Earth Day 2021: Inspiring young global citizens

Written by: Harriet Marshall & Matthew Smitheman | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

This year’s Earth Day on April 22 offers primary schools the chance to engage pupils in issues relating to climate change and environmental protection. Harriet Marshall and Matthew Smitheman offer some ideas


This year’s Earth Day on April 22 – part of the wider Earth Week running from April 16 to 22 – focuses on the theme “Restore Our Earth”.

Making our world more sustainable and tackling climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face globally.

Earth Day aims to champion the voices of thousands of groups and individuals to stand up for climate action and raise awareness of humanity’s greatest existential threat. As part of this, three climate action summits will host discussions around climate literacy, environmental justice, and a broad range of youth-led climate-focused issues.

In recent years, we have seen a rise in the number of young climate activists – Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier, Leah Namugerwa and many others – as well as high-profile, awareness-raising through documentaries such as Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet.

These efforts link to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which form part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by all 193 United Nations member states in 2015 and act as a key framework for international efforts in this area.

The 17 goals recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must align with strategies that reduce inequality, better develop education and health, and drive economic growth – all while addressing climate change and the preservation of our oceans and forests.

While climate change affects everyone across the world, it is arguably our young people who will be most affected. Educating and inspiring our next generation about the environment, biodiversity and sustainability is key to achieving lasting and meaningful change. We must also listen to and learn from young people, so this educational task is also about creating spaces to support their knowledge, innovations and environmental literacy.

However, at a practical level it can often be difficult to bring such complex, global issues into the classroom. That is why it is important for educators to recognise how global learning and citizenship can combine themes like the SDGs and concepts like resilience into teaching and the curriculum. This will help students connect the dots, better understand how specific actions can affect other people, the environment, and the natural world, both locally and globally, while also building essential skills and knowledge.

There are many ways in which schools are already implementing global learning and sustainability – from school awards (such as UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools), working with regional Development Education Centres or engaging in programmes like the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms.

Some teachers also use resources and publications such as Oxfam’s Guide for Teachers on the Sustainable Development Goals, to help them identify a curricular and pedagogic strategy suited to the needs of their students.

When it comes to specifically teaching about topics like biodiversity and sustainability though, there are plenty of ways schools can get creative. It doesn’t have to be confined to geography or science lessons either, as these topics are relevant across all subjects.

Earth Day’s website hosts a range of education and action resources linked to climate and the environment. Below are some additional ideas to help teachers inspire their children during Earth Week and on Earth Day itself.


Host an assembly

One way of mobilising the school community and celebrating Earth Day is by hosting an assembly. This can include facts, videos or even a talk from a climate activist or environmental specialist in the local area. Assemblies are often great catalysts for ideas and spaces for students to lead.

For example, Manor Park Primary Academy in Sutton is running a whole school assembly exploring why it is such an important day and what teachers, pupils and families can do to live more sustainably.

As part of this, the school will be writing poems about looking after the planet as well as sharing stories which explore real-world examples of people who are leading sustainable lives – for example, a beekeeper who makes honey, travels via a cargo bike and reduces his food waste.


Explore the outdoors

What better way to capture the interest of pupils in topics such as biodiversity than by taking them on a nature walk? This could be in the school field, the local community or slightly further afield (restrictions allowing) so that pupils can observe wildlife, nature, plants and animals.

It is important to help pupils put learning into context; landscapes change at a rapid rate when modern farming, industry and urban expansion ignore the needs of wildlife. Therefore, encouraging pupils to notice environmental changes and animal behaviour can intrigue and inspire.


Try immersive storytelling

While exploring local communities is important, linking the local to the global is a key aspect of better understanding sustainability, biodiversity and the impact of climate change around the world. Using immersive story-telling, virtual reality and technology platforms can take pupils to other countries, enabling them to experience places and lives of people and explore first-hand other scenarios in locations across the globe.

Give pupils the opportunity to connect more deeply with the issues and relate what they may observe in their local communities and school grounds to similar things further away. Enable young people to see real human stories behind big global topics that can otherwise seem overwhelmingly huge or abstract. Stories of resilience can also inspire, motivate and empower listeners to have the confidence to act on ideas and projects of their own.


Get hands-on

Getting hands-on and setting practical challenges or tasks that encourage children to think outside the box will help them connect the dots in creating innovative solutions to the problems we face globally. For example, suggest pupils come up with ideas to promote recycling, reduce emissions or plastic-use, or other innovations.

Again, by creating spaces to bring in their own environmental-related concerns, interests and ideas we can achieve a balanced “teaching about” and “giving space for pupil voice” approach. Earth Day is not just about awareness raising, it is also about action.

At Manor Park Primary Academy, pupils are taught about a range of global issues throughout the curriculum, learning about the connections we have with others in the world, and observing the similarities and differences.

On Earth Day, they will be creating their own Earth wall hangings which feature ideas of how we can live sustainably, as well as building a craft fish as a way of demonstrating how micro-plastics have affected the ocean.

Getting practical can help pupils learn to think critically, develop empathy and build strategies and skills that they can utilise beyond the classroom – it can also be a great way of sharing learning and ideas with family and community outside of school, an opportunity for intergenerational learning and action.


Conclusion

More than one billion individuals have participated in the mission of driving positive action for our planet since Earth Day first took place in 1970. However, our efforts shouldn’t be limited to one day a year; it is about integrating these conversations into everyday learning.

Learning which embraces environmental literacy and global citizenship can help us bring themes and concepts into the curriculum which develop pupils’ knowledge and determination to make a positive and lasting difference to our planet.

  • Harriet Marshall is head of educational research and Matthew Smitheman is engagement manager at Lyfta, a platform offering immersive stories which support teachers in tackling complex themes and topics. Visit www.lyfta.com


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