How to Talk to School Children About Sustainability

With eco-anxiety on the rise in school children, education has never been so important. In a conversation with her Mum, a primary school teacher of 20+ years, Sophie Parsons learned how schools can best introduce action against climate change. 

The conversation around climate change is often one of anxiety for the future – and rightly so. But as the situation becomes more pressing and the 1.5°C deadline moves closer, the rise in concern among young children appears to be growing. In a recent poll conducted by the BBC, nearly three quarters of students aged eight to sixteen admitted to being worried about the state of the planet, with 58% saying they are concerned about the impact that climate change will have on their lives. How then, do we create a narrative around the climate crisis that can educate the younger generations, while minimising the consequent eco-anxiety? With young activist role models such as 17-year-old Greta Thunberg and 15-year-old Autumn Peltier, it comes as no surprise that young children are finding their voice in the discussion. But as the conversation continues to grow, many school pupils are calling for the educational system to better highlight the effects of the climate crisis. As of 2013, the UK government stated that covering topics such as the composition of the earth’s atmosphere and the efficacy of recycling by the age of 14 is building a foundation for understanding climate change. For many, however, this scientific approach to the planet feels inadequate for the urgency required in 2020.  

Big Little Lies, HBO

When my mum first began her career as a primary school teacher in the early 90s, having studied geography and education to a degree level, the climate crisis was a niche conversation yet to have made it into the mainstream. Now, however, her school is making moves to eliminate unnecessary plastics and give the children more agency in how they approach their environmental activism. On an early Sunday morning at home, I sat down with my Mum to hear her hopes for the educational system and how she plans to start a conversation at work on how her school can become more sustainable.

The Importance of Reading

Books are at the foundation of so much of our education; fiction stories encourage our empathy and curiosity, while non-fiction inspires conversation and open-mindedness. While information books are essential for providing the facts, many illustrators and authors are embracing the power of storytelling to weave in a narrative of plastic pollution, climate migration and different cultures around the world. Among my Mum’s favourites is the picture book ‘A Planet Full of Plastic: and how you can help’ by illustrator Neal Layton, with its focus on tangible solutions softening any of the eco-anxiety that might result from such conversations. 

Doing What You Can, Well

Tackling climate change on top of tests, grades and lesson plans has the potential to become overwhelming, with calls for plastic-free, low-waste, recyclable and reusable leaving both parents and school staff a little frazzled. My mother’s mantra has taken the approach of doing what you can, well, rather than trying to overhaul an entire system in a mere matter of months. Starting small, her school hopes to introduce food waste bins around the school that are then managed by the children themselves – the key here being giving the children a degree of responsibility. Another small and relatively simple initiative they are proposing is signing up to the recycling scheme Terracycle, with the opportunity to collect and return crisp packets and lunch box packaging offering a feasible solution for children of all ages to participate in.

A Dedicated ‘Single-Use Free’ Day

Keeping a focus on fun, the school has plans to host a ‘single-use free’ day. With a schedule of environmental-themed assemblies and activities, the hope for the day is to simply start a conversation, one of which inspires curiosity for the world and the future of the climate crisis. The focus on plastic is born out of its tangibility, with the likes of David Attenborough bringing ocean waste to the forefront of the conversation for many young children. Packaging-free lunches are being proposed to both the school’s dinner staff and parents, instead suggesting making as much as possible reusable and recyclable. Once again, much of the focus is being placed on the children: what do they want to achieve for the planet? The day will conclude with a series of pledges, one per class, with each promising a unique but simple initiative for the planet, for example ensuring lights are turned off, or that all food waste is composted.

Illustrations by Oliver Jeffers and Hannah Peck

Recommended Resources


‘A Planet Full of Plastic’ – Neal Layton
Aimed at children aged 5-9, author-illustrator Neal Layton details where plastic comes from, why it is a problem for the environment and the small changes we can make to eliminate the problem.

‘Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth’ – Oliver Jeffers
Focusing on being kind to both the planet and its people, Oliver Jeffers’ thought-provoking illustrated book offers an empathetic approach to the world we live in.

‘Somebody Swallowed Stanley’ – Sarah Roberts & Hannah Peck
A plastic bag mistaken for a jellyfish, this story moves through the ocean highlighting the devastating effects of plastic pollution on our planet. For Roberts, it is simple: “If children aren’t aware, how can they protect their favourite places and the awesome creatures who live there?”

‘Earth Heroes: Twenty Inspiring Stories of People Saving Our World’ – Lily Dyu
Targeted at older students, this book collates inspirational stories of some of the most celebrated eco-heroes, from David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg, Stella McCartney to Mohammed Rezwan.


Save The Turtles – Greenpeace
From the animators of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, Greenpeace have collaborated with Aardman to produce this emotive mini animation on the effects of climate change on the oceans.

Fast-Food Plastic Toy Ban
Follow the campaign of sisters Ella and Caitlin McEwan as they call for fast food chains to scrap giving away plastic toys with children’s meals, suggesting books or cardboard games as an alternative.

Read more from our ‘how to talk to’ series: encouraging friends to quit fast fashion, the younger generation about consumerism and climate change.

Learn how to advocate for your university to become more sustainable.

See how the student strikes are leading the way for sustainability.