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How preschoolers can practice ‘gentle activism’ to save the planet

With our Eucalypts at risk of mass death due to prolonged drought, and global temperatures edging ever closing to the universally agreed 2-degree warming limit, scientists agree climate change is now at boiling point. And while it may not affect older generations as much, our little ones will certainly experience its wrath in their lifetimes.

Although the mere thought of it can provoke anxiety, it is imperative that educators school young kids on climate change mitigation, said Hilary Whitehouse, associate professor at the centre for Research and Innovation in Sustainability Education at James Cook University.

Yet it can be difficult for them to do so, despite sustainability being included in the national Early Years Learning Framework, and even encouraged to be embedded in all daily routines and practices, surveys such as the 2010 Victorian City of Knox Staff Survey have revealed many educators feel they lack the knowledge and skills to teach this environmental concept effectively.

Whitehouse offered a reason for this: while such information used to be freely available, over the past three years, conservative politicians and large polluting companies have successfully buried it. “Very large coal companies have authored very well-funded information campaigns that … even constructed the debate about climate change,” she said. She noted that access is further stymied by structural problems, such as the fact that professional development is the responsibility of discrete early learning associations.

Even so, some information remains accessible, albeit in a patchy format. “Some of the NGOs have put out really fantastic resources,” she offered. “Organisations like the CSIRO have got resources, too.”

She also had her own, research-supported take on how to equip these tiny change agents to battle climate change – with action-oriented strategies.  These entail introducing a novel problem that children can do something to help fix. Teachers must explain why the children should do it. For example, teachers could combine a tree planting activity with intentional teaching about how trees help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Whitehouse contended however, that action should be followed up with activism to radically alter the public’s consciousness, and suggested even preschoolers could participate in the latter. “Little kids are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves,” Whitehouse said. “I’ve seen videos of 6-year-olds protesting climate change.” She explained that although toddlers may be naïve about the effects of climate change, they understand something has to be done. So, by doing something and telling others about it, they are practising a gentle[ form of activism, which is as much about education as it is about passionately crusading.

As for why teachers should be teaching children as young as 3 about global warming, Whitehouse said they have a “moral imperative” to do so. “I’m not into telling lies to young children,” she matter-of-factly stated. “Climate change is like a sci-fi nightmare, but true … Little children have the least power, and will be most affected.”

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