Five-year old Jerin loves tending to the young chilli pepper and aubergine plants in her school’s garden.
The 30 children in her class, aged from three to five, at a government school in the central Bangladesh village of Brahmangaon in Gazipur district are learning to grow plants and observe insects in an education programme to familiarise pupils with nature and climate change issues through music and play.
Recent UN reports have highlighted the perils of a warming planet for children, who are expected to see an almost fourfold increase in extreme weather events over their lifetime.
The impacts include diseases and health harm from heatwaves and air pollution, malnutrition due to crop failures, and climate change-driven disasters that are already displacing and disrupting the education of millions of children each year, according to Unicef, the UN children’s agency.
“The climate crisis is a children’s rights crisis, and engaging children is therefore very important,” said Reis Lopez Rello, a Unicef adviser on the issue.
Within the UN climate process, young people have been accorded a more prominent place over the years, presenting their climate action demands ahead of the COP summits each year and participating in government delegations and advocacy.
At COP28 in Dubai this month, a decision was adopted to formalise the role of a youth climate champion to work with host nations on promoting the inclusion of young people in the talks.
Activists and development groups, meanwhile, are increasingly working with governments and schools on the ground to raise awareness of climate and nature issues by including them in the curriculum from the early years of childhood.
International development organisation BRAC, for example, has recently introduced “green play labs” in more than 50 government schools in Bangladesh, as well as in other countries such as Uganda and Tanzania.
“If children in their early years learn to connect with nature through play or gardening, they may grow a deeper sense of responsibility towards the planet and its climate when they grow up,” said Areefa Zafar, an education expert with BRAC University.
Children at public schools come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, and one of the objectives of BRAC’s green play labs initiative is to provide a fair and equal chance for them to reach their developmental milestones.
Families bring seeds for planting in the school grounds, and parents make play equipment like wooden swings or dolls from recycled or up-cycled material, giving children from poorer homes better access to green spaces and play equipment.
They include Fatema, the 4-year-old daughter of Taslima Akhter whose husband, a landless peasant in an area increasingly hit by heatwaves and irregular rainfall, left for Saudi Arabia in search of work.
Fatema has planted Indian lilac in the Brahmangaon school garden and loves reciting her favourite rhymes about frogs croaking in the rainy season under the shrubs and trees.
“While I struggle to meet the family expenses, I feel happy to see my kid enjoying her time at school as a proud steward of plants,” Akhter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Carlie Trott, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati, said the best ways to engage children in climate action are fun, collaborative activities that help them feel they can make a difference.
“My research shows that participatory methods can be effective in promoting children’s enjoyment while strengthening their sense of agency,” she explained.
BRAC’s green play-based education initiative also caters to children caught up in humanitarian crises, such as Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in camps in Bangladesh, or Congolese refugee children in Uganda.
The play lab facilities provide spaces for those children to come together to speak about their experiences, recite poems in their own languages, and draw pictures to express themselves.
Kuri Chisim, who leads work on adolescents at the BRAC Institute of Educational Development, said children’s art initially tends to evoke fear and anguish but gradually incorporates brighter subjects like flowers and animals.
Shanti Rani Das, a mental health counsellor trained by BRAC who supports rural families, said children can heal from mental health issues and trauma by forming bonds in a safe space and connecting with nature.
Despite growing evidence of the importance of education about climate and nature, there is a lack of national and global strategies to boost knowledge and green skills through primary, secondary and tertiary education, said Rello from Unicef.
In Bangladesh, school textbooks already include environment and climate-related information, but that is not enough to prepare children for the growing crisis they face, experts and activists told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Aruba Faruque, a 17-year-old activist who participated in COP28 representing the voices of Bangladeshi children and adolescents, has been running a campaign asking the government to provide effective climate-related education.
“Our schools teach children facts and theories that help them pass exams, but what we need is multi-dimensional, action-oriented learning taught by well-trained teachers,” she said.
That means offering children opportunities to develop green skills and more activities outside the classroom such as cleaning up trash on beaches and riverbanks and learning how the solar photovoltaic systems in their homes work, she added.
Faruque and her peers have organised “climate Olympiad” competitions on climate-related knowledge at high schools, as well as debates, film screenings and discussions with children and teachers about the climate crisis.
Efforts like this will help equip children and young people for the type of work needed to push forward a green transition - but far more is needed, experts said.
Rello, from Unicef, called for larger investment in climate literacy education and green skills training.
A Unicef report this year showed that only 2.4% of finance provided by key climate funds globally — averaging less than $71mn a year since 2006 — went into “child-responsive activities” like ensuring children have access to clean water or making their schools fit to withstand storms, with very little going to education.
Even when children are considered in climate projects, they are seen as vulnerable victims rather than people who can drive change, the report pointed out.
Yet teen activists like Faruque and younger children like Jerin and Fatema believe they are playing their part.
“You cannot imagine the passion that children bring to the cause of climate action — which cannot and should not be quelled,” Faruque said. — Thomson Reuters Foundation
When climate change is child’s play, the future looks greener
• Bangladeshi schools try out ‘green play labs’ • Climate-literate children can drive change • Youth needs often ignored in climate finance
A school student paints a mural calling for action against climate change and environmental pollution on a roadside wall in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.