Case Study

Key Stage 1 learning about climate change
27 April 2020

A Place for Climate Change within a Key Stage One Humanities Curriculum

“There is no question climate change is happening. The only arguable point is what part humans are playing in it.”

Sir David Attenborough

Where our school’s curriculum came from

At the heart of Cobbs Brow Primary School’s curriculum, recurring themes crop up across several subject areas, such as technology, engineering, inventions and space. When the new National Curriculum came in, we looked at our current curriculum as a team and one singular thought came to mind before we began redesigning a curriculum to reflect what our school was all about: the children. We asked the children what they wanted to learn about. One of the recurring themes was climate change. Our children wanted to know what was happening to the planet, why it was happening and what was going to happen to it in the future. Staff set to work, on the floor, flipchart paper and coloured pens at the ready. We created a new curriculum that represented our children’s interests, our town and surrounding community, and what we as their teachers wanted them to feel passionate about.

Why teach climate change in KS1?

The words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ do not appear in the primary National Curriculum for science or geography. It is thought that the science involved in truly understanding the process of climate change is best suited to older children. But when we think about primary-aged children, they are curious about the world around them. They are determined to protect animals and their habitats, and they sit in awe, mouths open, when we show them YouTube video clips of waterfalls, deserts, rainforests and polar regions. Our school decided to introduce the idea of climate change to our enthusiastic Key Stage One children.

Planning the learning: Our Wonderful World

The overall topic is called, ‘Our Wonderful World’. When planning the topic, we considered the statutory objectives set out by the National Curriculum for each subject and how we could support the children’s understanding of what is happening to our planet; and which key skills we wanted the children to develop in depth.

The science focus is animals and their habitats, so we teach this within the context of endangered animals and their habitats, developing the children’s scientific skills of grouping and classification. Alongside these weekly science sessions, the geography focuses on developing the children’s enquiry and investigation skills this is where the introduction of climate change takes place. Within RE, the learning is focused on Christianity and the big question of ‘Does how we treat the world matter?’ PSHE focuses on ‘Living in the wider world’. It is ambitious and we are taking risks when planning out of our comfort zone of previous, familiar topics.

A sequence of lessons

The above subjects are taught weekly, but have been planned to take each other into consideration, taking the children on a journey through climate change. This journey begins with geography and the question, ‘Where do we get our power from?’ Children learn about fossil fuels and renewable energy, comparing and sorting them. Each year, a child inevitably asks, ‘Why can’t we just stop burning fossil fuels and use renewable energy instead?’ We have a conversation about how we are working towards this and how companies make money by finding fossil fuels and selling them. This really makes them think! We move on to, ‘What happens to our planet when we burn fossil fuels?’ and this is where we look at a basic diagram of the greenhouse effect. The process begins with the teacher drawing it, labelling it and talking with the children. The children explain it to their friends and to their teacher. Meanwhile, in science sessions, children learn about polar bears and why they are classified as ‘vulnerable’. The children put two and two together – a warming planet means melting ice.

The enquiry questions we follow are mostly generated by the children as we guide them through this learning journey. They ask: ‘What happens when the planet warms up?’ They use sources such as aerial photographs of sea-ice coverage from the past compared to the present using sources from NASA. We use a fantastic source from that the children investigate with their friends and talk about the patterns they see and what they might mean. In history, the children create questionnaires to give to their grandparents and great grandparents, asking if they can remember what winters and summers were like when they were little.

We are mindful of how young our children are, and we balance their investigations with appropriate facts. We do not intend to scare them about the present or their future. We teach them about David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg and what humans are doing to help our planet. They love learning about Elon Musk and how his main goal is to create a sustainable, healthy planet for all. The children develop a real empathy for the planet and a responsibility to share what they have found out.

The outcome

Through the organisation of geography, history, RE and PSHE, children in KS1 go on a thought-provoking journey across different subjects. By the end of the topic, children could explain, using their diagrams, pictures and writing, why our planet is warming, what happens when it warms and what humans can do and are doing to help protect the planet. Their surprise at what we have done to our planet motivates them to find out more, to suggest how we as a school can help and inspired an after-school Eco Club. Our KS1 children are inspirable. They can be shown or told something and be fiercely argumentative, questioning why things happen.

Why wouldn’t we want our youngest children, who will grow up with this problem, to have a curious fire ignited in their hearts and minds? These will be the people who are going to live with climate change. Helping them to find ways to respond to this has to be a priority.

Danielle Barrett

KS1 teacher and Humanities Lead, Cobbs Brow Primary School, Lancashire.

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