Climate workshop for children: ice cubes in the museum

A workshop in Berlin explains climate change to children. Why it has such dramatic consequences when glaciers and icebergs melt.

In the workshop, it’s just ice cubes; in the high mountains, it’s the glaciers that are thawing Photo: Comstock/Images Stockbyte/getty

A machine producing small ice cubes is already gurgling in the experiment room when 15 children between the ages of nine and twelve walk in, wide-eyed. They are at the Neues Museum in Berlin today to take part in the "Sundays for Future" workshop. Philipp Tollkuhn, a trained prehistorian and early historian, will take them on a journey through time. In a historical search for traces, the focus will be on how the climate changed even in earlier times and how people reacted to changes in the climate.

Even in the Stone Age, people and animals had to adapt to a changing nature. "The difference, however, is that back then the environment still dominated humans," Tollkuhn explains. "Today it’s the other way around."

Things get underway with an experiment designed to simulate glacier melt. On a long table in the middle of the room are two vessels with water in them. The children fill both vessels with ice cubes from the machine. While some float in the water, the others pile up on a pile of stones. This is how an ice shell is to be recreated. Colorful Playmobil figures stand at the edge of the pile of stones. At the water’s edge, the children each paint a line. At the end of the workshop, they will see the result.

The workshop continues with a search task. On laminated printouts, objects from the exhibition on prehistory and early history can be seen: Animal skulls, arrowheads or pottery cooking utensils. The first group goes in search of a mammoth tusk. "I recognize this from the movie Ice Age," exclaims Helene, one of the participants.

Hunters and gatherers

It’s a find from Berlin-Spandau that dates back to the Cold Age, around 16,000 BC. At that time, the Old Stone Age, people lived as hunters and gatherers and went after prey such as mammoths or bears, i.e. they lived nomadically. In order to survive in the cold temperatures, people sewed clothes from animal skins. From animal teeth and bones they made jewelry or first tools.

By killing the animals, people took influence on evolution

"By nature, humans do not have sharp claws or teeth. With the help of tools and other inventions, however, he has managed to adapt so that he can hunt animals or live in very cold regions, although he can’t actually do it purely anatomically," Tollkuhn explains.

By killing animals, however, humans also influenced evolution. "By hunting, humans have ensured that large animals such as mammoths and cave bears have become extinct," Tollkuhn says. In contrast, smaller animals like moose and hares, which tend to live in warmer environments with lots of forest, have proliferated. This phase is called the Quaternary extinction wave in archaeology. It took place in the transition from the Ice Age to the warmer period. The warmer it got, the smaller the animals became. Thus, hunting weapons had to be adapted as well. With fishhooks made of bone, harpoons or bows and arrows, people were now able to aim more accurately when hunting.

In the Neolithic period, in Central Europe between 9,000 and 3,000 B.C., people finally began to settle down, build settlements and develop tools to clear forest for pasture and agriculture. Thus, humans increasingly intervened in the plant world as well.

Back in the experimental room, Tollkuhn uses a few examples to show the young workshop participants how researchers can detect temperature changes in the past. With the help of an ice core, i.e. a drill core that was usually obtained by drilling a hole in an ice sheet or glacier, it is possible, for example, to see how warm it was at different times in the past by looking at the different thicknesses of the layers. A thin layer indicates that it was rather humid and warm at that time, while a thicker layer shows that it was drier and colder.

Today, human influence on the environment through industry, agriculture, urban development and traffic is stronger than ever before. "Meanwhile, humans are influencing nature to such an extent that the climate is changing. That’s the biggest difference from climate change in the past. Today, it is not natural, but man-made," Tollkuhn said.

Regarding the predictions of many scientists:inside about climate change, he nevertheless remains confident: "Humans are actually so creative that they can also deal with the modern situation and act in terms of positive change not only for themselves, but also for the world."

Dorothea Parak, research associate for education and outreach at the Neues Museum, initiated the workshop. It is not the first climate workshop of its kind in Germany. The topic is attracting more and more interest everywhere.

"As museums, we should get involved in current debates and help educate people, as long as we are technically able to do so," says Parak. By having objects in the exhibition that date back to the Ice Age, visitors:inside can take a direct look at climate changes in history.

Providing arguments

"We can also use it to provide an argument against people who say, but climate change also existed in the past, and we can then say, yes, but under different conditions. Climate changes did exist in the Stone Age, but today climate change is not natural, but man-made and much more rapid," Parak explains.

The ice cubes from the initial experiment have melted in the meantime. While the water level of the vessel without stones has remained the same, the water line next to the melted ice sheet has risen, and the Playmobil figures are knee-deep in water. "Now they’re all drowning," says one of the children, and they all laugh. They don’t seem to draw the connection of the experiment to climate change today at this moment.

The next workshop is on March 29 at the Neues Museum in Berlin, Tel.: 030-266 42 42