With hope and hands-on:

Teaching children about climate change

January 7, 2015 |

girls with frog
Young twin girls handle a frog and learn about aquatic life on the river. (WI DNR photo)

Kids are unabashedly fascinated by gross stuff -- slimy guts, stinky plants, creepy crawlers, even earwax-flavored jellybeans – and this fascination is a great way to nurture their interest in science. But what if the science is frightening?

Climate change poses this kind of challenge. Severe storms and wildfires, food or water shortages, new pests and pathogens, and ill-prepared communities are among the potential impacts of climate change, and all could affect our children during their lifetimes. What should they be told?

“Before a child is 12, it is important to not hit them over the head with all the horrors of the world,” says Brenda Baker, director of exhibits at Madison Children’s Museum. To dodge the doom and gloom, the museum threads a sustainability message throughout its operations, focusing on positive change like raising chickens for eggs, growing food on the rooftop, reusing materials to build exhibits, water conservation, and environmental stewardship. These messages percolate through museum programs, exhibits and the building itself.

“Our audience is 12 and under, and our whole goal is to inspire curiosity, a sense of joy about discovery and about learning, demonstrating what is possible and inspiring inventive ways to live in the world more lightly,” says Baker.

Bringing art into the mix

Having attended numerous science conferences focused on climate change, sustainability and ecology, Brenda Baker believes the science community often inundates the public with overly complex scientific information.

“It can be overwhelming,” she says. As a citizen and artist, often collaborating with scientists, Baker feels a humanistic approach to educating about science is more persuasive. People can be moved to change their behavior by an emotional response to something, not simply because they have more information.

Baker believes scientists and artists working together could be very effective, especially when the artist is part of the initial project conception.

“The research community could look to bring in outsiders, especially artists who have unique perspectives on public communication, at the beginning, when proposals are being written, not after the fact,” says Baker.

In communicating to the public, Baker advocates using simple, concrete language that is not condescending, strengthened through the use of visual elements.

Science museums typically focus on late-elementary and middle-school age groups, telling a detailed story tailored for older children. According to Baker, kids in pre-school and early elementary classes need open-ended experiences where they can make connections to their own lives. Too much directed information, with little opportunity to independently test ideas, can later hamper children’s ability to solve problems.

Baker shares the following example involving educational toy design to illustrate her point. Madison Children’s Museum is part of the National Living Lab project at Boston’s Museum of Science. The project aims to educate the public about child development by immersing museum visitors in the process of scientific discovery.

UW-Madison’s Waisman Center is also a partner in the project, and research done in Madison has shown that when a child is offered an educational toy with five possible solutions, the child will explore and figure out all of the possibilities if left alone with the toy. If the child is given too many instructions or guided toward one solution, that will be the only solution they will discover.

boy learns to use compass
A young boy learns how to use a compass at Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center. (WI DNR photo)

Staff members in the art studio at Madison Children’s Museum, and with Lynda Barry’s creativity workshops at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, frequently encounter parents who are unintentionally stifling their child’s learning by showing the child the way to draw or create.

“There is no right way,” Baker explains. “Kids should be encouraged to find their own voice, and this is why we are not teaching x, y, or z in isolation but rather sparking an interest in asking questions about why something happened. For early learners, this open-ended approach is a key to effective learning.”

Baker always starts her museum exhibit projects by reading children’s books on the given subject to help her understand how to communicate scientific concepts to her young museum visitors.

“It is not about dumbing down or designing differently for children, but instead about using different language so as to hook and excite kids—simple language, tactile experiences, and definitely choosing an upbeat, non-condescending tone,” Baker says.

“To foster sustainable behavior, children and adults alike need to be moved to do something,” she explains. At the museum, Baker has learned that you can’t protect something unless you love it. “We’re inspiring kids to love the Earth and all that it offers, whether that’s caring for chickens, eating bugs as a protein source, or composting lunch scraps,” Baker says.

For kids, and maybe a few adults as well, climate change communication would benefit from a little more heart, says Baker -- more human and art-filled elements added to the mix, more hope, and maybe even a little more science that makes kids say, “Yuck!”