- How exposed they have been to media coverage of environmental problems/natural disasters
- How exposed they have been to adult discussions of threats of climate change
- How adequately they have been able to discuss their feelings about their world,and how well adults have been able to listen to those feelings
- The influence of their peer group - how their friends and the people they identify with are responding to environmental issues
- Their knowledge about environmental issues.
Each of the steps for teaching children about the environment in this booklet has been divided into different sections corresponding to varying ages of children. You can read tips for how to talk with your preschooler, primary school-aged children, or adolescents.
Steps for teaching children about the environment
The following information provides ways to guide children's curiosity and enthusiasm for the natural world, help them to understand environmental problems, deal with their concerns, and get interested and busy with solutions.
Provide your child with time to spend in nature
Young children need opportunities to explore nature and form a bond with it. They need chances to touch and feel and look and smell. If you live in a city, there are still many ways in which you can help your child experience nature. Even the changing weather and seasons can offer an opportunity for parents to help young children develop a sense of wonder for the natural environment.
- Have picnics in a botanic garden or local park.
- Buy some seeds and watch them grow in a pot on the windowsill.
- Give your children a little plot in the garden to care for.
- Begin a worm farm in the garden or start a compost heap.
Primary school-aged children
Children's curiosity with the natural world and unique way of knowing requires discovery and exploratory learning, rather than too much talking about theories.
- Try nature experiments, such as watching tadpoles grow (check legislation in your state if wanting to keep at home), or building ant farms in a large glass jar.Grow vegetables - choose easy ones for success.
- Let them do artwork that uses nature, such as making pictures with leaves, drying flowers, or building sculptures out of sticks and twigs.
- Buy a rain gauge from the hardware store and help children plot the rainfall each week/month.
- Encourage your adolescent to spend time outdoors doing activities he or she likes, such as riding a bike, skiing, or canoeing.
- Suggest they join ‘Friends' groups and other local community environmental groups to foster environmentally responsible behaviour, positive action and friendships.
- Have a family holiday in a natural environment.
- Spend time together doing activities that can be either challenging or relaxing.
Help your children find something positive to do for the environment
You can encourage your children to take action and believe they can make a difference to the environment with even the smallest actions. Children can also learn a lot by watching parents doing positive things for the environment.
Young children can enjoy joining in with simple tasks just by copying what the people around them are doing. Lots of positive environmental messages can be a part of everyday activities.
- Ask children to help take the compost out to the bin.
- Get them to help sort papers to put in the recycling bin.
- Give them a spade and let them dig away in the garden.
Primary school-aged children
Encourage your whole family to be part of a world-wide movement of people who recognise that there are limits to the world's natural resources, know the importance of reducing waste and excess, and work to prevent environmental damage.
- Find some picture books or websites about the environment.
- Let your children help choose an environmental organisation for family donations.
- Show your children that you do positive things too, such as taking your ‘green bag' when you go to the supermarke or catching public transport to work.
Pro-environmental behaviour in teenagers is related to positive environmental attitudes and knowledge, as well as having a belief that their actions will make a difference, a sense of responsibility to care for the environment, and a clear understanding of what they need to do.
- Encourage them to ring up talk-back radio, write to newspapers, and lobby the government and industry about environmental matters that concern them.
- Direct them to websites that rate companies on their environmental performance, like www.climatecounts.org.
- Talk with them about reducing spending on unnecessary products.
- Include them in household environmental decision making.
- Make them aware of the importance of making small as well as big changes.
Listen to your children's concerns about the environment
Many children might have concerns about climate change and other environmental problems, and need help to make sense of events. Listen first, and listen closely, to what children are asking or saying, and think about whether they are looking for factual information, or if the questions are expressing anxiety about environmental problems.
- Listen carefully to your child's spontaneous questions and comments.
- Try to understand what your child is saying from his or her own point of view.
Primary school-aged children
Children are not always able to express what they mean. What they say doesn't always mean the same thing for them as it does for adults. Sometimes it takes a bit of gentle probing to find out what is going on behind the first things that they say.
- Let your child's concerns guide the direction and depth of the discussion.
- Make comments such as, "That's interesting, can you tell me more about that?".
These can be helpful ways of trying to get a bit more information from your child.
