‘Designing climate education programs for children and their imaginations in a time of climate crisis’

On the occasion of Professor Tilde Bekker‘s Inaugural Lecture at the Eindhoven Technical University, on June the 10th, 2022, there was a public symposium with talks by myself, Professor Helle Skovbjerg and Rob Tieben under the banner: ‘Design for playfulness and learning – Combining theory and practice’
This is a summary of that talk.

June 10, 2022, Blauwe zaal, University of Techology, Eindhoven

This focus of the talk is the balancing act I and my team @designathon aim to perform between, on the one hand the wonderful imaginations of children; their natural empathy and their need to envision good futures and on the other hand the onslaught of bad news and future scenarios that is the climate crisis. How can we give these children hope or at least agency? The instrument we use to mediate these opposing forces is a design based learning methodology called the Designathon or (design hackathon) engaging children around the world through programs such as the Global Children’s Designathon.

Video impression of the children we work with, in different geographies and the design method, April 2022

A word on the methodology we use, which is based on design thinking and combined with maker education. In each Designathon event, be it in a classroom or global context, the children get informed and inspired on the chosen SDG (UN sustainable development goals) at the beginning of the workshop by sharing facts, the main problems clustered to make it understandable for the children and creative solutions to the problem area. Using their previous and gained knowledge the children in small groups brainstorm solutions to their chosen sub problem. They go on to sketch their ideas, then build models and prototypes and present them to an audience. We have done this for the last 8 years and reached 100,000 children in some 40 different countries across a diversity of cultures and socio economic contexts. In order to make this method available and usable in all these contexts we have an array of adaptable child and teacher friendly learning materials, tutorials and online training and a regular community cafe.

In the most recent Global Children’s Designathon 2022, our annual event, we were asked to tackle Climate Change and have it launch at the COP26 in Glasgow. Whilst we have already designed educational programs on SDG 7, Clean Energy and in 2018 on Deforestation (SDG 12 & 13), topics closely intertwined with environmental degradation, the 2022 edition aimed to tackle the topic of climate change head on. Once we started the designing of the lesson materials, I realised the enormity of this task. Where is the hope for the children’s imaginations to move towards? There is literally no good news, humanity hasn’t reached any of the Paris agreement targets; all the science is telling us that if anything the warming of the earth is proceeding faster than expected. The IPCC 2022 report states:
The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss the brief, rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.

How does one tell youthful curious minds that it’s basically a shit show? That their futures will almost certainly be tormented with extreme weather events, that currently already both animals and children are starving in the horn of Africa due to drought, that the warming of the planet will mean that many birds, insects and animals of which they are in awe may not survive.
What creative question can we honestly propose to the children in the face of these facts? It would have been unethical to invite them to use their imaginations to create and act on small local actions when so much more is needed, or indeed for them to campaign to adults and politicians when Greta Thunberg has been doing just that without the needed change happening.

Breakthrough 1: The first insight after a week of dread was that we could take an education angle. A UNESCO report found that 47% of national curricula globally, make no reference to climate education whatsoever. An education angle would mean posing a creative question such as: ‘What can you imagine and design to educate others about climate change ?’ Or perhaps better “What can you imagine to mitigate climate change and educate others?” In this article from the Global Partnership for Education they state: “Climate Change Education provides one of the most important channels to address inequities and empower children and youth globally as proactive drivers of change” Yet this route, especially in the context of a designathon seemed to expect children to submit and accept that climate criss is their lot.

Breakthrough 1: Next we stumbled on a UNEP’s ‘Generation Restoration’, program with the mission to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. By taking this angle we could connect the children to an ecosystem they care about and invite them to imagine it’s restoration and ways to support it. Finally a way forward, a glimmer of hope. The creative question became:
‘How can we tackle climate change through ecosystem restoration?’ using the strategies:
Reimagine how and what we consume; Restore nature; and re-educate ourselves and others.

The wonderful thing about this approach was that it offered paths towards possible and beautiful futures. It spoke to our ability as humanity to work with nature instead of against it.



outcomes hope

Children in Cote d’Ivoire at their Global Children’s Designathon, April 2022

It is imperative that children in the Global South get the chance

While I am through this topic all the more aware of the ethical considerations in helping children to become changemakers in their own right.

I still fully believe in the need and appropriateness of giving children knowledge on these world topics, helping them to cultivate their imaginations, their ability to collaborate, to make, to design, to use technologies.

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