How to Discuss Wildfires and Air Quality Safety with Your Kids

Jun 7, 2023

The recent decrease in air quality across the eastern United States caused by wildfires in Canada may be spurring new discussions and questions at-home. As a parent, it’s important to inform and educate your children about these natural disasters, helping them understand their consequences and ways to stay safe. This article will guide you on how to discuss wildfires and air quality safety, while also providing practical, engaging activities to reinforce these concepts.

Start with an Overview

Begin by explaining wildfires and their causes. Depending on the age and maturity of your child, you can tailor this discussion accordingly.

For children in preschool or elementary school, it's essential to simplify concepts. You can start by explaining that wildfires are large, uncontrolled fires that happen in the wild, particularly in forests or grasslands. They are a natural part of many ecosystems but can become very dangerous when they grow too large or move too quickly. Tell them that wildfires can start in several ways, including by lightning, volcanic eruption, or even the sun's heat. However, many wildfires are also started by people, sometimes by accident (such as an unattended campfire) and sometimes on purpose. Explain that these fires can spread quickly, especially when it's windy or the forest is very dry.

For older children in middle or high school, you can delve into more complex aspects of wildfires. You can explain the role of certain weather conditions in wildfires - high temperatures make vegetation dry and more prone to burning, while winds can help spread the fire more quickly. Discuss human activities contributing to wildfires, such as careless handling of fire in camping or picnic spots, discarding cigarette butts irresponsibly, or even arson. Explain that some fires are also started intentionally as "controlled burns" by professionals to manage ecosystems and reduce the risk of large uncontrolled fires. Introduce them to the concept of climate change and how it contributes to wildfires. Explain how higher temperatures and prolonged dry spells, which are symptoms of climate change, can lead to more frequent and severe wildfires. This is also an opportunity to talk about the role of wildfires in the larger context of the global environment, including how they can both contribute to and be exacerbated by climate change.

Remember to pace the information according to your child's understanding, and always encourage them to ask questions to clarify their doubts. This way, they will feel engaged and learn effectively.

Next, segue into air quality. Explain that wildfires can produce smoke filled with tiny particles and gases, which, when inhaled, could harm our health. A good analogy for younger kids is to compare it with secondhand smoke from cigarettes. For older kids, delving into details about particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants can be beneficial.

Safety Measures

Talk about safety measures to protect against wildfire smoke and poor air quality. Discuss the importance of staying indoors, closing windows and doors, and using air purifiers during heavy smoke. Also, emphasize the significance of wearing N95 masks that filter out harmful particles when going outside is unavoidable.

At-Home Activities

It may be beneficial (and could help with entertainment while indoors) to parallel your conversation with activities.

  1. Visualize Particulate Matter: Use a clear jar, a dark-colored piece of paper, and a flashlight to illustrate how particulate matter affects visibility. Fill the jar with water and a little bit of flour to simulate smoke particles. Shine a flashlight through the jar and show them how the light is scattered and visibility is reduced. This visual demonstration helps to reinforce the idea of how smoke affects our ability to see, and by extension, how it can affect our lungs when we breathe it in.

  2. Air Quality Index (AQI) Tracking: Teach older children about the Air Quality Index (AQI) and how to track it. Several free apps and websites provide real-time AQI data. Make it a routine to check AQI levels and discuss what the numbers mean in terms of safety measures.

  3. N95 Mask Experiment: Show your kids the effectiveness of N95 masks. Spray a bit of harmless fragrance or use a strong-smelling spice in the air and ask them to compare how much they can smell with and without the mask. This will help them understand the mask's filtering capabilities.

Reassure and Empower

While discussing wildfires and air quality, remember to reassure your children. Explain that adults - from scientists to firefighters - are working hard to prevent and control wildfires. Also, emphasize that everyone can contribute to preventing wildfires by not leaving fires unattended, properly disposing of cigarettes, and reporting uncontrolled fires immediately.

Ultimately, conversations about wildfires and air quality should be an empowering experience. By understanding these issues, children can better appreciate the environment, the challenges it faces, and their role in its preservation.

Remember, it's not about creating fear but fostering awareness, knowledge, and resilience in our children. By engaging them in these discussions and activities, we can better equip them for a changing world while also encouraging them to be proactive members of their communities.