Could the arts be the key to educating children about the climate crisis and ultimately be the solution we’ve all been searching for?
There is no denying the widespread general awareness of the climate crisis the world is facing. Global warming has never been such a universally discussed topic, yet no one seems to know where or how to start addressing it. From David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg, Green Peace to Extinction rebellion, school strikes, documentaries, Earth Day, Veganism, tree planting and campaigns addressing plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, we have been exposed to it all. So why is the planet still getting warmer?
What is climate change?
In simple terms, climate change is the shift of global climate patterns caused by the effect humans have had on the planet. The consequence, global warming, has been generated by a significant upsurge in fossil fuel usage since the mid 20th century. Collectively we know and understand this to mean an increase in temperature to the earth's atmosphere, but what are the direct results of this?
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has outlined four main areas of concern:
1. Polar regions and Icecaps melting
In the last thirty years, areas as large as Norway have melted in the Arctic due to the rapid climb in temperatures. The immediate effect of icecaps melting is a surge in ocean temperatures, a rise in sea levels and a general acceleration of the climate change process. As Greenpeace succinctly puts it, “When the Arctic ice melts, the oceans around it absorb more sunlight and heat up, making the world warmer as a result.”
2. The rise in ocean temperatures
“Changes in ocean temperatures and currents brought about by climate change will lead to alterations in climate patterns around the world.” say the Environmental Protection Agency. This directly impacts the global weather patterns and causes sea levels to rise, endangering human life with a risk of severe tropical storms, and flooding. Oceans provide us with a natural carbon sink, however, elevated levels of dissolved carbon have caused a surge in acidity levels. This is causing coral reefs to die, resulting in a loss of habitat and lack of protein for many fish species, affecting the biodiversity and natural balance of the ocean's ecosystem.
“Forests are vitally important as they soak up carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, and help regulate the world’s climate” explain the WWF, which is why it is so crucial that we protect them. Unsustainable industrial activities have led to half of global forest land being lost “setting us on a course for runaway global warming.”
4. Species being threatened by extinction
The effect of all other above issues, due to habitat loss and extreme weather patterns among other reasons, is animal extinction. Polar bears, Orangutans, Tigers, Asian Rhinos and African elephants, to name only a few, could all cease to exist within the next 30 years if we do not implement considerable change now.
“Climate change is real. It is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.” Leonardo DiCaprio 2019
Can children save the world?
Children are the key to the future. If we can advocate for a heightened awareness of actions that put the planet in significant danger, then humanity stands a chance of survival. As they grow up, increased understanding of these issues should encourage them to make better choices than previous generations, thus making smaller footprints on the earth.
A the 2020 article in the Guardian, ‘Teaching climate crisis in classrooms critical for children, top educators say’, addressed this very issue. Writer, Oliver Milman observes how, according to an NPR survey, teachers and parents alike would like to see a mandatory ruling of environmental teaching in schools. He continues by writing, “with many younger people deeply alarmed over how their future will be strafed by soaring heat, wildfires and flooding” thus bringing the readers attention onto the growing shared distress students are also feeling about the ongoing crisis.
Due to climate change being far more evident to children now than previously and a new collective increase in curiosity surrounding the issues has been observed. Moreover, teachers have found a significant rise in environment-related questions from their students, but are often ill-equipped with factual information to be able to answer. The NPR article and survey, ‘Most Teachers Don't Teach Climate Change; 4 In 5 Parents Wish They Did’, discovered that although 86% of the teachers asked, do believe climate change should be taught, more than half of these won’t even attempt to discuss it in the classroom. The most common explanation and the excuse given was due to a serious lack of teaching knowledge on the subject. The article goes on to talk about other obstacles discouraging teachers to introduce more environmental topics to their work and found that “when [teachers were] asked to rank the importance of climate change, it fell to near the bottom of a list of priorities for expanding the curriculum, behind science and math, basic literacy and financial education”, providing yet another excuse for the neglected subject.
