How Scientists Are Empowering Kids To Act On The Climate Crisis Through Art

There is no way to overstate how important the climate crisis is for everyone – not just our children and their children, but also ourselves. It sounds like hyperbole but unfortunately the truth is that we are headed for a future that is not survivable by most – where what we now take for granted around us (food, water, stable institutions) collapses into chaos. And the worst effects will be felt first by those least able to cope and least responsible for causing it. This is deeply, deeply unjust and we have to create climate crisis awareness.

We cannot let this be the future we choose – and it doesn’t have to be.

We have the technology, the finance, the knowledge, the systems to transform our world into one that is safer, cleaner, greener, more prosperous and more just for all! Given this, we absolutely must do whatever is necessary to change the ending to this story! I think about this every moment of every day – it is absolutely urgent, but not too late.

My name is Dr. Marji Puotinen. I am a research scientist studying the impact of tropical cyclone on the world’s coral reefs now and under a warming climate. In my spare time, I run an educational outreach program for kids about climate change that asks them ‘what do penguins and coral reefs have in common?’


Periodically, I also reach out to kids around the world to raise their voices about climate change via international drawing contests. The idea is to show kids that what they think and do makes a difference – to amplify their voices and actions and inspire adults around them to act as well.

Why focus on kids rather than adults?

I’ve been asked why I focus on education kids rather than adults, when it should be the responsibility of adults to solve this crisis. One could make the same argument that people in developing nations that have done very little to contribute to the current climate crisis should not have to be burdened with solving it. But the reality is that we need everyone working together to transform our societies and systems to avoid the worst impacts the climate heating.

The changes that are required are wide ranging and pervasive across all global systems – agriculture, education, economics, etc. That is why the United Nations developed the 17 sustainable development goals – you can’t address climate change without addressing economic inequality, gender equity, clean water, healthy land use practices, and so on. It is a bit like COVID-19 – nobody is safe unless everyone is safe.
Kids have incredible power in helping adults consider information that they might otherwise reject.

In 2019, a study in the academic journal Nature Climate Change showed that teaching kids about climate change made a significant difference in changing the attitudes of their parents, and this was most pronounced for parents that were the most conservative and the least concerned about climate before the experiment. Educating kids is one of the most powerful ways to inspire positive action in adults.

Kids are naturally more open to imaging an alternative and more positive future, they aren’t immersed in the practical realities of life as much as adults, they are willing to take a chance and hope.

This is vital because what we need above all is to be able to envisage a different future than the one created by the pathway we are on now and to get excited about working together to build that future. The key to that is to offer people a way to feel positive about themselves and how they are contributing to that future.

I find that adults that would not feel comfortable joining in a climate action can often feel inspired and motivated to help their kids join in. This was the overwhelming feedback I got when running my first international drawing contest ‘Kids care about climate change’ in 2018 which got 1,246 entries from 11 countries and 120 schools! Kids are often the key that opens the doors that previously seemed irrevocably closed.

How to create climate crisis awareness without scaring kids?

Unfortunately, the reality is that the climate crisis is already causing impacts that kids can see, particularly in developing nations – but also in countries like Australia and the US in terms of drought and bushfires. Trying to pretend it is not a threat or that we have it all under control does not make kids (or adults) feel better when the evidence they see around them tells a different story.

Kids deserve the truth. I explain the science to them (and to adults) in a clear and honest way but then offer a pathway to action embedded in a vision for a better future. This approach doesn’t hide the truth but shifts the narrative for kids and adults away from fear about what is coming to empowerment- we can choose a better future.

“…the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.”

– Greta Thunberg

The key to this is joy. The climate crisis is best served with a bit of silly and play to make it easier to cope with the big emotions it can generate. This is why I dress up in a coral polyp costume and get children and adults to ‘bleach’ me when my water gets too hot. Why I get kids to wave their tentacle arms to feed like coral polyps, to crush together to see how hot it gets inside a penguin huddle, to make coral reefs out of LEGO and play dough.

This is why last week my son Daniel dressed in an inflatable T-Rex costume, I dressed as a coral reef and my son Connor dressed as a penguin as we told 600 kids at a local school why planting trees could help cool the Earth and save penguins and coral reefs. Daniel the dinosaur came in a time machine to warn us that it is possible to go extinct if the earth gets too hot. We showed the kids why but then invited them to help cool the Earth by entering our international drawings contest, where a tree is planted for every entry.

