A Climate Change Primer for Elementary School

This series of lessons helps students (grades 3-5) learn about why is climate change is happening, why it matters, and what they can do about it.

To the Teacher

This sequence of readings and activities includes three lessons that can be spread over three or more days:

  • Why is climate change happening?
  • Why does climate change matter?
  • What can young people do about climate change?

For these lessons, you will need one copy of the book Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm (Blue Sky Press, 2014).


Young climate plantiffs
Young plaintiffs in the lawsuit young people have brought against the U.S. to stop climate change. 



I.  Why is climate change happening?

Before reading Buried Sunlight, discuss with students how we use energy in our daily lives. Ask:

  • What makes cars go?
  • What heats the classroom?

After students mention gasoline and heating oil, introduce the term “fossil fuels” and write it on the board. Explain that today students will learn about where fossil fuels come from and how they can have a big effect on our planet.

Read & Discuss the Book

Read Buried Sunlight aloud to students. As you read, ask students to explain what they see in the pictures. Help students recognize that the yellow dots on each page represent sunlight-energy in its various forms. As you read, pause to notice and discuss each page, including the suggestions below. Allow students to discuss in pairs before sharing with the group.

  • “I am your sun”: Draw students’ attention to the tiny Earth in the bottom right hand corner of the page. Ask them to notice how huge the sun is compared to the Earth. Ask them to notice the yellow dots coming out of the sun. What do those dots mean?
  • “They captured light I shined on Earth millions of years ago.” Invite students to explain what they see underground in the picture. Ask them what the picture shows about where the energy in the coal, gas, and oil came from.
  • “This is the Cycle of Life.” Ask students to explain what the big arrows on the page mean. What does the O2 arrow mean when it goes from plants to animals? What does the CO2 arrow mean when it goes from animals to plants?
  • “Fossil fuels—my ancient buried sunlight.” Ask students to explain what is happening in the picture as the tree falls over. Where is its sunlight-energy going and what is it turning into in the picture?
  • “Now you use my ancient sunlight-energy to power your world.” Ask students to explain what all the sunlight-energy is doing now (point to the city, outlined in red).

After reading the book, ask students to discuss with you:

  • What are fossil fuels? Where can they be found? Where does their energy come from?
  • How long did it take for the earth to make fossil fuels? How long have we been burning them?
  • How does burning fossil fuels change our planet’s climate? What does a blanket of CO2 do to our planet?

Hands-on activity

After reviewing the page about the greenhouse effect (“So this: CO2 is part of a ‘blanket’ of gases around Earth”), conduct a demonstration (video here) of how CO2 traps heat by using two plastic bottles, Alka-Seltzer tablets, a light source, and two thermometers. Explain that the Alka-Seltzer tablets release carbon dioxide bubbles.

See this University of Colorado site for a more detailed version of the demonstration.


II. Why does climate change matter?

Write the words “weather” and “climate” on the board. Ask:

  • What was the weather today? Write it down under the word “weather.”
  • What was the weather three months ago? What was the weather six months ago? How about several years ago?

Discuss how weather changes. Then explain to students that “climate” means what a place’s weather is usually like over many years. Explain that today they will learn about how changes in the climate might affect their lives.

Use Buried Sunlight to review the concept of how climate has changed over time. Re-read aloud the section of the book beginning with the greenhouse effect (“So this: CO2 is part of a “blanket” of gases around Earth”) and continue through to the graph of CO2 over time.

  • “When they increase in the blanket, Earth warms.” Ask how this warming affects Earth’s climate.
  • “Your Earth has begun to feel these changes.” Take time for each part of this page.
  • Ask why students think the glaciers are melting. Pause to show this time-lapse video of Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska. https://earthvisioninstitute.org/share-this/mendenhall-glacier-alaska/ Ask students to discuss what they see and why it might be happening.
  • Ask why the seas might be rising. Where is the extra water coming from? Point out that warmer, wetter air causes more storms and floods in some parts of the world, and droughts in other parts of the world.
  • “The Earth’s living creatures had time to adjust to the changing climate.” Ask students to explain to you what the picture shows about how the planet’s temperature and CO2 change together. When CO2 was low, what was the climate like? (Point to the the snowy, icy patches.) When CO2 was high, what was the climate like?

Ask students to discuss:

  • What is climate change?
  • What kinds of changes are happening?
  • What happens to cities on the coast or islands when the sea level rises?
  • What happens to farms and cities in hot, dry areas when the air gets hotter and dryer?
  • How could these changes affect our lives?


Hands-on activity:

Show students the page from Buried Sunlight with the melting glaciers and rising seas again. Explain that students will be conducting their own experiment to see what happens when glaciers melt and sea levels rise.

In small groups or as a class, use play-dough to build a diorama of a coastal city, inside a  large plastic storage container. Then add water to show a base sea level. Have students make predictions about the effect of sea level rise on their city, and then add more water to test their predictions. You may also wish to use ice to simulate glaciers melting off the land.  For a more detailed description of such a demonstration, see this from the GLOBE program (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment):  https://www.globe.gov/documents/348830/21221037/02_EGc_FINAL_29sept2016.pdf/90286010-cb39-4bbf-95df-e4d549fa4b9a

Further suggestions and discussion questions for this activity are available in GLOBE’s lesson plan “Seashores on the Move”: https://www.globe.gov/web/elementary-globe/overview/climate


III.  What can young people do about climate change?

Review the final image from Buried Sunlight (“Will you humans keep burning…”) and discuss:

  • What will happen if we keep burning fossil fuels? What changes will happen in the climate?
  • What kinds of things do we do that burn fossil fuels? What do we do that uses energy?
  • What can we do to stop burning fossil fuels so quickly? How can we reduce the amount of oil, coal, and gas that we use?

Discuss with students and list on the board various kinds of actions we can take to reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn. You may also wish to read aloud the book Three Cheers for Trees! A Book About Our Carbon Footprint by Angie Lepetit (Capstone Press, 2013).

After listing various possible actions on the board, analyze the results together. Ask students which actions they can take on their own, and which require lots of people to agree on together. See if they can come up with any more ideas for collective action.

Then show this image of the Our Children’s Trust plaintiffs and ask students:

  • Did you know that children like you have been working together with adults to bring lawsuits against the U.S. government to stop climate change? The case is called Juliana vs. United States. The children are asking the Supreme Court to decide that all people, especially children, have the right to a safe climate for their future. If the children win this lawsuit, the U.S. government will have to make changes to stop people from burning so much fossil fuel.

You may also wish to show this video of one elementary-age plaintiff discussing her reasons for joining the lawsuit.

Discuss as a class:

  • What do you think about this lawsuit?
  • How does climate change affect children more than adults?
  • What are some ways that the government can do more about climate change than individual people can?
  • Do you think the government has a responsibility to protect the climate for the future?
  • What kinds of collective actions could a class like ours take to fight climate change?

Have children work in small groups to make posters informing other students about climate change and how to fight it.