Talking to Children about Climate Change

Newest NOAA Climate Stewards Ms. Christie-Blick and her students proudly display their Climate Stewards t-shirts after studying about climate change and working to mitigate global warming.

 Click here to view original article on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website.

Talking to Children about Climate Change

(updated 2016 version)

The musical alert jolts me awake before I ease back into a grateful calm reading the words on my phone. All schools in the district are on a two-hour delay. I now have extra time on this icy morning to correct that stack of essays on climate change before heading off to teach my 5th grade class. It will take that long for the snowplows to finish clearing the roads.

Climate change – global warming – a curious topic to be thinking about on such a frigid morning? Not at all. The scientific evidence is in. No matter what local weather we’re experiencing on a day-to-day basis, our planet is warming up, with far-reaching implications for us all. The conversation in scientific circles now is how Earth will respond, how well the living things on Earth will be able to adapt, who will be the winners and the losers, and what we can do to slow down our warming climate.


“Why Have We Started Having Fiercer Hurricanes in New York?” essay written by Ben, Dylan, Elisa, Greg.

(Click student essay to enlarge.)


Animoto video of our local area in New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Some think of climate change as a topic for grown-ups. However, even young children are able to understand the basic idea. More importantly, they’re able to begin taking action to slow down global warming. It’s in their best interest to do so. Their future depends on the actions we all take now. If we teachers, and their parents, don’t tell them the truth, and don’t point the way toward a positive future, who will?

 Too Scary?

 “Is Climate Change too Scary for Kids?” essay written by Christian, Isaiah, Shay, Lauren.

(Click student essay to enlarge.)

When talking with children about climate change, match the depth of conversation to the child’s age. Keep it honest. Children want to know the truth. They want to understand this world they’re living in without being overwhelmed by too much information. Explain the difference between day-to-day weather and “climate,” the average weather over a long period of time (a decade or more). Read a children’s book about climate change together. Assign pairs of students to read and discuss  newspaper articles on climate. Watch a YouTube video together about the difference between weather and climate, and how to use a graph to predict future climate. Visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s website for the background basics of climate change. For more advanced information, see the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website, You may have to translate sophisticated language, but your students will benefit by seeing the graphics, and you’ll be given accurate information. In addition, older children will benefit by hearing such terms as mean, trend, and evidence, in real world contexts.

Adults Talking to Kids 

“How Can Adults Explain Climate Change To Kids?” essay written by Emilia, Chris, Gianluca, Sofia.

(Click student essay to enlarge.)

Complicated topics such as The Greenhouse Gas Effect, which describes why Earth is warming, can be explained at different levels, from basic understanding to complicated chemical equations. The important part is that children understand that some gases, such as carbon dioxide, trap the sun’s warmth near the earth. We need some of this warmth to sustain life on this planet, so some carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a good thing. However, the more carbon dioxide in the air, the warmer the planet becomes. Our quality of life depends on having fairly predictable weather and a livable climate. Adding more carbon dioxide to the air threatens that, because the additional warmth it causes upsets the balance of natural systems. Older children will appreciate the scientific evidence for climate change. In the short term (the past 200 years), it’s clear to see that the increased carbon dioxide in the air from factories, power plants, and cars has caused our planet to warm. For the older child, looking farther back in time (thousands, or even millions of years), it’s interesting to look at the fossil evidence of climate shifts. Note that the shifting takes place over thousands of years, not the short time scale we’re seeing now since the Industrial Revolution.

People Causing Climate Change 

“Is It True that People Are Causing the Climate to Change?” essay written by Luke, Jacob, Grace, Leah.

(Click student essay to enlarge.)

To expose your children to first hand evidence, take them to a local science museum. Look for displays showing scientific evidence of Earth’s climate, thousands, or even millions, of years ago: pollen grains in sediment cores, fossils, signs of changing sea level, etc.  Contact a science department at your local university: geology, oceanography, atmospheric sciences, or environmental sciences. See if they give tours. Invite a scientist who specializes in paleoclimate to your classroom. Ask her to bring physical evidence, and a slide show of evidence-gathering in the field. What a life-changing experience it can be to engage with a real scientist, and hold fossils that are millions of years old that contain evidence of climate change.

Ignoring Climate Change 

“What Will Happen If We Ignore This Changing Climate?” essay written by Kavitha, Patrick, Bartosz, Mariel.

(Click student essay to enlarge.)

Once children understand the difference between weather and climate, and the cause and effect between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global warming, they’ll want to know why it matters. It’s all about keeping our earth in balance to maintain our quality of life.

Classroom conversations can empower them. As with all of the other scary things in life we need to discuss with our children, such as stranger danger, they can handle it if they understand they have some control over the situation. It’s encouraging for them to know that they’re not alone. There are actions people are taking now to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the air. And they can too, even if they’re just kids. As our words turn into actions we become part of something bigger, something important. Even very young children can begin learning that we need to take care of Planet Earth, even if they don’t yet fully understand why.

Kids Helping 

“What Can Kids Do to Slow Down Climate Change?” essay written by Jessica, Shane, Kelly, Dan.

(Click student essay to enlarge.)

Animoto video of 5th graders and Ms. Christie-Blick taking steps to mitigate global warming by reducing, re-using and recycling.


Our educational system is beginning to understand the responsibility and power we teachers have to move society forward. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) directs us to teach Earth’s Systems, and ways in which people affect these systems. The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts that requires the reading and analysis of nonfictional texts, and the writing of expository essays, provides opportunities for students to use their emerging skills to understand a concept that’s important to them. The Common Core State Standards for Math mandates that students spend class time analyzing data, and using graphs to recognize patterns in order to predict the future. When your students put the Common Core to good use to understand important concepts that affect their lives, you’ll come to appreciate the accelerated academic rigor of these new standards, and your important role in influencing society’s priorities.

Additionally, there are programs for teachers to learn more about climate change. As a Climate Stewards Educator, I receive free information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA also provides opportunities to participate in webinars, field trips, and collaborative projects with other Climate Stewards. My students have participated in “live lessons” with a class of 5th graders in South Africa, discussing climate change. The Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program provides teachers the opportunity to work on significant academic issues, such as teaching climate change, in a foreign country. During the 2011-12 academic year, I worked in South Africa researching environmental issues, consulting in schools, and sharing the information with my school back in New York. When our students understand that children and adults in other countries are also helping the environment, they understand that positive change is possible.

We Love Our Planet! Students keep their focus on Planet Earth: We love our planet!

Don’t worry about not knowing all the facts at first. Plunge in by visiting the links in this article. They’ll lead you to other informative sites. The important thing is to start talking about our changing climate, and to begin modeling ways we can help slow down climate change. The quality of our children’s lives, and THEIR children’s lives, depends on the actions we take today.

The two-hour gift of time all too quickly consumed, I head off to school. I think about my students’ essays, the children’s questions and concerns, their enthusiastic discussion yesterday about what they want to be when they grow up.  The car radio diverts my attention. 2015 was the warmest year on record. Time to start teaching.

Kottie Christie-Blick and 5th Grade Students

Kottie Christie-Blick is a teacher at Cottage Lane Elementary School in the South Orangetown Central School District, in Blauvelt, New York. She’s also an educational consultant, specializing in the teaching of climate science to elementary students. Kottie has published articles in several educational journals, and has presented at educational conferences across the United States and in several other countries.  She’s a NOAA Climate Stewards Educator and a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher.

More Climate and Weather Resources for Children

Click here to read an interview of Kottie Christie-Blick by National Center for Science Education.

Click here to read an interview of Kottie Christie-Blick by Yale Climate Connections.

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