Adolescence is a time when young people are developing their abilities to use abstract and logical thinking. This can lead to adolescents questioning everything in great detail. They are also starting to develop a greater interest in world events, and can become very focused on the cause and effect of things that happen.
- Listen sensitively to what your adolescent is saying.
- Ask further questions to help your adolescent clarify his or her thoughts.
- Explore their ideas with them.
- Don't negate their ideas immediately even if you disagree with them.
- If your adolescent is encouraging the family to become more pro-environmental then listen to their points of view and allow them to make changes for the better!
Allow children to tell you how they feel and think
Children need to be able to let the adults in their world know how they feel and think. It can be helpful to let them know that it is reasonable to feel angry, frustrated, anxious, sad, helpless, or depressed about environmental problems.
Young children cannot express complex emotions easily or directly. Parents can look for clues to their feelings that they might send through their play, drawing, spontaneous conversations, and behaviour. Understand that children might show feelings that don't quite match what's happening (e.g., children might get irritable or overstimulated when they are feeling anxious or uncertain or unsafe).
- Look for changes in your children's behaviour (e.g., in their play, drawing, or dreams) that might suggest that something is unsettling them.
- Sometimes children find it easier to talk indirectly, for example on behalf of a toy or puppet. Try asking "And how are you feeling today, Teddy?".
Primary school-aged children
- Ask children how they feel about the world.
- Keep your own feelings to yourself when talking about their feelings.
- Let them know what you've noticed (e.g., "I can see you looking worried about the floods on the TV").
- Check in with them to make sure you've got it right.
- Let them know that you understand how they feel.
- Artistic pursuits and free expression (e.g., through drama, art and music) can help children express their feelings.
Adolescents need opportunities to express feelings, and should be encouraged to discuss their thoughts and feelings about climate change and other environmental problems. Adolescents can easily feel disempowered about their world. Adults can help by encouraging broader perspective taking.
- Ask adolescents what they are feeling through direct questioning.
- Help to expand their views beyond black and white thinking.
- Look for clues that they might be preoccupied about something and comment on it.
Find out what your children know
Find out what your children know in case they have mistaken ideas or facts, and correct any misconceptions. Keep your responses appropriate to the age of your child and also appropriate to the child's level of understanding and emotional maturity.
Young children are not able to make sense of the complexity of global warming and do not have the emotional or psychological maturity to manage this information. They also do not comprehend issues of time and distance as well as older children. Young children tend to think that the world revolves around them (e.g., "Will a cyclone come and destroy our house too?"). Small details can quickly turn into large generalisations (e.g., "If the planet is getting hotter, will we all get burnt?").
- Young children often need reassurance more than facts.
- Respond, first, to any obvious items of misinformation that they have picked up and help them distinguish fantasy from reality.
- Answer questions simply and honestly, but in a reassuring way.
- Children may need to be reassured that environmental catastrophes are not happening near them.
- Often it's more important to give children opportunities to fall in love with the planet than to overload them with information!
Primary school-aged children
Check with children about what they have heard others say about climate change. Then you can correct any misunderstandings, or follow up any concerns. They may be concerned or confused about things that other children are saying, and need your help to make sense of information or sort out truth from fiction. Keep in mind that modern technology (internet, mobile phones) can spread rumours quickly.
- You can answer children's direct questions in simple and straightforward terms.
- Keep your responses brief.
- Give children a chance to respond to each of your comments before saying more.
- Follow the lead of children's questions and don't give more information than is asked for.
Do not burden children with information for which they might not be ready. One result of trying to teach children too early about abstract concepts, like rainforest destruction, ozone holes and whale hunting, can be dissociation. When we ask children to deal with problems beyond their cognitive abilities, understanding and control, they can become anxious, and tune out of the issues.
- The answers to some questions are not always straightforward. You can explain that some people think one way about problems and others think another way. It is important for children to hear that there are differences of opinion and different ways of seeing problems and solutions.
Adolescents need information. They need to have a good knowledge of the key concepts of ecological sustainability. If the school is not teaching these issues, there are many good books, films and websites available to help build this knowledge.
