Using trees to inspire climate education and action in schools

Written by: Jenn Brookbanks | Published:

Trees and forests are one of the most efficient ways of absorbing capturing carbon from our atmosphere. Jenn Brookbanks discusses how we can use trees as part of lessons on tackling climate change


With COP26 making headlines, we’ve been hearing from an increasing number of teachers that their classes are feeling anxious about the future. How do you enable students to understand the urgency of the climate emergency, while harnessing their interest into positive action?

This article explores ways to inspire students today, to help make a difference in the future.


Local impact

Students are eager to know more, understand more, and take action. The challenge is turning this energy into practical explorations and curriculum-linked activity.

Your first step? Cut through the noise and put into perspective the global aspects of a changing climate versus local ones. Tackling climate conversations from a personal perspective can make ideas and concepts easier to grasp.

What do we mean by climate change? Discuss high-profile news headlines that are at the forefront of your students’ minds, such as the international impact of rising sea levels, deforestation and melting ice caps.

Next, talk about the changes that are happening closer to home. This could be recent flooding, concerns over air quality or the decline of biodiversity – choose whichever is most relevant to your local area.


Why trees?

Trees can play a fantastic role in helping to combat the climate emergency.

Here are the basics: Trees reduce the impact of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow and storing it as carbon in wood. Healthy growing trees and a well-managed forest are more efficient at capturing carbon. Trees also play a role in reducing flooding and keeping our air clean.

As the UK’s largest landowner, Forestry England manages the nation’s forests for people, wildlife and timber. We work to protect the nation’s forests so that future generations can still enjoy them.

Introduce your students to the role well-managed forests can play in tackling the climate emergency by watching our video We are for the climate (see further information).


Collective action

Whether you are based near a forest or not, trees can be used to spark discussion and inspire change. The following activities are linked to chemistry and geography but can also be used to support cross-curricular learning.

Follow these simple steps sequentially, over some weeks. Remember – it is important to reassure your students that anything they do now can have an important future impact.

  1. Take students outside and ask them to hug a tree in the school grounds or your local area. It’s a fun way to introduce the topic. Discuss the tree’s natural and seasonal processes. How does it function? Where does it store carbon? What role does it play in absorbing CO₂ and releasing O₂?
  2. Lead a discussion on how planting more trees can help ease local issues. Cover topics such as sustainable timber, better wildlife habitats and the wellbeing benefits associated with spending time in green spaces.
  3. Ask your students to calculate how much carbon their chosen tree can store using our carbon capture activity sheet (pictured above, see further information for a link). Then, to put these calculations into context, ask students to research how much carbon they use each day or week. As a starting point, see our carbon footprint analysis table (see further information) for the carbon production of some everyday activities. How many trees would you need to plant to offset this carbon, individually and for the whole class?
  4. Are trees the only answer? Discuss whether your students think there is enough land to keep planting more trees to sequester our carbon needs. What else could we do collectively to help reduce CO₂ emissions? This discussion can lead to ways to proactively tackle the climate emergency. Split students into smaller groups and ask them to walk around the school. What sort of improvements and efficiencies could they make? Complete a school audit (pictured above, see further information) to explore the small changes that can also help reduce carbon emissions. Focus on areas such as: energy, water, food, sustainable materials, waste, transport, and biodiversity.
  5. Review each group’s audit during an open discussion. Your aim is to support students to consider which suggestions are cost-effective versus which may have the biggest impact. Don’t forget to consider negative outcomes and mitigation tactics. Extend this activity by presenting the findings in a letter, poster or student-produced film addressed to the school’s decision-makers.
  6. Use the information your students gathered to make a class pledge (see further information) to tackle your school’s carbon footprint. Did the audit highlight changes that were costly to implement? Is there any fundraising activity which students can plan and drive forward? Key to the pledge is making sure it is achievable and measurable so your class can see what difference they can make.


Conclusion

After they have completed the activities, reiterate and reassure your students that lots of positive things are happening. As individuals we can have valuable impact, but collectively we can achieve so much more.

Because of the important role trees play in mitigating climate change, the government has pledged to plant approximately 50 million trees every year. And, in order to make sure the trees that are planted thrive and are resilient to climate change, our colleagues at Forest Research have developed climate and ecological classification matching tools to make sure we plant the right trees in the right place.

  • Jenn Brookbanks is education and arts marketing officer at Forestry England.


Further information & resources


The SecEd Podcast

For more on how we can reduce carbon emissions and support eco-work in schools, listen to our podcast episode from August 2021, which include a range of ideas, tips and advice from schools involved in the Let’s Go Zero campaign: Click here to listen


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