Ideas for Elementary School Teachers
With younger children, teachers tell us that it is essential to develop children’s understanding of nature and the environment and the connections among us and the Earth, their ability to express their observations (either visually or in words), to identify patterns, and to ask critical questions about what they see. This will, we think, prepare them to more fully understand complex topics such as global warming and sustainability as they grow older.
We urge those who work with older elementary students to also the individual subject areas in the next section, because many of those ideas could be adapted for elementary students; for older elementary students, some of the ideas may be useful just as they are.) This guide comes with a School GHG Calculator, which can be a great project for all but the youngest students.
Would some of the following questions and activities help you achieve the goals set for various curriculum areas in your classroom? (Because developmental levels and academic ability vary so much, we have not attempted to categorize these questions and activities for grades or ages.)
- Do you enjoy playing outside? How does the weather affect your time outdoors?
- Why do the seasons change throughout the year?
- The tilt of Earth’s axis, not distance from the sun. If students have a hard time with this, remind them that it’s summer here when it’s winter on the other side of the equator.
- How does turning a switch make the lights go on or off?
- Why do we sometimes see more stars than at other times?
- Haze and light pollution
- Why do leaves die each year? Why do they fall to the ground?
- When do new leaf and flower buds form?
- For most trees and shrubs, they form in the fall.
- Do you know what is happening to the Monarch butterfly?
- Do Monarch butterflies hibernate in the winter? Where?
- How long does it take a Monarch to migrate to its summer grounds?
- Why are bees important to help plants pollinate?
- What do bees need to survive?
- What is causing ‘colony collapse disorder?
Sample Problems Related to Global Warming
- If the sea level rises by just 1 meter, how many people will be displaced in the U.S.? How many will be displaced in SouthEast Asia and the Pacific Islands?
- What if sea level rises 10 meters, as some current projections indicate is possible? (See Global Sea Level Rise Map resource; also see Metric System Refresher)
Metric System Related Questions
Science and technical information have become increasingly important, especially in understanding phenomena such as global warming, and much of that information uses the metric system. (And many products in the U.S. are already being sold in metric units.) Students whose classes include studying the metric system may have an advantage, so teaching the metric system makes sense. You might want to discuss why most people throughout the world use the metric system, and follow up with some quick exercises, such as the following samples.
- Why are there different units of measurement in different parts of the world? Does everyone use the same measurements we do (inches, feet, quarts, miles, and so on)?
- People in most countries use the metric system and the Celsius scale for temperature, not the Fahrenheit scale.
- If it is 68°F in your classroom, what is that on the Celsius scale?
- If it is freezing outside (32°F), what is the temperature on the Celsius scale?
- Why do most scientists use the metric system?
- Is it easier to work with a system where units of volume, length, and weight all correspond? (1 milliliter = 1 cubic centimeter = 1 gram of water)
- Is it easier to work with a system where units progress in multiples of 10? (10 millimeter = 1 centimeter; 100 centimeter = 1 meter; 1,000 meters = 1 kilometer)
- Melting Ice – Use containers with ice and water to show what happens to the water level when the ice melts.
- What happens to the water level if the ice is floating in the water?
- What happens if the ice is outside the body of water but the water from melting drains into the water?
- How do plants reproduce?
- Do all plants need help from pollinators?
- Optional activity: create cards with outlines of a plant and have students color in parts of the plant.
- How do seeds grow? – Plant seeds and watch them germinate.
- Note: What happens if it is placed in direct sun? Why?
- Compare to the greenhouse effect of excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
- What do you see? – Develop observation skills by having children record what they see in nature. Some possibilities include the number and types of flowers blooming (or leaves of different colors)
- How many days it is sunny or cloudy and how much warmth we get from the sun even in winter?
- Shapes of Nature (1) – Collect leaves and sticks from outside and use to make art. (self-portrait, landscape, buildings, etc.)
- Shapes of Nature (2) – Have students draw or cut their own snowflakes out of paper. Why do snowflakes always have a symmetrical, six-sided form?
