Why do young children need to know about climate change?

Early childhood educators' responses to common questions and concerns

Tracy Young
Swinburne University of Technology

(Written in consultation with the ECA Victoria Environmental Sustainability Special Interest Group, 2007)

Why do young children need to know about climate change? Are we really sure this is happening?

It may be comforting to deny the scientific information about global warming, but the evidence is now overwhelming. Recent reports from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) prove that vast quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, created by human activities, are warming the planet. As former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, ‘The question is not whether climate change is happening but whether, in the face of this emergency, we ourselves can change fast enough.' (Annan, 2006).

Climate change will directly affect the lives of young children—both now and in the future. It would be irresponsible for us not to share this information with children, to give them the opportunity to learn how their actions impact on the health of the planet. This knowledge enables children to learn how to be part of the climate change solution and teaches them that they can make a difference.

Children under six should be playing, not learning about the problems of the world. I want them to be happy, not depressed.

Parents and early childhood educators want the best for children; knowledge about climate change and sustainability should certainly not be depressing, or filled with ‘doom and gloom'.

Play is a vital part of a young child's world and, like any other early childhood practice, a child-centred play approach can be taken in learning about sustainability. This enables children to learn through hands-on, concrete experiences.

A play approach to sustainability may involve, for example, children saving drinking water after meal-times to place on the garden; or it may include setting up a miniature compost bin in the home-corner kitchen so children can role-play putting scraps in the bin (as well as placing real food scraps in an actual compost bin).

Learning about sustainability encompasses the everyday practices of our lives and children as young as two can start to take part in these activities.

I don't want my son turning into a greenie

We all want different things for our children, and early childhood services have a long-standing practice of respecting different cultures and family values.

Environmental sustainability is not a lifestyle choice, but a way of living. A program that explores environmental sustainability should not dictate values or practices to children or families; rather, it should encourage a questioning approach to what is happening in the world.

The very term ‘sustainability' is not just about caring for the environment. It also takes into account social structures and economic considerations. For example, children who are learning about water conservation by using rainwater from a tank are not only exploring the environmental concerns of drought, but also, socially, how this affects groups of people and, economically, that many people have to buy water at an increased cost.

How does learning about global warming help children prepare for school?

Many schools across Australia are now involved in sustainable school programs. Learning about sustainability covers a broad range of knowledge, including science, technology, geography and social studies—so children can learn a great deal from experiences that relate to global warming.

Living sustainably develops a deep connection with plants, animals, people and the earth itself—a viewpoint that acknowledges that we are an inseparable part of the web of life. This is lifelong learning that will help to develop respect for all life-forms and the systems that nourish them.

These are the skills, attitudes and knowledge that will be required to live in a sustainable world, now and in the future. It is important that this learning occurs during the early years, where the foundation for later learning is set.

Babies need to be clean and free from germs, so I use antibacterial wipes and disinfectant spray. Do I have to give these up to be green?

In a sense, yes. The overuse of chemicals creates problems with human, plant and animal health systems; and, in any case, they may not be needed to ensure children's health and safety.

In recent years we have become increasingly paranoid about hygiene and bacteria, making us reluctant to let children get dirty, play with mud or take risks that were deemed normal when we were children. These insecurities are played upon by aggressive and often misleading advertising campaigns from chemical companies, which contain images of pristine bathrooms, clean children and perfect ways of living.

In fact, the use of disinfectant and other cleaning products has been found to negatively affect human health, particularly young children. It is estimated that one-third of all chemical compounds found in cleaning products are hazardous (Gardner, 2005).

Children are more vulnerable to chemicals because their immune and central nervous systems are still developing. Health departments are now recommending that children's services use warm soapy water to clean areas like change benches and eating areas (NH&MRC, 2001).

Does an environmental program mean that children can't play with water?

This is an interesting question that early childhood educators have been debating throughout the past few years of drought. Like many questions that relate to sustainability, there is not always a clear answer; it depends on location, philosophy and how the water is used.

Some services in areas with very low water reserves have decided not to use water, as it seems incredibly wasteful when the need to conserve water is a priority.

For other services, the benefits of water use for children's play outweigh a total restriction. These services may undertake strategies to conserve water, such as using water tanks, reusing the water on the garden or restricting the daily amount used in sandpits and water troughs. If children are not allowed to play with water, it is difficult for them to learn how to conserve it.

Water use is an issue that we need to keep debating; and educators, families and children must be actively involved in this discussion. Water management is an opportunity to equip children with the lifelong skills and attitudes that create transformative knowledge.

How is recycling linked to climate change?

Australians have embraced the recycling message in a big way—we are all familiar with the terms ‘refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle'—and young children can be actively involved in recycling in the home and early childhood environment.

