The climate crisis is “severely impacting” student development

Jarrod Brown
Jarrod Brown

Experts warn “increasingly risky” weather conditions are severely impacting students’ physical and academic development.

As Maui recovers from this week’s devastating wildfires, research reveals the damage of these extreme weather events on children’s education extends beyond school closures and loss of resources to concerns about childhood development and health.

The research comes from Associate Professor of Education at Charles Sturt University (CSU) Brendon Hyndman, as part of his recent book, The Impact of Extreme Weather on School Education.

Written in collaboration with Jennifer Vanos, Associate Professor in the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures at Arizona State University, the book explores how to protect international school communities from extreme weather events.

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Professor Hyndman told EducationDaily that these issues are constantly plaguing education globally and need to be addressed outside of times of crisis. 

“What must be protected, first and foremost, is the invaluable developmental opportunities school provides,” he says. 

“Irreplaceable developmental time is lost when school activities are sporadically abandoned due to weather risks.”

“If these activities could have supportively gone ahead, if only some preventive modifications to the physical space or decision-making protocols of the school had been made, then this loss is needless and wasteful.”

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A lack of physical education

The Professor found the increasing severity of weather conditions was forcing schools to cancel outdoor activities – something that will severely impact students’ physical fitness. 

“Over the past two decades, we have become more aware than ever of the importance of schoolchildren meeting physical-activity recommendations to prevent ill health,” he told EducationDaily. 

“If a child’s body is unable to adapt or be sufficiently supported from weather extremes outside the norm, this has the potential to impact upon a child’s cognitive abilities.”

Physical activity has been intrinsically linked to the performance and development of a child’s brain, making physical education a vital part of early schooling. 

“Many children learn by engaging in movement and physical activities outside of the classroom and the focuses on timetabled activities, exposing them to the weather elements and extremes,” he says.

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With weather conditions only expected to worsen as the climate crisis continues, Professor Hyndman says protective outdoor solutions will become vital for physical education. 

“Higher-quality and protective outdoor school environments are now seen as vital to ensure children can appropriately engage in and develop habitual physical activities,” he says.

“Previous research has revealed that simply providing more comfortable conditions during wet weather periods within outdoor schoolyards could prolong activity participation by almost six weeks across a school year.”

“Other research has shown that physical activity participation is highest at moderate temperatures.”

In a 2019 study, Australian teens ranked amongst the worst in the world for physical fitness – ranking 140 out of 146. 

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The researchers predicted just over one in ten Australian adolescents were meeting the World Health Organisation (WHO) physical activity recommendations in 2016 (89 per cent), an increase of two per cent from a previous study in 2001. 

No simple solution

Looking beyond our nation’s borders, Professor Hyndman says the diverse needs of schools make a “one-size-fits-all” solution almost impossible. 

“Decision-making is reported as being sporadic based on different backgrounds, beliefs, people involved, spaces available and school expectations,” he told EducationDaily.

“Many schools that are in extreme-cold climatic zones have various temperature-specific thresholds (including ones based on the wind-chill factor) which will trigger school cancellations of various activities.”

“This variety can create a spectrum of the quality in the levels of support for outdoor play in different weather elements.”

With Australian summers continually breaking temperature records across the country, extreme heat has been shown to limit students’ ability to pay attention and learn. 

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As extreme conditions become more commonplace, it will lead to increased teacher turnover and negatively impact students’ continuity of learning.

While there are varying guidelines on regulating temperature, no state government or territory has a set temperature that forces a public school to close. 

What can schools do?

But all hope is not lost for schools stranded in our nation’s harshest climates. In his new book, Professor Hyndman encourages schools to take several steps to mitigate the climate crisis’s educational impact.

“A wide range of educationally protective strategies exist that should be made available to students and teachers from the commencement of schooling and into the curriculum,” he says.

Among the solutions included greater training for teachers and supervisors, improved investment in infrastructure, improved community education and the creation of an effective disaster plan. 

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The Professor also suggests schools invest in “virtual opportunities” for students, promoting the use of VR and AR tools to create a risk-free learning environment. 

Overall, Professor Hyndman said educating students and families on the risks of extreme weather conditions should be a priority for schools across the board. 

“Any disruption to school attendance or learning participation is challenging for schoolchildren’s development,” he says.

“The more prolonged the disruption to learning routines, the greater the potential for negative consequences on academic progress.”

“Effective planning to fast-track learning routines back on track are vital considerations into the future.”

During National Science Week – 12 August to 20 August – EducationDaily will explore ideas and innovation around sustainability in a five-article series.

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. Jarrod established his journalism career working on the education news and information site The Bursar. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.