It is not only our duty as adults, to be honest with children about the current state of the planet, but it is paramount for us to provide them with the necessary tools to be able to cope with this crisis as they grow up. We need to prepare them for a future unlike anything ever previously experienced, allowing them the crucial opportunity to start exploring potential solutions to our problems through critical thinking. Without an education on these issues, and awareness being brought to their attention about a green economy, a reduction in fossil fuels and other sustainability options, how do we ever expect to change?
Why is creativity so important in schools?
When defining creativity in its most basic form, it is described as using imagination and original ideas to create. Anamaria Dutceac Segesten in her article ‘Creativity in Education’ observed the primary benefits to "include independent thinking and adaptive problem- solving, and success when meeting new and unexpected challenges”. The perfect set of skills to begin to solve the climate crisis.
“Since 2014 there has been a 28.1% decline in the overall uptake of creative subjects at GCSE” stated Deborah Annetts, founder of BACC for the Future campaign, when GCSE results were released in 2019. A more recent report, in December 2020, revealed "the devastating impact” the Coronavirus pandemic has had on this, only adding to the growing concern surrounding the decline of art subjects in education.
There are several considerable reasons why creativity is crucial in children’s learning. Alongside the boost in critical thinking that creativity seems to enable, it is one of the few things accessible for all children regardless of ability and can be especially useful in engaging children who would otherwise struggle with academic work. Providing equity between all learners, equal engagement, and provoking a personal response to tasks set, some children, otherwise overlooked, might even discover talents they were unaware of. Dr Pronita Mehrotra summarised the benefits of creativity successfully in her article ‘Why creativity should be taught in schools’, observing that “when students are challenged to view a subject from different perspectives, it leads to deeper learning” providing further evidence in supporting the theory.
Above: Children from the Amazon rainforest Yawanawá tribe painting their village with annatto seed paint. Part of the Last Chance to Paint 'Spirit of the Rainforest' chapter.
How do the arts provide hope for the future?
“Music encourages discipline and self-awareness; stimulates memory; aids understanding; promotes self-discipline and encourages co-operation and communication with others" Roy Benson Primary School.
Above: Discovering the commonality of music between people. Part of the musical inspiration provided by Last Chance to Paint during the 'Person of the Forest - Borneo' expedition chapter.
Roy Benson Primary not only discovered this but also found it an invaluable tool when trying to bring creativity to more challenging teaching topics like the environment.
Through the mediums of rap, spoken verse, composition, action songs and rounds they discovered that the children were able to engage more easily around the subject. Staff noticed that the children gained extensive knowledge about the environmental topics in question, water usage, sea creatures and their habitats, without conscious effort. This became particularly apparent when, of their own accord, students requested a recycling centre be introduced to the school to conserve energy.
Acknowledging that not every teacher has the same resources or musical background, staff at Roy Benson advocate making use of musically gifted staff, students, and parents to help with any writing or transcription of music to make the creative process less daunting. They summarised by saying, “we will continue to use the voice of music because we find it such a powerful and effective means of communication", correctly exemplifying using the arts as a vehicle to deeper learning.
Furthering this, musician Yolanda Brown in her ‘Mission to promote music in primary schools’ said that “if we incorporate it, we’ll see that music is a great base for everything, from song writing in English, to counting beats in Maths, through to science”. This shows her to be in agreement with the theory that creativity provides a vehicle to educate about climate change.
To similar effect, the Benedetti Foundation has recently launched a new initiative encouraging a greater push on teaching music in primary schools. By creating free online resources and training sessions for teachers, TA’s and others responsible for delivering music lessons, they hope that music can be more naturally embedded into daily primary school life. Designed to assist with confidence, and build skills for the staff, each lesson resource contains a video delivered by some of the UK’s top workshop leaders assisting in making each one fun, informative and most importantly accessible. Headteacher Naveed Idress from Fevertree Primary Academy who works alongside the foundation said “Music and arts ignite the spark of true learning - they tap into something deeper, something that no intervention or booster session can bring out of a pupil. The power of music improves maths, English, behaviour and attitudes to learning”.