Glass, aluminium and other metals are made from resources that can be recycled many times—saving vast amounts of new raw materials. Plastics, however, are far more complex to recycle. Each type of plastic needs to be processed in a different way, and the recycling process is energy intensive and involves the production of greenhouse gases.

The focus for a sustainable program needs to emphasise the ‘refuse' ‘reduce' and ‘reuse' components of managing waste, and should include the use of recycled products. There is little point in children being involved in recycling if they don't get the opportunity to see how we reuse these recycled products.

In a busy world, why does it matter if parents use pre-packaged food in a lunchbox?

Australians are some of the world's biggest producers of waste per capita(Crocombe, 2007), and even if we put some of the specific waste management issues aside—such as the vast amounts of waste going to landfill, or plastic recycling systems that are costly and energy intensive—we are still left with the fundamental problem of the overuse of the Earth's resources.

A lunchbox filled with individual packages of processed foods and a sandwich wrapped in plastic sends a powerful message to children that we live in a throw-away society, where we can afford to discard items when we use them once, without a thought. This is not sustainable.

The plastic packaging in a school lunchbox is derived from oil, a precious resource; and the energy used in the plastic production process produces greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming. So it really does matter that we waste these resources, especially when there is an obvious alternative.

A litter-free lunch includes reusable plastic containers, a drink bottle and a sandwich wrapped in greaseproof paper or in a sandwich-sized container. This produces no waste—other than food scraps or paper that can be composted—and, interestingly, it costs considerably less. Pre-packaged, processed food in individual serves comes at a high price for both the planet and the bank account.

What kinds of things happen in environmental sustainability programs at children's services?

There will obviously be a range of differences between individual services in how this occurs. However, an environmental sustainability program needs to embrace a holistic approach that explores issues of waste, water and energy reduction, along with practices that minimise the use of toxic cleaning products.

Children may be actively involved in activities such as using recycled art materials; growing, harvesting and eating food crops; or simply having opportunities to connect with the natural world.

A vital component of a sustainable program is to allow for transformative learning. Transformative learning encourages problem-solving and critical thinking about issues such as global warming. If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past, not only do we need to improve our understanding of the world, but we need new solutions to create change for sustainability.

So how does this take place with babies, toddlers and young children?

Learning about sustainability starts with everyday practices of limiting waste, and reducing energy and water use—by collecting rainwater; minimising the use of heating and cooling; turning off lights and power switches when not needed; or putting food scraps in a compost bin.

With babies and toddlers, it is vital that adults model these practices and involve them in the process. This may mean verbalising what is happening, or using songs and rhymes.

With children over three, adults can begin to discuss the reasons these practices are needed. This encourages deeper learning, where children become critical thinkers, helping them to understand the impact that our actions have on the planet.

Climate change is a global issue, but young children need to become engaged at a local level. Local action could include a government art mural project, sending a letter to the local newspaper or taking part in Clean Up Australia Day. Involving children in advocacy projects, however small, teaches them that they are active participants and can make a difference to society.

I just want our children to have the kind of childhood that I had. Is this wrong?

We all want children to enjoy the things that delighted us when we were young. In fact, this is what sustainability is all about: we want future generations to experience a similar, if not better, quality of life. This desire should be a powerful motivator for us to take notice of the way we are living and aim to reduce our impact on the planet's resources. This is the notion of intergenerational equity (Kahn & Kellert, 2002): an equity issue that is as relevant as race, class and gender. Australians are currently living unsustainably– meaning we are borrowing resources from future generations that we cannot repay.

Australian children are increasingly spending less time in the great outdoors due to fears about safety, hygiene and other perceived risks. A child playing outside is part of Australia's cultural heritage; and a sustainable program ensures that children develop connections with the natural world and enjoy many of the activities that past generations took for granted, such as climbing trees, finding frogs and making mud pies.


Annan, K. (2006). As climate changes, can we? The Washington Post, A27, 8 November.

Crocombe, A. (2007)A lighter footprint. A practical guide to minimising your impact on the planet. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.

Gardner, B. ( 2005). Challenging the green myths: Overcoming the barriers to safer cleaning practices. Eingana, Journal of the Victorian Association of Environmental Education. December edition.

Global Footprint Network. Retrieved 19 June 2007, www.footprintnetwork.org

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). (2007). Frequently asked questions. Climate change 2007: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 19 June 2007, http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu/wg1/Report/AR4WG1_Pub_FAQs.pdf.

Kahn, P. & Kellert, S. ( 2002). Children and nature. Psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigations. USA: MIT Press.

National Health & Medical Research Council. (2001). Staying healthy in child care: Preventing infectious diseases in child care. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Last updated: (August 20, 2007 at 5:04 pm)


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