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Mama Said: How do we explain climate change to kids?

Learning big concepts is confusing in childhood and it doesn’t bode well for the environment, writes Emily Martin

How do we help children understand climate issues
How do we help children understand climate issues

When it comes to education there’s only time to learn snippets here and there at school. You naturally speed through subjects like the animal kingdom, WW2, food production, economics, plate tectonics, trigonometry. There isn’t time to learn and understand it all so naturally you’re left with huge, confusing gaps. Some things you might overhear on the TV news, while you’re playing with your sister on the carpet. But overall, it’s up to you as an individual to fill in all the blanks.

I remember being 8 and learning a new word at school. “Biodegradable”. I felt very grown up knowing such a long word, surely the longest word I knew at that time. I went home and announced it to my parents. “Wow” they said, “Do you know what it means?”. Hmmm, no I didn’t. And that was the start of a lifetime of confusion. Dexterity. Discombobulate. Altruism. Gauche. Marxism. Communism. Nuclear. Dividend. Exponential. Quasi. Psychotherapist. What were the adults talking about?

And particularly confusing was an array of puzzling environmental words of which, I came to learn, my precious “biodegradable” was one. Green House Gas, the Ozone Layer, ecological, acid rain. Very confusing, and seemingly having something to do with the biggest problem ever faced by humanity - those plastic can loops that hold together 4 or more cans of beer. In my tiny child’s brain I noted this solemnly. Something had to be done.

I remember more than once in school assemblies being reminded to snip those plastic can loops whenever possible, with scissors, lest a vulnerable hedgehog should attempt to climb through one of the loops and become irreversibly stuck. Regularly in school assembly the suffering of hedgehogs would be described and me and my small peers would all vow silently to spend our lives snipping those plastic loops. No hedgehogs would suffer because our Dads brought few beers to a BBQ. Not on our watch.

The “hole” in the Ozone Layer seemed a frightening issue relating to the sky. A worrying problem causing polar bears to stand alone atop icebergs on the TV news. And all the fault somehow of my own mum and her excessive use of Elnett hairspray in the 1980s, for which I’d like to say here publicly, I’m truly sorry.

Anyway, I’m older now. I understand some of those words. And now I can watch my own children’s befuddlement as they learn bits here and snippets there. Boy told me the other night during our bedtime chat that he’d learned it was bad to leave litter lying around. “Oh?” I enquired. He said we have to “re-use, re-cycling [sic] and re-do”. I didn’t understand the “re-do” part of the process but my ears started ringing as I recalled just moments earlier downstairs having stuffed some plastic wrapping into the normal bin, unsure of its recycling status and felt visceral shame at my part in ruining the planet.

He carried on and said we have look after the Earth because we share it with lots of other creatures. And then he turned accusatorily to me and said, “Do you think we can just put all the rubbish in a rocket and blast it into the space?” “No?” I offered. He looked relieved. And then explained by doing that (I hadn’t considered doing that) we’d end up with a sky full of trash and that instead of stars it would then just be junk when we looked at the sky.

We sang a couple of rounds of “twinkle twinkle lots of trash”, to his great amusement, before his face darkened again. He told me how some people go for picnics on the beach and leave all their rubbish behind and that the baby turtles then simply cannot make their way to the sea. He said if the planet was covered in trash, we would all be trying to search for our mums but we wouldn’t be able to find them.

Girl is a bit further along on the path of environmental awareness. At school they had a project to design a piece of technology, something ecological. She spent an hour designing a wearable battery that recharges by using your movement, which sort of exists already but only in prototype as far as we could see on Google. So overall, a brilliant idea. “We’ll be rich!” I thought.

Anyway, after an hour she declared her work done. No further research needed. But weeks later I found the papers in her bag and said, “Oh, didn’t you hand this in?”. “No,” she replied. “I couldn’t be bothered and forgot”. So the inertia and confusion over saving the planet is just as rife as it was in the 80s and 90s I’m afraid. And that does not bode well.


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