“Can We Make the Climate Change Talk More Approachable?”
MIT Morningside Academy for Design Fellows Natha (Bam) Singhasaneh and Alexander Crease aspire to empower younger generations to become better global citizens through human-centered design. Together, they are exploring how we might make learning about sustainability meaningful, tangible, and actionable for young people.
By Adelaide Zollinger
Feb 6, 2023
As a parent or adult interacting with children, it’s hard not to feel responsible for impacting their lives—by the way we talk, explain things, share our view of the world. This tension is reinforced by the environmental and social challenges we globally face. In a large-scale investigation of climate anxiety in children and young people, The Lancet provides compelling numbers: “more than 45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, 75% said that they think the future is frightening, and 83% said that they think people have failed to take care of the planet.”(1) Animated by their passion for learning and design, MIT Morningside Academy for Design Fellows Natha (Bam) Singhasaneh and Alexander Crease explore how to intertwine play and learning to encourage young people to value sustainability, and contribute to an environmentally resilient future with confidence and optimism.
Other research findings caught Bam’s and Alex’s attention as they were elaborating their year-long project as MAD Design Fellows: “95% of teachers want to integrate climate change and sustainability into their curriculum, but only 40% feel confident in doing so.”(2) The gap between desire and ability to embrace a challenge goes far beyond the classroom, especially for a subject as burning as climate change. How, then, can we encourage children to be more empathetic of others—people, animals, nature? And how do we transform learning environments for kids to be excited, curious, and motivated to learn as a way to propel social change? Since September 2022, Bam and Alex have been talking to children, parents, educators, and climate and play experts to understand how we could normalize conversations around sustainability and break what they call “the spiral of silence.”
Bam, currently a master’s student at MIT in the Integrated Design & Management (IDM) Program, is a human-centered designer, mechanical engineer, entrepreneur, and math teacher. Born and partly raised in Thailand, she describes how being immersed in different environments made her aware of the long term impact of someone’s surroundings: “Being able to run outside, jump in the water and climb trees made me who I am today.” Her passion for design and working with children, combined with her interest for sustainability and climate resilience, led her to a simple and powerful question:
Bam and Alex’s approach revolves around two dimensions:
1. Creating natural learning moments: Leveraging play to make learning relevant, effective, and fun. Influencing children’s values and habits to prepare them for an environmentally resilient future.
2. Breaking the “spiral of silence”: Children help initiate meaningful conversations in the home and are able to nudge their parents’ behavior, amplifying potential for change on personal, generational, and societal levels.
Designing for young children is something in which both Bam and Alex have previous experience. Alex was involved in a lot of side-projects, creating things that would inspire young people and spark curiosity, ranging from competing in Discovery Channel’s BattleBots to creating an epic costume for a little girl named Angelle through the non-profit Magic Wheelchair. Bam, as a designer and educator, explains: “I find that a lot of toys and games are not developed in the interest of children’s learning experience, but more based on trends. Or at the other end of the spectrum, they force children to be in the mindset of learning when they market themselves as STEM toys. I want to find an in-between.” Together, they were part of a team that developed “Rumblebug,” a toy that encourages children to engage in outdoor play.
They describe their process as “very exploratory” and human-centered, doing a lot of listening through user discovery, and synthesizing key insights emerging from numerous conversations. Through a set of test workshops which they use as a research tool, they engage with first-graders at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge, MA. Together, they play games, ask questions and prototype answers rather than teach concepts. “Climate anxiety is very prevalent among young people today, because there's so much negativity around the way it’s talked about. It's perceived as an unsolvable problem, and as if no action is being taken. Through our conversations, we noticed that most parents and educators don’t feel confident in having these discussions with young people because it’s stressful and anxiety-inducing. There’s a huge opportunity,” says Alex.
Appreciating the way children think and what resonates with them has been instrumental in testing hypotheses and designing the project’s next steps. “By gaining a deep understanding of the entire ecosystem of sustainability in education, we want to identify the critical needs of all stakeholders and co-design with them,” says Alex. Going forward, Alex and Bam hope to create a communications framework that will allow parents, teachers, and adults in general to address climate and sustainability with confidence and optimism in a variety of situations (at school, in the home, within communities), and with a range of age-appropriate content. Applications are open-ended: “If we think of a deliverable, we don't know what the solution is going to be. It could be a classroom activity. It could be a toy, a storybook, a board game, a website… And that's the beauty of the design process: we're letting all the information guide us to what we think the best solution could be through this ecosystem of stakeholders.”
Bam and Alex belong to the inaugural cohort of the Morningside Academy for Design Fellows, an opportunity for MIT graduate students to propose a research-oriented or personal design project throughout the academic year, while receiving full tuition support, a stipend, and health insurance. Every week, Design Fellows attend a design seminar to foster knowledge interchange. “Everyone at MIT brings their own perspective on design. There are many definitions of design all around the University—in engineering, computer science, the Media Lab, architecture, and business. As a MAD Design Fellow, having access to this interdisciplinary community allows us to leverage these perspectives and learn from each other. It’s so important for innovation and creativity,” reflects Alex.
(1) Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey, Caroline Hickman, Elizabeth Marks, Panu Pihkala, Prof Susan Clayton, R Eric Lewandowski, Elouise E Mayall, et al., The Lancet, December 2021.
(2) UNESCO: Getting Every School Climate Ready (2021)