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How Can We Teach Climate Change and Sustainability at Primary?

Caroline Alliston shares her advice on teaching Climate Change and some essential resources that will help.

Posted on Wednesday 25th May 2022

In recent years, in addition to a global pandemic, we had huge wildfires in Greece, Oregon, California and Australia, devastating floods in Germany, China and Nepal, record snow in Madrid and Texas and massive cyclones in Indonesia and the Philippines. The highest temperatures ever were recorded in southern Europe, North America, Taiwan and the Arctic circle. Even the UK, which has a very mild climate compared to others, had flash flooding in Cumbria and London plus about 150,000 people had their electricity cut off by storm Arwen.

Prior to the 18th century the world population was much lower than it is today and we had limited impact on our environment. However, since the industrial revolution we have been extremely busy digging fossil fuel out of the ground and burning it, cutting down our forests to produce farmland and using increasingly intensive agriculture to feed our hugely increased world population.

These activities have led to global warming which results in extreme weather events as well as loss of habitat and the extinction of many animal and plant species. In 2021, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report saying: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”

In the same year the United Nations gathered in Glasgow for the COP26 climate change conference to try and agree how they would work together to mitigate climate change.

Teenager Greta Thunberg influenced world policy on climate change, demonstrating that, “No-one is too small to make a difference.” Youngsters from around the world are now pressing for action to tackle climate change.

Climate change is the biggest challenge of our time, and the vast majority of children are aware of it.

It is a cause of anxiety for many young people, as they know it is a huge issue but don’t know what, if anything, they can do about it. How can we get our children to understand and engage with the issue in a constructive way without just getting them worried?

A poll of teachers asked what issues prevent them from teaching about climate change. Here are some common responses:

  • It’s not part of the curriculum.
  • I don’t know enough about it.
  • I don’t have the materials needed to teach it.

Teachers have been searching for ideas and resources to help them educate children about climate change. The primary curriculum in England doesn’t specifically refer to climate change, but some areas of the curriculum do lend themselves to teaching the subject. The government launched their Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy for schools in 2022 which recognises the lack of materials for teachers and that there is scope within the existing primary curriculum to teach more about climate change and sustainability.

Links to science (& geography)

Firstly, science experiments can be used to investigate and explain the causes of climate change. Simple experiments can be conducted to help pupils understand how thermal expansion of liquids and ice melt can cause rises in sea level, and how burning fossil fuel can lead to air pollution. Investigating evaporation and condensation helps understand how rising temperatures lead to more extreme weather events, whilst linking to geography and the water cycle. Experiments on plant growth can be used to demonstrate the devastating effects of drought and acid rain.

Links to mathematics

However, just understanding the problem in itself is more likely to increase than reduce climate anxiety! So, what needs to be done to mitigate climate change, and how can the children themselves contribute to this?

Perhaps the next thing to do is to evaluate the problem, bringing mathematical skills to bear on this by using the concept of a ‘carbon footprint’ – the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by a particular person, event etc. This pie chart shows the carbon footprint breakdown for a typical UK household, whilst the bar chart summarises the results of calculations which refer to possible ways in which that carbon footprint can be reduced.

Links to design, technology and engineering

Another option is to use D&T curriculum time to investigate different sustainable technologies. For example, those used for heating and cooling in homes, catching and filtering rainwater and replacing fossil fuel use with renewable energy options such as solar, wind and water. Children can then be challenged to create their own vision of an eco-home in which they could live sustainably.

Encouraging discussion

The investigations above can then lead into class discussions about the problem of climate change and what practical measures could be taken. Here are some suggestions for possible discussion points:

  • Have any of the children experienced flooding, storms, power cuts, heatwaves or wildfires for themselves? Or have their friends or relatives in other countries? Has there been any extreme weather events in the news recently?
  • Many schools are already very good at recycling and switching off lights when not in use. But are there further measures which could be taken? For example, is the school well insulated? Does it have solar panels?
  • How about travel to school – is it safe to walk or cycle? If so, is there anywhere to park bikes or scooters at school? If not, then could the journey be made safer?
  • Are any of the children vegetarians? Do they experience any challenges? How do they ensure a balanced diet? Do any pupils’ families eat a lot of red meat – if so, is there any scope for reducing it?
  • Do any of the families have electric cars? Are there any challenges involved with owning an electric car? Do any of them have solar panels on their house?
  • Is there a gardening club at school? What sort of things are grown? Do any of the families grow food in their gardens at home? Is there space to plant any trees, or bee and butterfly friendly plants?
  • Is it possible to find uses for upcycled items which would otherwise be thrown away? Can we reverse our throwaway culture? There are lots of STEM projects which use old CDs, plastic milk bottle lids, cereal boxes, plastic bottles, juice cartons, corks, newspaper etc.

