Coming to Terms with Mother Nature: Using the Web to Educate Children about Natural Disasters


Michael J. Berson and Ilene R. Berson

A natural disaster is an event caused by the forces of nature that is outside the range of ordinary experience and causes damage serious enough to result in distress.1 Natural disasters that occur in the United States include earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, winter storms, and wildfires. These unpredictable occurrences can be devastating for both adults and children, and sometimes leave in their path a pervasive sense of destruction and powerlessness.

Faster and more efficient coverage on television and the Internet is increasingly exposing children to traumatic images of natural devastation both at home and abroad. Natural disasters such as the deadly avalanches in the French Alps or the trauma caused by Hurricane Mitch in Central America have become commonplace. These events serve as reminders that there is nowhere in the world that is immune from these incidents. Each event may prompt us to reflect on past experiences with natural disasters and ponder the present and future risk to ourselves.

Whereas some disasters result in great stress due to physical injury, death, property damage, displacement, and the depletion of support resources, others may cause less extensive damage and affect a relatively small number of people. Moreover, preparation and advance warning about potential damage may mediate a disaster’s intensity. Understanding the characteristics of a natural disaster can help children adjust to an occurrence over which they have no control.


Children’s Reactions to Natural Disasters

Adults may overlook a child’s traumatic reaction to a natural disaster because children may lack the ability to verbalize their experiences and feelings. Children’s emotional responses may also not be easily related to their behavior. Exposure to a natural disaster has often resulted in extreme psychological distress for children, who may exhibit a range of maladaptive responses, including fearfulness, sleeplessness, sadness, and aggression.2 Some children may exhibit regressive behavior and become clingy and whiny, while others report nightmares, changes in appetite, withdrawal from activities, lack of concentration in or refusal of school, and academic decline. Different children react to stress in different ways; some cope well with adverse events. Most children experience a dissipation of their symptoms over time, but there are some children who are at risk for long-term consequences.

Whereas adults may rely on prior knowledge and resources to cope firsthand with such events, children tend to be ill equipped to manage the physical and psychological stress that accompanies the experience of a natural disaster. There is little or no opportunity to directly blame an individual in a natural disaster, which may result in internalized anger and frustration. As a result, it is more difficult to achieve closure after the event. At any age, a child’s understanding of a natural disaster may be complicated by his or her magical belief system, religious beliefs, and level of moral development. Young children may believe that they are being punished for misbehavior. They may express anger toward God or some other natural force.


Natural Disasters and the Social Studies Curriculum

The study of natural disasters has many connections to the social studies curriculum. Instruction in disaster preparedness and crisis problem solving are important components of students’ civic competency. Students may learn empathy for victims of these events and understand how citizens assist others through volunteer efforts. Examination of past catastrophes provides valuable lessons about local support services, resources, and community care systems. Natural disasters are often specific to certain geographic areas, and they can facilitate an understanding of the interrelationship between climate and physical topography. As students investigate catastrophes around the world, they may also delve into the social, political, and economic impact of these events. Students may explore culturally specific responses and examine how spiritual belief systems affect interpretations of the events. Moreover, each of these components of disaster study creates a context for introducing mechanisms for children to cope with traumatic events.

Teachers can serve as a resource for support and information that facilitate a child’s ability to manage disasters. They may model strategies for coping and instruct children and their families how to remain safe, thus reducing the trauma caused by these crises. Disaster preparedness and response to devastating events are an integral part of an educator’s role in advocating students’ well-being and protection. On-line resources may be especially valuable to educators as a way to enhance children’s natural disaster learning experiences in a fun and engaging way.


Internet Resources

If children are confronting the reality of an approaching storm in their area, they can use on-line resources to access updated reports and learn about the responses of other children to disasters. This process may assist children in normalizing their own fears. This also helps children understand that most people, both young and old, have strong reactions to potential natural disasters, and these responses serve as a cue to initiate behaviors and activities to protect themselves. Educators may facilitate the development of children’s coping strategies as they demonstrate methods to access information about weather and engage in advance storm preparation.

Teachers can use web resources to inform themselves, access lesson plans, locate curriculum materials, and identify web-based interactive learning activities for their students. Following is a list of several on-line resources that may assist the elementary educator in teaching children about the occurrence of natural disasters and their life-changing impact.


> The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the national organization that assists communities and individuals following a disaster. FEMA has created a homepage for children ( that provides information about actions to take during a disaster, suggests procedures for advance preparation, discusses the causes of disasters, and presents stories written by young people who have survived these events. Children can also have fun while learning with on-line games that teach them about weather and safety, such as Hurricane House, where players identify loose objects in their yards that need to be secured, and Canine Heroes, a trading card game.


> James Madison University in Virginia has designed a disaster-intervention web site, “Disaster Stuff for Kids” (, which contains illustrated reading materials for children that can be printed out, and links to other relevant web sites. The crafters of this site have also developed an on-line forum for children to share their thoughts and experiences about disasters.


> The American Red Cross has a long tradition of providing free assistance to families affected by disaster. Their services include medical care and emergency housing and food. They have developed an informative web site (, which explains Red Cross services, provides detailed information on disaster safety, and provides updated information on the latest crises. Particularly notable is a curriculum on disaster preparedness for elementary school children, which users can download. The “Be Ready 1-2-3” program provides detailed lessons that teach students about the threat of home fires, winter storms, and earthquakes. The site also provides information about the Red Cross “Notagains” Disaster Preparedness and Response CD-ROM for Children. This program, which can be purchased from the American Red Cross, is an interactive learning tool that assists children in learning life-saving skills and problem solving in disaster situations.


> The Eye on the World—Violent Planet Page ( is organized into the categories of geographic regions and natural disasters. Each category provides links to many official data sources that provide late-breaking news stories, photos, maps, and references. A unique aspect of the site is its facilitation of the Internet as an alternative communication channel in disaster areas.


> Volcano World (, which was developed by a group of volcanologists, geologists, and computer scientists at the University of North Dakota, is brimming with information on volcanoes of the world and current eruptions. It features a search engine that allows the user to filter by world region, country/area, and volcano name. Volcano World also contains a glossary, a “what’s new” category, images and clips of volcanoes, and pictures of volcanoes in outer space. Students can also contact a volcanologist who answers questions. Teachers can find lesson plans, examples of school projects, volcano legends, virtual field trips, eruption simulations, handouts, maps, and links to research sites.


> The National Lightning Safety Institute ( teaches users about personal lightning safety. The web site’s creators also explore the history and myths of lightning. Beginning with the early Greeks’ belief in lightning as the weapon of Zeus, the site details the powers of healing and destruction that have been attributed to lightning. Users also have access to lightning-related activities, free reading materials, links to suggested books on, and instructional videos for sale.



1. Ronald W. Belter and Mitsuko P. Shannon, “Impact of Natural Disasters on Children and Families,” in Children and Disasters, ed. C. F. Saylor (New York: Plenum, 1993).

2. Ibid.; Annette M. La Greca et al., Helping Children Prepare for and Cope with Natural Disasters: A Manual for Professionals Working with Elementary School Children (Miami, Fla.: Children and Natural Disasters Project, 1994).

About the Authors

Michael J. Berson is an assistant professor of social science education in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of South Florida. His publications and research interests include technology in social studies education, the use of primary source materials in instruction, and global child advocacy. Ilene R. Berson is a faculty member of the Department of Child and Family Studies at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida. She specializes in the assessment and treatment of child abuse and neglect.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.