Jane Hirschi

What middle schoolers wonder about Climate Change

By Jane Hirschi

Children are worried about global warming. Pretty much everything about climate change that adults hear our children also absorb. And they have twice the reasons to be concerned: not only are they depending on the choices we adults make now, in 20 years they will be holding the same responsibilities for our planet that rest in our hands today.

But rather than preparing our children to be the environmental leaders our world obviously needs we are far too often parlaying messages of fear. By the time children are in middle school, they are frightened about the future without yet having the knowledge and agency to do anything about it. Middle schoolers are finely attuned to what’s “fair.” In my conversations with dozens of young people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, it’s clear that they are also aware of the environmental inequities across communities: where protected bike paths and safe walking routes are being built, and what neighborhoods have more tree canopy to provide cooling shade and cleaner air.

We’re missing a terribly important moment in addressing climate change when we ignore our middle school youth. The period between 11 and 14 years of age often gets dismissed as too difficult to engage. But middle schoolers’ often awkward and contrary demeanor masks a time of deep questioning and an openness to new ideas. Middle school is when young people explore who they are and who they want to become. It’s a critical time to expose youth to important issues and allow them plenty of opportunities to engage. For instance, every concerned adult should be advocating for high quality science education in our middle schools to help youth develop skills like systems thinking and the ability to interpret data. We should be doing everything we can to encourage their habits of critical thinking since this will inform their choices when electing future leaders and supporting environmental changes in their neighborhoods, cities, and the country. The vast majority of eighth graders in Boston public schools are not meeting even proficient levels in science according to 2018 MCAS results. Every young person deserves the opportunity to discover science in the natural world, and to explore what it feels like to be an environmental scientist.

To move beyond paralysis, one has to have knowledge, skills and agency. Most middle schoolers are more than ready to push the limits of what they know and what they can do. We can build on what middle schoolers are interested in and the norms they operate from. We can help them expand their innate sense of fairness to environmental justice. We can use their awareness of personal food choices to encourage them to think about food systems and how that’s affected by climate. Every one of them needs opportunities in school and out of school to share what they think, to engineer solutions to problems they encounter, and to learn to work collaboratively toward solutions. This is the foundation of job skills as well as environmental leadership.

We don’t need to make our children even more worried about climate change than they already are. What we do need to do– and quickly– is make sure that all of our young people in every neighborhood are prepared with the skills and knowledge they need, and are given the opportunity to step into environmental leadership. Every young person has the capacity to think critically and compassionately about the natural environment. We can’t afford to miss this opportunity to help them all become the environmental leaders our world desperately needs.

Jane Hirschi is the executive director of CitySprouts school garden
in program in Boston and Cambridge Schools. Her book, Ripe for
Change: Garden Based Learning in Schools (Harvard Press 2015),
was described by Richard Louv as “a powerful tool to enhance
learning that every school should utilize.”

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Kids Can Make a Difference is a program of iEARN (International Education and Resource Network), the world's largest non-profit global network. iEARN enables teachers and youth to use the Internet and other technologies to collaborate on projects that enhance learning and make a difference in the world.

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