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Elementary Science

Climate Ed and Elementary

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Jeanne Salchli Jeanne Salchli 925 Points

I am curious.  What do most elementary educators think about teaching climate education in elementary?  I am not sure what climate education should look like early on.  In my opinion, we need to first inspire students to love the natural world by taking them outside and giving them opportunities to observe their immediate environment.  Only after these experiences can we begin to talk about climate change.

I would love to hear input from others.

Richard Lahti Richard Lahti 2960 Points

Jeanne - 

(a) elementary education in my state is K-6, so we are talking about 5YO to 12YO ... that is a huge range.  A 12YO can do a lot more than a 5YO.

(b) whenever asking about what to teach, step 1 would be to consult state standards.  If your state has none, consult NGSS. This is a middle school standard in NGSS (ESS3), listed at grade 6-8.  In MN, it appears to start in HS - 9E.

(c) I can't help wondering if this is "I'm a climate denier, and I'm looking for an excuse to not teach something against my political beliefs" - forgive me if I am wrong, but I have seen enough like this phrased slightly differently at the high school level for climate, Big Bang, evolution, etc. to not have to ask the question.

I think the topic of climate could be used to talk about supporting an argument with evidence (using a C.E.R. framework) in upper elementary - not the mechanism.  What is science?  One of the hallmarks of science is that it falsifiable.  Moreover, what evidence would it take to disprove a hypothesis/argument, and how to write a good hypothesis.  I love the GRIST ( site that goes through all the climate denier arguments (from sunspots to heat islands) and dispels them using data. For example, in the early 2000 the increasing solar activity did correlate with climate data ... but then sunspot activity decreased and the climate data continued to increase.  Or the argument that all thermometers were in cities that are growing, cities are heat islands, as the cities grow, they have a bigger heat island effect and this is all we are seeing.  But as those of us who live in rural areas know, many of the smaller towns in the USA are getting smaller as people move to the cities.  And these shrinking towns are seeing the same temp rise as the cities. There are many good examples of this, and this is a skill that is part of science literacy.

The other concern here, though is that if you know anything about moral development stages, kids go through stages and they are black and white when young.  While older people may still fall for fallicies, if the kids hear negative things about climate change at home it is going to be even harder with them to deal with something that might conflict with what they hear at home.

Again, sorry if I was off-base on C.






Peggy Ashbrook Peggy Ashbrook 10063 Points

I fully agree with Jeanne that we need to "inspire students to love the natural world by taking them outside and giving them opportunities to observe their immediate environment." But I'm not sure that talking about climate change can only come after these experiences for two reasons (maybe more).

Learning to love the natural world is an on-going, life-long process so there is no end point where children will have a fully developed love of the natural world. The process depends on children's access to the natural world, meaning having "the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in" (Rachel Carson, 1956 article titled, “Help Your Child to Wonder”). Whether the nearby natural world is a bit of brush between the fence and the parking lot, a park, garden, or forest, children need adults to make sure they have time there to observe and play, share their observations and observe some more. Just learning names of plants or animal life cycles is not enough--more from Carson: “I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow […] It is more important to pave the way for a child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts that he is not ready to assimilate" (Carson, The Sense of Wonder). 

This reminds me of two of the points in the the Early Childhood Australia’s Code of Ethics Commitments to Action:

"In relation to children I will:

  • - ensure childhood is a time for being in the here and now and not solely about preparation for the future
  • - collaborate with children as global citizens in learning about our shared responsibilities to the environment and humanity"

Yes, lead with experiences to instill comfort and interest in nature and create time for wonder, and also be prepared to discuss climate change as children, even in preschool, are likely to have heard some discussion of climate change and may have ideas or questions about it they need to share with their educators and peers. Engaging in simple citizen science activities or charting direct weather measurements can support children's beginning understanding of what "data" is, and how these observations and measurements can be used to see patterns and changes when made over enough time (years and decades). 

Looking forward to hearing other ideas and practices!

Best wishes,


Emily Van Zee Emily Van Zee 790 Points

I agree with you that early experiences in nature are very important. Some of these can prepare for later experiences learning about global climate change. For example, a relevant NGSS physical science standard for grades K-2 is "Sunlight warms Earth's surface". A relevant NGSS physical science standard for grades 3-5 is "Energy can be moved from place to place by...light...Energy can be converted from one form to another form" (such as light from the Sun warming sand at the beach).

Here is how we present NGSS's learning progression for global climate change and related core ideas in a physics course for prospective elementary and middle school teachers:

ESS3.D Global Climate Change

K-2 (PS3.B: Sunlight warms Earth's surface)

3-5 (PS3.B: Energy can be moved from place to place by...light...Energy can be converted from one form to another form

6-8 Human activities affect global warming. Decisions to reduce the impact of global warming depend on understanding climate science, engineering capabilities and social dynamics

9-12 Global climate models used to predict changes continue to be improved, although discoveries about the global climate system are ongoing and continually needed.

See our free open-source textbook: Exploring Physical Phenomena: What Happens When Light from the Sun Shines on the Earth?  Unit 4: Considering the influence of light and thermal phenomena on global climate.

Emily van Zee

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