The Climate Change Challenge: What do children write about climate topics in 100 words? Climate Change Challenge

Wolfgang Mann, Virginia Lam, Eva Duran Eppler, Helen Cheng

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The scientific community has been communicating for decades about climate change as a major global problem facing humanity, with the last two decades having accelerated media coverage (Clayton & Manning, 2019). However, scepticism to denial about climate events has persisted still among some adults and children (Ojala, 2015; Tasquier et al., 2016), and misconceptions of climate topics among pupils and teachers are relatively common (Chang et al., 2018). This may in part be due to the complexity of the topics entailing knowledge of concepts including meteorology, environmental degradation and other socio-scientific issues (Lambert & Bleicher, 2017). Much of this literature has come from research with students at secondary-school ages or above; relatively little is published on how younger children make sense of climate change (Chadborn et al., 2013; Williams et al., 2017). More information on their conceptualisations would be useful as climate education is likely to be more effective beginning at younger ages for a fuller understanding and development of climate resilience (Cutter-Mackenzie & Rousell, 2019). The present paper explores what primary-school-aged children communicate about climate change through writing. The talk will focus on the most prominent climate concepts described in their writings and whether their coverage differs in response to how climate topics were presented.

The study was conducted in collaboration with 100-Word Challenge, a community website that supports developing children’ by enabling the submission and publication of their short writings (up to 100 words) on a different topic each week. As part of our study, 100-Word Challenge hosted a special series ‘Climate Change Challenge’ (CCC), over ten consecutive weeks. Each week children were invited to write about a climate topic (e.g., drought, ice cap melting, social responsibility). These topics were presented in different ‘prompts’: sentential (from a question to a paragraph; e.g., “…but does it (climate change) make any difference to me?”), ‘5-words’ (writings required to contain five keywords; e.g., “overwhelmed, scientists, green, species and hot”), or with graphical imagery (e.g., photograph of an industrial furnace, video of companies talking about climate change). Over 1000 written pieces were collected from pupils, the majority in UK primary years 5 or 6 (or equivalent), from the core English-speaking countries (the UK, US, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand).

A mixed-methods approach was applied to the data. The writings were initially coded in an inductive ‘bottom-up’ approach by an independent coder, before the codes were thematically organised into three overarching climate-relevant themes for this paper: ‘Causes’, ‘Impacts’ and ‘Actions to mitigate’ climate change. Statistical analyses (Chi square tests) were used to examine associations between themes and prompt type (sentential, 5-words, with graphics). The most prominent causes of climate change that children wrote about referred to fossil fuel use, irresponsible waste and deforestation (subthemes). The most common impacts of climate change that children described pertained to extreme weather, biodiversity (e.g., animal habitat loss and extinction), and human loss of homes or migration. Most of the mitigating actions in children’s writings referred to education and advocacy, waste reduction and recycling, and sustainable living (e.g., energy use, transport choice). These themes were contained in the majority of coded content (14-100%; mean 69% of codes per topic). Proportions of climate-relevant content were associated with prompt type (χ2=296.28, p<.001) with the highest for sentential (82%), followed by with graphics (69%), then 5-words (30%). For CC impacts, which applied across all weeks/prompts, children were more likely to write about extreme weather and biodiversity loss (χ2=297.43, p<.001) than all other impacts.

Our preliminary results show that pupils of late primary-school years have some knowledge of widely known climate concerns and can articulate these through writing, even though the 100-word format means that many concepts could not be explained with substantial detail in the CCC. Nevertheless, the findings corroborate with the existing literature on the concepts and concerns expressed by this age group through other means, such as talk, drawings and creative arts (Chadborn et al., 2013; Williams et al., 2017). The findings are also in line with research that suggests that a variety of methods including vignettes, keyword-prompts, audio-visual materials, can be deployed to engage children in discussions and learning activities or projects about climate change (Cutter-Mackenzie & Rousell, 2019; Tasquier et al., 2016). Of critical importance is clarifying any topic’s relevance to climate change. Further analysis will include examining variations of the themes by region. Apart from the academic community, the study’s findings will be shared with key stakeholders, in particular school communities consisting of teachers, pupils and parents, to gain feedback and practice recommendations.

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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 12 Sept 2023

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