Early childhood matters - environmental action with young children

Children, especially the most disadvantaged, deserve a good start in life, but there are many obstacles. A nurturing environment around young children is the foundation for a healthy, creative and peaceful society, in addition to individual fulfilment, and it is now that support is most needed.

The Bernar Van Leer Foundation works to create a caring environment through research and practical programmes. This year's articles, now translated into English, focus on everyday environmental protection and our relationship with nature, and provide empowering, practical examples of good practice. Now you can hear them interpreted by Karina Kecskés.


Stop saying "It's going to be OK" and other ideas for talking to children about the climate crisis

The bad news about climate change has reached our children: they hear it on the news, in classrooms and in everyday conversations. We need to encourage young children to play outdoors and show them that we value their relationships with plants and animals. Children aged 7-8 are already able to take in more complex, gently dosed information related to their own lives and the lives of the communities around them.

What NOT to do:

  1. Don't present very young children with climate news for adults.
  2. Let's not say that young people will solve this problem. It is the responsibility of adults to act as soon as possible!
  3. Let's not say "everything will be fine".


  1.  Let's be calm and simple and tell the truth, in words appropriate to their age. Young children cannot understand complex science. Instead, talk about the climate situation using stories about people, places, nature and animals that they can relate to: why is the Arctic fox disappearing in northern Sweden? Should we cycle to school? Why are worms important?
  2. Let us show that there is hope. Let's say, "Yes, climate change is a serious problem, but because we humans caused it, we can fix it. In fact, we already know what to do. It just takes a lot of us." Let's talk about the people, organisations, companies that are already working on the solution.
  3. Let's talk about possible solutions. The younger the child, the more important it is to talk about solutions. Look for positive initiatives in your environment and talk about them with your child. Ask them how they can join in.
  4. Let's take action together. It is good to establish sustainable behaviour and active citizenship as a norm from a young age.
  5. Let's connect with nature. Talk about how humans are part of nature and encourage our children to help animals in need.
  6. Take care of processing your own emotions. Remember that difficult feelings are a sign that we understand the situation and help us to find the strength to act.
  7. Give space to children's emotions. By working through emotions and information together, both children and adults will - paradoxically - feel more confident and empowered to keep working for change.

Watch the video!



How to talk to children about climate change

Plant-based diets: better for the planet but healthy for children? 

Researchers estimate that a gradual shift to a plant-based diet would reduce CO2 emissions by 8 gigatonnes per year. This would be a huge achievement: around 15% of the amount CO2 emissions would have to fall to keep global temperature rise below 1.5C by 2050 (Roe et al., 2019). This is backed up by health evidence: research shows that adults following vegan and vegetarian diets get all the nutrients they need. Of course, activists also stress that animal welfare concerns are also taken into account. But what about pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and young children? They need more energy, protein and micronutrients. Is a plant-based diet healthy for them too?


What is the official recommendation?

The official recommendation stresses that a plant-based diet should be carefully planned during pregnancy and early childhood. According to a US industry association, the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, "properly planned vegan, lacto-vegan, lacto-ovo-vegan is appropriate for all ages, including during pregnancy and lactation" (Melina et al, The Nutrition Committee of the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition is more cautious: "Vegan diets should only be followed under appropriate medical or dietetic supervision and parents should be aware that failure to ensure adequate supplementation may have serious consequences." (Fewtrell et al., 2017).


What should parents look out for?

Expectant mothers and parents who are considering plant-based feeding for their children are particularly recommended to ensure adequate intakes of the following eight nutrients (Müller et al., 2020):

  • Iron is crucial for a child's central nervous system development. While it is true that many plant-based foods contain iron, it is more difficult for the body to absorb it than animal-based iron. Some vegetables, seeds and whole grains contain phytic acid, which inhibits its absorption.
  • Zinc supports the immune system, and although there are zinc-rich vegetables and grains, phytic acid also inhibits zinc absorption.
  • Iodine is essential for physical and neurological development. It is mainly found in foods and dairy products from the sea, and some sea plants are rich in iodine, and iodised salt is also sold.
  • Omega-3 and other polyunsaturated fatty acids are also essential for a child's neurodevelopment. They are found mainly in animal foods, but there are also plant-based sources, such as certain seeds and vegetables.
  • Calcium is needed for proper bone density. It is found in green leafy vegetables but is predominantly found in dairy products.
  • Vitamin D is also essential for healthy bone growth. The main dietary sources are dairy products and oily fish, but some plant foods also contain vitamin D and the body also produces it when exposed to sunlight.

  • Vitamin B12 deficiency in breastfeeding mothers can affect the neurodevelopment of their babies. B12 is mainly found in animal products, so those following a vegan diet need to supplement or eat foods fortified with vitamin B12.
  • The protein in vegetables often lacks the variety of essential amino acids found in animal products such as meat, fish, dairy products and eggs. A well-planned plant-based diet can address most of these challenges, but a vegan diet should always be supplemented with B12 and often vitamin D, and in some cases other micronutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids may be needed for pregnant women. Parents should also be aware that a plant-based diet is high in fibre, so the child will feel full quickly.


Given the growing interest in plant-based diets and their positive effects on our environment, more research is needed in this area. Expectant women, parents and carers, health professionals need accurate guidance to make the best possible decisions for their children.





Is a plant-based diet safe for children

We need to connect with nature every day - for children too!

Research indicates that, for children and adults alike, experiences in the natural world can have a very positive impact on mental and physical well-being and improve learning skills. Spending time in nature calms children, helps them focus their attention and reduces the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It can also improve cognitive skills, reduce the risk of childhood obesity and help reduce myopia.

"'Nature-deficit disorder' is not a medical diagnosis, but rather a useful terminology - a metaphor - to describe the view held by many of us, and supported by recent research, that humanity is paying a high price for alienation from nature. Of course, nature is not a cure-all, but it can be a great help, especially for children who are stressed by circumstances beyond their control.

What exactly do we mean by nature?

Natural environments are not only found in the wilderness, but also in the city. It can be a park, a quiet corner with trees, some vegetables in pots by the door, or even a quiet place where you can see the sky and the clouds. Nature is often found even in dense urban environments.

Connecting with nature should be a daily occurrence, and if we design our cities to be in harmony with nature and biodiversity, it becomes self-evident.

How can we inform children about climate change without "painting the future of nature too dark"?

The American Psychiatric Association describes climate stress as a "chronic fear of environmental catastrophe". An article in the Lancet says that symptoms of climate anxiety include panic attacks, insomnia and obsessive thinking. Many children experience all of this.

Data alone rarely move people from awareness to action. Young people absolutely need to know about environmental harms, but they also need direct experience of nature. Both to enjoy it and to have more than an abstract concept of nature. They may know a lot about climate change and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, but they often don't know what lives in the empty lot near them, in the local pond or park.

By connecting ourselves and our children directly to nature, we can not only learn to deal with the effects of losing nature, but we can also sow the seeds - literally - for a future rich in nature.





Children's connection with nature is important

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