Lesson ideas and resources for teaching about the natural world and the impacts of climate change.
Although Earth Day originated decades ago, its message has never been more important. But how does this message really trickle down to kids? Often, students wear green or blue, color a picture of the Earth, and maybe learn some basic ways to do their part by recycling, turning off lights, or not wasting water.
While there's value in those activities, concern for Earth's climate and our environment has never been greater. News reports of rising sea levels and climate-related catastrophes are a normal occurrence, making it much more common for kids today to hear terms like "climate change" or "environmental crisis." So, as teachers, it's important to ask ourselves: What does Earth Day mean to -- and for -- our students? How should we address Earth Day in our classrooms?
Earth Day is an opportunity to illustrate why our planet's resources are worth protecting, how much science matters, and the ways we can work together toward a more sustainable future.
It's best to take a balanced approach. We should help kids celebrate the wonder of our planet and build curiosity about its natural marvels, while also acknowledging humans' impact on our climate, and the impacts of our actions. If we only address one piece of the puzzle, we're not giving kids the full picture.
Below you'll find a bevy of free resources that encourage kids to approach Earth Day from both angles. With these, you can help students become curious and creative critical thinkers about Earth's natural wonders, and also confront the climate crisis we all face.
Check out these apps, sites, and other digital tools that help students address the realities of climate change.
Help Kids Celebrate Planet Earth with Wonder and Curiosity
Inspire some ooohs, ahhhs, and awwws with these resources highlighting ecosystems, natural wonders, and animals from around the globe.
- Join your zany friend Nature Cat and learn about the importance of Earth Day with this fun music video from PBS Kids. (pre-K-K)
- Amaze kids with information about some of the ways these animals have adapted to their environments, as featured in this Time for Kids article. (K-1)
- Spring, summer, fall, and winter: Help younger kids learn about the Earth's tilt and why we have different seasons with this PBS LearningMedia resource. (K-2)
- This PBS Kids Plum Landing interactive lets kids learn about ecosystems and how animals and plants depend on one another in a simple game. (K-2)
- Find out what the world would look like if it were one village by listening to these stories about the people on our planet -- free on Kanopy (with a library card). (K-2)
- Peek into your favorite animals' worlds through an Explore.org live cam, or explore the highlight videos and help kids talk through what they see and hear. (K-3)
- Tune in to one of the daily broadcasts from National Geographic featuring fascinating scientists, explorers, and researchers. Use the associated guide for activity ideas and discussion questions. (K-8)
- Play! Explore! Create! And discover the wonders of our amazing planet with the fun characters from PBS's Plum Landing. (1-4)
- Take a trip around the globe using Google Earth and notice that the Earth actually knows its ABCs! Explore different areas that look like letters from outer space. (1-8)
- Explore some of the most beautiful places in the USA, guided by National Park rangers, with The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks from Google Arts and Culture. (1-12)
- Have students read this article on forest life from Time for Kids, then share some of the facts they've learned. (3-4)
- With this YouTube video from Nature Lab, travel to China's Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, home to majestic forests and creatures like the giant panda, towering mountains, and other iconic landscapes. (3-8)
- See some of the world's most amazing trees—from the biggest to the oldest, and beyond—in this top-notch virtual tour from Google Arts & Culture. (3-8)
- Take a deeper look at the natural systems that sustain life on Earth and find new ways to participate as positive players in the system with this resource from the Wonderment. (3-12)
- Journey to Vietnam's Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park with National Geographic and marvel at the stunning Sơn Đoòng, the world's largest natural cave. (3-12)
- Work through this interactive lesson from NOAA on how scientists use data to better understand El Niño events and how they affect weather. (6-8)
- From flowers to beehives to your pantry -- learn about the long (and complicated!) process of getting a bottle of honey to your shelf from this YouTube video from PBS. (6-12)
- Learn how NASA Goddard researcher Lola Fatoyinbo shoots lasers at trees to measure how much carbon is stored by forests in this YouTube video from NOVA. (6-12)
- See how movements of the Earth's crust can cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and change the shapes of continents and oceans in this interactive story map from ArcGIS. (9-12)
Explore Climate Science and Inspire Kids to Find Green Steps Forward
Help kids explore the science of climate change, learn about people who are developing creative solutions, and do some of their own hands-on activities. This quote from Jane Goodall can make a fantastic starting point: "You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."