Are there creative educational projects already addressing the climate crisis?
Last Chance to Paint
Firstly, although not music-specific, is the Last Chance to Paint project, run by artist John Dyer. Aiming “to raise positive awareness of environmental issues by engagement in the arts to create deep personal connections to the natural world, tribal groups and culture in school-aged children around the world”, is a perfect example of how children can interact with environmental issues creatively. The project runs on the belief that when a child takes the time to creatively illustrate an endangered part of nature whether that be through art, storytelling, or music, they will start to inquire, reflect, feel and ultimately become connected with that particular element. In this scenario, the visual/creative process allows the children to positively learn about the planet.
In Kate Parker's article, ‘The art project opening pupils’ eyes to climate change’, featured in TES magazine, she talks to a KS2 teacher who, with her class, participated in the first two chapters of the project. The interviewed teacher said, “it’s through the art that [the children] can then make a connec1on to the environment. If they start to think, 'This could be the last chance I have to paint this,' suddenly it hits home”. Other feedback from schools include reports of children starting to make small changes to their lifestyles to help the planet. Schools themselves even created eco-friendly gardens all inspired by Last Chance to Paint.
“Let’s inspire a new generation of creative thinkers and environmentalists through the joy of art and by harnessing their inbuilt creative talents and enquiring minds” John Dyer
Along similar lines, but on a more local scale are ‘Natural Musicians’ who offer, “a range of activities and experiences that were born from the need to enable people to connect with nature and each other in a fun, lyrical, playful way”. This UK based organisation aim to provide workshops for groups of people from all backgrounds, but have a specialised program for schools including workshops, enrichment sessions and training.
Accessible to everyone and requires no need for instruments due to the encouraged use of body percussion, the voice and elements of nature, this project directly links to the curriculum, drawing on basic principles of pulse, performance, soundscapes, and rhythmic patterns.
Cross-curricular learning is strongly encouraged during the sessions as workshop leaders introduce elements of botany, science, literacy and numeracy. With no rules and unlimited creative potential, children should enjoy creating their own music whilst reconnecting and hopefully appreciating the nature directly surrounding them. It’s the perfect way to get a class involved in music whilst immersed in nature.
The ‘Eco Music’ project introduces the idea of schools making musical instruments from re-used or recycled material thus educating about the importance of reducing waste and saving energy. This community project, readily available, advocates the theory that everyone is a musician, all whilst teaching that small changes can have a significant impact.
“Play for the Planet” although not directly aimed at school children, is also a brilliant resource demonstrating music being an excellent vehicle for raising awareness. The project asked musicians from around the world to create a musical response to the question “What do we want our planet to sound like? The overwhelming number of results were phenomenal and responses take listeners on a journey as the music allows them to make direct comparisons to what the planet sounds like, provoking a deep emotional response.
Creative education is a powerful vector for change
Above: Children in Borneo with their paintings of orangutans inspired by Last Chance to Paint. This workshop was supported by the Orangutan Foundation and enabled with art materials supplied by Last Chance to Paint. The project helped to inform and inspire the children to protect their own native wildlife.
Children are the key to the future. Once we have provided them with the tools to cope with the climate crisis, as they grow up they can start to influence effective change. Not only do they thrive on creativity but they enjoy it, it comes naturally to them, and ultimately it can result in greater learning through all areas of education.
The enthused reaction to projects like Last Chance to Paint, only further prove the benefits of using the arts to educate children about climate change. Schemes and resources such as the ones created by the Benedetti Foundation, encouraging teachers to have more confidence in delivering lessons in music and art, will assist schools in addressing the somewhat terrifying prospect of climate change, presenting it to children in a much more positive way.
Using the evidence supporting the argument ‘creativity strengthens learning outcomes’, it’s apparent that children will be more likely to retain the important information and leave school with strong memories of ‘creating’ around the subject of climate change. The evidence is there, the resources are available, it’s now time to start the creative educational journey to environmental change!