Kids Care about Climate Change Contest

One such contest is the Kids Care about Climate Change: Plant a Tree, Cool the Earth! We ask kids draw what they love most about trees, as a way to cool the Earth, penguins, coral reefs and people. They upload their drawing and a brief description of it on the contest website. My partner, Fifteen Trees, will then plant a tree for every entry we get by 30th June, and kids get a certificate that helps them find their tree later after it is planted (native trees in Australia).

Save trees
A example of how Art creates Climate Crisis awareness in kids. A drawing by Vyshnavi of Singapore who says, “Trees gives us oxygen, provide us food, home to wildlife and birds, shade. We can protect our Mother Earth by planting more trees and recycling paper. Trees help us in fighting climate change and lastly trees are beautiful“.

This contest provides a joyful and fun way for kids and adults around the world to join together and take action. Planting trees removes carbon dioxide from the air. Carbon dioxide is one of the major greenhouse gases that is fueling climate heating. Trees also provide shade, cool local temperatures, provide habitat for other plants and animals, hold soil in place during heavy rains, and improve air and water quality. There are amazing prizes for drawings and winners will be decided by an international panel of judges from across the globe.

Later, we’ll mosaic the drawings together to form a picture of a tree or perhaps the earth and print it on a giant 7m by 5m banner. We’ll film that banner in forests around the world. We’ll display the banner at the UN Biodiversity conference in China in Oct and the Climate conference in Glasgow in Nov. Kids aged 4-14 are our target, but younger kids and older kids are also welcome

As of 30th May 2021, we received 147 entries from 10 countries (Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Canada, India, Mozambique, New Zealand, Singapore, United Kingdom, Uruguay) across all continents and 44 schools with still 4 weeks to go. I know entries are coming from Columbia, China, USA, Indonesia, Spain and South Africa and many schools that are preparing drawings have not yet submitted them. Within Australia, we have entries from QLD, NSW, TAS, VIC and WA– but are eagerly awaiting our first entry from SA and the NT. Watch a 5 minute overview of the contest that explains how to enter .

The prizes are mostly carbon neutral and include:

  • You get a personal 30 minute zoom call with polar explorers and climate change communicators and advocates ‘Hearts in the Ice’
  • Your drawing is used to create a custom ‘skin’ for the popular kid’s game ‘Fortnite’.
  • You are interviewed on international climate change podcast ‘Outrage and Optimism’.
  • You get a personal 30 minute zoom call with a pilot who flies airplanes through hurricanes (cyclones, typhoons) to save lives.
  • Your drawing is printed on a small flag that accompanies Lisa Blair in her yacht as she attempts to break the world record for sailing around Antarctica.
  • You and your drawing feature in an article in Australian Geographic Kids Magazine.

Anyone around the globe with an internet connection can visit the contest website and ‘like’ their favourite drawings. The most liked drawings can also win carbon neutral prizes – Zoom calls with explorers, artists, authors of children’s books and scientists.

What can I do to help?

YOU can help! Tell a kid or a teacher you know about the contest and help them enter! Visit the contest website and ‘like’ your favourite drawings and share it with others even if there are no kids in their lives. This can be any way that makes most sense for you – a conversation with a friend, an email to a teacher, sharing via social media. It’s up to you. Donate as little as $A4.95 to buy an extra tree for us to plant (or as many as you like). Nominate a forest near you where you’d like to see the giant banner of drawings be filmed. If you are a business, you can sponsor the giant banner of drawings and its travels around Australia and the world. It’s a great opportunity for your eco-brand to get wide publicity around the world.

Adults can also support us by making donations, we will use donations to buy more trees to amplify the impact.

About the Author

Dr. Marji Puotinen is a research scientist with a passion for science communication.  In her spare time, she runs an outreach program about climate change for kids called “What do penguins and coral reefs have in common?”  Marji was an award winning University lecturer for a decade before transitioning into researching the impacts of climate change on coral reefs full-time in 2010.  She won the ‘Women in Environmental Action’ Award in 2020 from 350 Perth for her work running the 2018 “Kids care about climate change” drawing contest which got 1,246 entries from 11 countries and 120 schools.

Click here, to view her profile and connect.

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