- Show kids how one company came up with an alternative to single-use plastics: the Ooho edible water bottle made of seaweed! (pre-K-12)
- Learn about recycling and the importance of cleaning up in this short Daniel Tiger video. (pre-K-1)
- Learn how you can throw a green party by using items around your home to create invitations, party decorations, and more, with this YouTube video from Peacock Kids. (K-2)
- Check out this building activity from Tinkergarten, use the natural materials around you, and give kids the freedom to design, test, redesign, and build their creations. (pre-K-2)
- Before everyone recycled, there was a town that had 3,168 tons of garbage and nowhere to put it. What did they do? Listen to this tale from Storyline Online to find out! (pre-K-3)
- Take the Kids vs. Plastic pledge to get your Planet Protector certificate from National Geographic and find out what you can do to fight trash. (K-3)
- Practice recycling by sorting items into the correct bins in this activity from National Geographic. (K-3)
- See the recycling process for paper, from pickup to sorting and baling up the final product, with this video from PBS LearningMedia. (K-3)
- Watch how the Straus Family Creamery transforms "cow pies" into renewable energy and compost to fertilize pastures using this resource from The Kid Should See This. (K-5)
- Build a sun-powered oven out of cardboard! When it's sunny, go outside and heat up a treat to celebrate Earth Day. (K-6)
- Inspire kids with the Roots & Shoots program from the Jane Goodall Institute that has bite-size activities and more comprehensive resources. (K-12)
- Read about five Kid Heroes for the Planet in this article from Time for Kids. Think about ways they can inspire you to take action, too! (3-4)
- Can you design and build a sneaker that's environmentally friendly? As you work on this activity from PBS Kids, consider the effects of the materials you're using. (3-8)
- Find out how you can save the planet's resources for future generations with this resource from Your Plan, Your Planet. (3-8)
- Where do inventors come up with their great ideas? Find out how mechanical engineer Eben Bayer thought of a compostable alternative to Styrofoam in this YouTube video from NPR. (3-8)
- Watch how Ocean Sole is cleaning up the ocean by transforming washed-up flip-flops into beautiful sculptures in this YouTube video from BBC What's New. (3-12)
- Travel to Belize with Marie McGrory to find out how she made it through (almost) the whole trip without single-use plastics in this YouTube video from National Geographic. (3-12)
- Watch this YouTube video from NPR to learn how green roofs can help the environment by lowering temperatures, reducing energy costs, absorbing stormwater, and supporting the overall ecosystem. (3-12)
- Use this YouTube video from WWF International to find out how clean, renewable energy can potentially save Earth's climate by drastically lowering emissions and reducing our use of fossil fuels. (6-12)
- From The Kid Should See This, show students how vegetables aren't only good for our health -- they're also useful for making electricity and biofuel. (6-12)
- Use actual data from NOAA to better understand how rising sea temperatures are affecting coral reefs, some of the most diverse and important ecosystems on Earth. (6-12)
- Learn how we all can save our planet one step at a time by working together toward sustainable practices, with this WWF video and article from The Kid Should See This. (6-12)
- Check out this teen's interview with a climate change expert and learn what young people can actually do about it. (9-12)
- Find connections between what we grow, eat, and throw away and the impact of climate change with this resource from the Center for Ecoliteracy. (9-12)
- Create a model of how plastic trash moves in the ocean using an empty two-liter bottle with this resource from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Extend students' learning by observing gyres on Earth. (9-12)
- Explore this set of resources from the tech boot camps at UT Austin, which include open-source and GitHub projects. (9-12)
- Listen to an episode or two of the America Adapts podcast or read some of the resources on their site to get a sense of next steps. (9-12)
- Watch this overview of how climate change affects public health from the Harvard School of Public Health. Then, read some of the related articles and complete the reflection prompts. (10-12)
Lead and second images courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.