Influencing others

As individuals, we only have a limited impact – we really need everyone to pull together on tackling climate change.

How could the pupils influence others?

  • Could they write a blog on climate change and sustainability for the school newsletter?
  • Pupils could write persuasive letters to their local MP to support a local or national climate change cause. One or two of the best letters could be selected and actually sent. The most effective letters are those where the child’s individual voice can be heard – politicians are less likely to take notice of a letter which appears to show the opinion of the teacher rather than the child.
  • Letters could also be sent to the local paper with a view to getting them published on the letters page.

Are your school council representatives aware of sustainability issues? Does the school community want to become more sustainable? What are the options for involving pupils, staff and parents?

Some useful links:

Conclusion

To summarise, climate change is a huge issue. We urgently need to work out how to live lifestyles which do not destroy our planet and how to feed ourselves sustainably. At present we are wedded to burning fossil fuels. Divorce will be long, drawn-out and painful but it is necessary – the longer we leave it the worse it will be. We need to act together and we need to act now!

We can and should teach children about climate change in a positive way. Instead of allowing them to be paralysed by climate anxiety, we should be empowering them to tackle the issue constructively and exploring how, as responsible global citizens, they can all help.

Recommended Resources

Climate Change and Sustainability Activity Cards

In order to try and help teachers who want to address climate change and sustainability in class, but may not have a detailed knowledge of the subject themselves, I have produced a set of climate change and sustainability resources.

These consist of three sets of STEM activity cards along with teacher notes and downloadable supporting literature. Downloadable PowerPoints lead the class through the understanding of climate change and sustainability, drawing on the learning derived from the activities to give pupils a broader view of the issues and possible ways forward.

Each resource can be used individually, but using all three will give a broader understanding of the topic. The climate change experiments explain what the problem is and what is causing it, the carbon footprint calculations suggest ways to reduce environmental impact in the short to medium term and the eco-home activity encourages the children to aspire to a sustainable future.

Each pupil doesn’t necessarily have to complete all the activities – the PowerPoints tie the activities together and gives pupils an opportunity to present their results to the rest of the class. Teacher notes include background information on the issues, the results of each experiment or investigation and worked examples of each calculation, in case there wasn’t enough time to complete them all.

Climate Change Experiments (Science with links to Geography)

This resource helps pupils understand the causes, mechanisms and impact of climate change. This consists of a set of science experiments relating to global warming, sea level rise, ice melting, burning of fossil fuels, air pollution, acid rain and effects on the water cycle causing extreme weather events.

Using different types of scientific enquiries, the experiments link to key stage 2 curriculum learning objectives such as evaporation and condensation, reversible and irreversible changes, living things and their habitats, plant growth, human impact on the environment and dangers of environmental change. This resource also links to the water cycle in geography.

Climate Change Experiments

Carbon Footprint Calculations (Mathematics)

This resource explains how the concept of carbon footprints can be used to calculate people’s individual impact on the environment and what scope there is for reducing this. The tasks help pupils to understand ways in which they could make a difference, and evaluate which actions will have the greatest effect. Topics include waste and recycling, travel options, food choices, buying clothes, and home energy usage.

The calculations link to upper key stage 2 curriculum learning objectives in mathematics, such as presenting data in bar charts, interpreting tables, solving comparison, sum and difference problems, rounding, solving percentages and fractions, converting between units of time and solving problems involving money.

Carbon Footprint Calculations

Eco-Home Activities (Design and Technology)

This resource presents a set of investigations into different technologies currently used around the world to help lead a sustainable lifestyle. Topics include home heating and cooling, insulation, rainwater harvesting and filtration, solar, wind and water power. In a follow-on task pupils design and build their own model eco-home based on what they have learnt (using recycled materials wherever possible).

These activities link to key stage 2 D&T curriculum learning objectives including designing innovative, functional, appealing products based on design criteria, constructing and evaluating their designs, using a wide range of tools, equipment, materials and components, and incorporating structures and mechanical and electrical systems in their designs.

Eco-Home Activities

Other Useful Resources

Here are some more useful resources linked to sustainability, including STEM projects which use upcycled materials.

Renewable Energy Class Kit

This is a class kit I designed to help the children understand renewable energy and how it can be used:

Renewable Energy Class Kit

STEM Activity Cards

STEM Activity Cards

Other STEM activities using recycled objects

Check out my website www.technologyforfun.co.uk for lots more design and make activities using recycled objects:

With thanks to Caroline Alliston, a mechanical engineer and award winning STEM educator for writing this post.

Caroline is best known for her successful “Technology For Fun” series of books. After 25 years working in industry, she decided to use her knowledge and skills to develop fun, exciting design and build projects to inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers. Caroline also runs hugely popular workshops for children, teachers and STEM ambassadors.