Earth Day 2021: Inspiring young global citizens

Written by: Harriet Marshall & Matthew Smitheman | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

This year’s Earth Day on April 22 offers secondary schools the chance to engage pupils in issues relating to climate change and environmental protection. Harriet Marshall and Matthew Smitheman offer some ideas

This year’s Earth Day on April 22 – part of the wider Earth Week running from April 16 to 22 – focuses on the theme “Restore Our Earth”.

Making our world more sustainable and tackling climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face globally.

Earth Day aims to champion the voices of thousands of groups and individuals to stand up for climate action and raise awareness of humanity’s greatest existential threat. As part of this, three climate action summits will host discussions around climate literacy, environmental justice, and a broad range of youth-led climate-focused issues.

In recent years, we have seen a rise in the number of young climate activists – Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier, Leah Namugerwa and many others – as well as high-profile, awareness-raising through documentaries such as Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet.

These efforts link to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which form part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by all 193 United Nations member states in 2015 and act as a key framework for international efforts in this area.

The 17 goals recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must align with strategies that reduce inequality, better develop education and health, and drive economic growth – all while addressing climate change and the preservation of our oceans and forests.

While climate change affects everyone across the world, it is arguably our young people who will be most affected. Educating and inspiring our next generation about the environment, biodiversity and sustainability is key to achieving lasting and meaningful change. We must also listen to and learn from young people, so this educational task is also about creating spaces to support their knowledge, innovations and environmental literacy.

However, at a practical level it can often be difficult to bring such complex, global issues into the classroom. That is why it is important for educators to recognise how global learning and citizenship can combine themes like the SDGs and concepts like resilience into teaching and the curriculum. This will help students connect the dots, better understand how specific actions can affect other people, the environment, and the natural world, both locally and globally, while also building essential skills and knowledge.

There are many ways in which schools are already implementing global learning and sustainability – from school awards (such as UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools), working with regional Development Education Centres or engaging in programmes like the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms.

Some teachers also use resources and publications such as Oxfam’s Guide for Teachers on the Sustainable Development Goals, to help them identify a curricular and pedagogic strategy suited to the needs of their students.

When it comes to specifically teaching about topics like biodiversity and sustainability though, there are plenty of ways schools can get creative. It doesn’t have to be confined to geography or science lessons either, as these topics are relevant across all subjects.

Earth Day’s website hosts a range of education and action resources linked to climate and the environment. Below are some additional ideas to help teachers inspire their children during Earth Week and on Earth Day itself.

Put learning into real-world context

Teachers can ask older students to watch a documentary on the environment and sustainability, for example, A Life on Our Planet in which Sir David Attenborough shares first-hand his concern for the current state of the planet, humanity's impact on nature, and his hopes for the future.

With an appreciation that not all students will have subscriptions to relevant platforms or that they may include sensitive content (so always an accompanying need for critical digital literacy skills), students can alternatively be tasked with researching sustainability on the internet or via other sources.

Free access to sites such as National Geographic for example will give students credible information on the issues surrounding our planet and climate change. Each group of students can then be assigned different aspects of the problem to research in more depth before presenting to the whole class.

As part of this, students could write poems or essays about looking after the planet which could be shared with local or national policy-makers, or community groups, as well as being posted on the school’s social media accounts or website.

Explore the outdoors

What better way to capture the interest of students in topics such as biodiversity than by taking them out into the environment? This could include carrying out research about the community’s knowledge and views on our environment and its sustainability, doing a class litter-picking day once a month, or planting trees in the school grounds.

To further these efforts, students could conduct talks with neighbouring primary schools or community groups about sustainability efforts in the community. These types of activities could even be promoted to local media to share the messages more widely, and publicise the steps the school is taking to promote sustainability and care for the environment.

There are also opportunities for young people to make their voices heard at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Glasgow in November.

It’s important to help students put learning into context; landscapes change at a rapid rate when modern farming, industry and urban expansion ignore the needs of wildlife. Therefore, encouraging pupils to notice environmental changes and animal behaviour can intrigue and inspire.

Try immersive story-telling

While exploring local communities is important, linking the local to the global is a key aspect of better understanding sustainability, biodiversity and the impact of climate change around the world. Using immersive story-telling, virtual reality and technology platforms can take pupils to other countries, enabling them to experience places and the lives of people and explore first-hand other scenarios in locations across the globe.

Give pupils the opportunity to connect more deeply with the issues and relate what they may observe in their local communities and school grounds to similar things further away. Enable young people to see real human stories behind by global topics that can otherwise seem overwhelmingly huge or abstract. Stories of resilience can also inspire, motivate and empower listeners to have the confidence to act on ideas and projects of their own.

Get hands-on

Getting hands-on and setting practical challenges or tasks that encourage students to think outside the box will help them connect the dots in devising innovative solutions to the problems we face globally. For example, suggest pupils come up with ideas to promote recycling, reduce emissions or plastic-use, or other innovations. This can also incorporate wider STEM efforts, competitions, or creative projects, for example running a fashion show in which items are made entirely from sustainable/recycled materials.

Again, by creating spaces to bring in their own environmental-related concerns, interests and ideas we can achieve a balanced “teaching about” and “giving space for pupil voice” approach. Of course Earth Day is not just about awareness raising, it is also about action.

We know of many schools teaching their students about a range of global issues throughout the curriculum. Project-based learning helps students to think critically, develop empathy and build strategies and skills that they can utilise beyond the classroom.


More than one billion individuals have participated in the mission of driving positive action for our planet since Earth Day first took place in 1970. However, our efforts shouldn’t be limited to one day a year; it is about integrating these conversations into everyday learning. Learning which embraces environmental literacy and global citizenship can help us bring themes and concepts into the curriculum which develop pupils’ knowledge and determination to make a positive and lasting difference to our planet.

  • Harriet Marshall is head of educational research and Matthew Smitheman is engagement manager at Lyfta, a platform offering immersive stories which support teachers in tackling complex themes and topics. Visit

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