Sometimes, their facts about climate change may need correcting. Check where they got their facts from and correct these if necessary. Remember that the views the adolescent forms may be influenced by their parents' perceptions or by role models who are important to them. The peer group is likely to play an important role in how adolescents interpret and react to environment related issues. Adolescents will seek to have their opinion validated by someone - whether that be a popular peer member, a defiant or radical soul mate, or a role model who is a climate change sceptic.
Adolescents can get confused if different people who are important in their lives have different opinions.
- Ask adolescents what is being discussed at school (this way you can monitor how your child is going at understanding the issues, and also see how the school is educating the children).
- Keep the communication lines open, even if your adolescent seems to be rejecting your opinion - adolescents need to hear a range of views.
Be aware of how you talk
Adults need to be conscious of the presence of children when discussing climate change and other worrying environmental problems. It is a good idea not to let children overhear adult conversations about worrying things if they cannot join in at their own age or stage of development.
Be mindful of how you are reacting to news about environmental problems in front of your child. If your reactions are too strong, these can upset and confuse your child. Keep dialogue simple (e.g., "I am sad because sometimes people are careless about the forests and leave their rubbish lying around - but not all people are like this").
- Check to see what they have understood.
- Find ways of talking positively too.
Primary school-aged children
Be careful that you don't burden children with adult concerns, raising new questions and fears for them rather then helping them deal with questions and fears they already have.
- Sharing your own strong feelings may also prevent your child from expressing his/her feelings openly.
- Offer children a different way of thinking and feeling about events, (e.g., "But there are also many good stories about people who are saving the environment. I feel good knowing this is happening in our world too, even though those stories don't often make the news.").
- Give adolescents a reason for why you feel the way you do.
- Use feeling words (e.g., "I'm feeling very angry about how people waste so much energy and resources by consuming more than they need, throwing out what they don't want anymore, and polluting the planet. It's so frustrating.").
- Model respect, compassion, and understanding for different choices that people make in how they live on the planet, even though you might choose to do things differently.
Monitor how much your children are being exposed to media stories of environmental problems
Children's experience of media images contributes in significant ways to the way they think, act and feel about the world and social reality. Parents need to take responsibility for what their children are watching and listening to.
- Preschoolers find it difficult to understand that events that happen on the news are not going to happen to them as well.
- It is best to turn off the news when young children are in the room.
- They may ask questions about climate change and other environmental problems because they have heard other children speaking about it, but it is not necessary to ‘educate them' by letting them watch the news.
Primary school-aged children
- Children should be guided in their viewing of world events.
- Parents should be watching together with the child to help interpret events at a level the child can understand.
- Encourage children to be critical of what is reported in the media.
- Teach them that the media often presents things sensationally or in a dramatic way, and often focuses on the negative side rather than the positive side.
- Debate and discuss popular media in a way that enables your child to think about their values and make more conscious choices about the way they live.
- Teach adolescents how to think critically about the type of media they are exposing themselves to, and how to analyse its content.
- Explain to them that they cannot understand climate change and other national or global crises solely by only passively watching TV.
- Encourage them to look for and research alternative opinions.
- Share media stories that focus on positives as well.
- Make sure they understand that viewing worrying things can make them feel anxious too.
Reassure your children and give them hope
Reassure children that millions of people all over the world are working and talking together so that environmental problems can be solved, and the planet can be protected. There are many people who are dedicating their lives to researching ways to improve the health of the planet, as well as many who are part of local and global environmental movements.
- Reassure your child that it is your job to look after their wellbeing - the child does not have to worry about that.
- Give your children plenty of hugs.
- Spend more time with them, tucking them in, spending time together before bed.
- Maintain routines to help them feel secure.
- Reassure them that their home is a safe place.
Primary school-aged children
- Look for ‘good news' stories about the planet and share them with your child.
- Help your child to find examples of environmental problems being solved or improved.
- Spend family time together.
- Explore and enjoy natural environments.
- Reassure them that their family is safe.
- Encourage your adolescent to look at examples of great people who have led the way in protecting the environment.
- Help your adolescent to think of examples of significant improvements in how we care for the environment that have come about because people have decided that it was important enough (e.g., increase in whale numbers following a banning of whale hunting).
- Suggest books like Good News for a Change by David Suzuki and Holly Dressel.
- Show your adolescent examples of environmental achievement in industry, the community and by individuals.
- Leave your adolescent feeling that they have reason to have faith in humankind.