- Why are oil spills so hard to clean up? – Fill a bowl with water then add a little oil. Why does the oil float on top of the water? What’s the best way to clean up the oil?
- Try different items such as hair, grass, mushrooms, cloth, moss. Which works best?
Art + Future Worlds
- Draw a scene as it might be if global warming gives us extended droughts, extreme heat, or flooding. (Not just what it looks like, but how it will be like for people.)
- Plan and make a mural or picture book to show possible futures — what might the world be like in 50 years? (For example: a world with limited electricity, where it is much hotter in the summer, where storms are more intense, etc.)
- Imagine a world where sea level is 10 meters (about 33 feet) higher – Color in an outline map of the U.S. or of the Earth and its continents to show how much land will be lost as sea levels rise. (coast.noaa.gov/slr) & (geology.com/sea-level-rise)
Here are a few songs that may help young children understand and relate to the environment and nature:
- Can it! Save the planet! https://www.songsforteaching.com/earthdaysongs/canitsavetheplanet-musicwithmar.htm
- (Every Arbor Day) Plant a Tree www.songsforteaching.com/earthdaysongs
- Little Blue Ball www.songsforteaching.com/earthdaysongs
- Every Day is Earth Day www.songsforteaching.com/intellitunes/earthdaysong.htm
- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle https://www.songsforteaching.com/michaelryther/kote_s/03reducereuserecycle.pdf
- Art and science are both ways of looking at things, understanding why they are what they are, and how they could be different.
Sources and Additional Resources
Books & Periodicals
- A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, Bill Bigelow & Tim Swinehart, editors. Rethinking Schools, 2014.
- EcoLiterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, by Michael K. Stone & Zenobia Barlow. Center for Ecoliteracy, 2012
- Rethinking Schools – quarterly magazines with teachers describing real classroom experiences, including teaching on climate and climate justice – supports a strong public education system and social justice.
- Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability, by Michael K. Stone. Center for Ecoliteracy, 2009. www.ecoliteracy.org/book/smart-nature-schooling-sustainability
Additional ResourcesCenter for Climate and Energy Solutions (Formerly the Pew Center on Global Climate Change). A highly-rated center for reliable information, policy proposals, and action plans.
- Children of the Earth United – ideas, writing, and lessons by students
- Climate Change, Global Warming & Solutions for Elementary School. Climate Change Education website.
- Global Sea Level Rise Map. Geology.com website – lets you visualize and show the effect of various sea-level changes
- Global Warming: Natural & Man-made Causes, Conservation & Debate. Social Studies for Kids website.
- Global Warming. Teaching & Learning Center website. Resources on biodiversity, desertification, deforestation, environmental science, energy, El Niño, food, meteorology & weather, polar regions.
- ‘The Green New Deal and Our Schools.’ Rethinking Schools, 2019.
- Let’s Talk About Climate Change. Climate Change Live website. Educator’s Toolkit, lesson plans, common misconceptions, climatechangelive.org
- Make a Mini-Greenhouse from a CD Case [PDF]. Center for Ecoliteracy, 2010.
- PBS Learning Media. Thousands of short clips sorted by grade level and subject, standards-aligned.
- Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website – lets you set moderate levels of sea-level rise.
- ‘Solar Power Comes to Math Class.’ Rethinking Schools, Summer 2019. While this is designed for older students, there is much that would be wonderful for elementary students as well!
- State of the Climate Monthly Reports. Global, national, and regional updates on atmospheric conditions, temperatures, ice and snow, and severe weather. National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
- Resources from Washington State:
- Elementary CurriculumIntegration
- FROM SEED TO APPLE 2020 [PDF] – Inspirational stories from Washington’s classrooms
- Teach About Climate Change. NASA’s Climate Kids website. Print-ready versions of popular Climate Kids activities.
- TeachEngineering website – large, searchable database of curriculum resources include lessons and activities (including many for grades K–6).
- Your Cool Facts and Tips on Climate Change. eSchoolToday website.
Zinn Education Project
Environment & Food Teaching Materials. Zinned Eduation Project
Resources on the metric system are found on the Metric System (System Internationale) page.