As Earth Day’s 40th birthday approaches, I think it’s a good time to take pause and consider the small people in our lives who stand to inherit a pretty big planetary mess. And while I, in sincere optimism, try to avoid the “doom and gloom” that oftentimes tags the questionable state of our planet, it’s important to note that our children and children’s children will be positioned to make important decisions based on the action (or inaction) that we big people take today.
So then, how do we prepare the children in our lives for the big shoes that they’ll have no choice but to grow into? What actions can we take to help our children develop an affection for the natural world? In short, how can we help our kids develop their inner small steward?
Teach your children about their environment
Now that spring has traded places with winter and snow has given way to budding plants and grass, start in your own backyard. Take time to travel around the space and talk about the different plants and animals that you see. Encourage your kids to identify different birds and insects and talk about cool stuff like pollination, metamorphosis, migration and other topics related to the season and your surrounding environment.
Spend time in different ecosystems
Our planet provides us with a wealth of biodiversity and a fantastic assortment of ecosystems in which to take in a wide array of flora and fauna. Celebrate this with your kids by exploring these different ecosystems. Travel to the ocean and talk about marine ecosystems. Hike up into the mountains and explore the forest ecosystem. Make a picnic and enjoy a grassland or prairie ecosystem. And, have conversations with them about what makes each ecosystem unique. In what ways are they similar? What kinds of plants and animals make these locations their homes and why?
Follow the First lady’s lead and get out into an organic garden with your kids. If you have your own garden or access to one, give your kids a specific responsibility, like the care of this season’s tomatoes, or planting and tending to the eggplant. Not only will this give them a hands-on education about how produce is grown, but they’ll have a greater appreciation for it because they were responsible for it. If you don’t have access to a garden, take the kids out to a farm. And, try to visit various local farms a few times throughout the growing season so your kids can be exposed to different crops and develop an understanding of how and where their food is grown.
Become their eco-role model
Anyone who has or spends a fair amount of time around young children has learned that children are literally little sponges. They are generally candid, eager to try new things and quick to copy your behavior, especially when they’ve caught you saying a “bad word.” But, they’re also pretty quick to adopt your good habits, too. I know a 3-year-old who knows what materials can be recycled and practices composting because his parents do. I’ve met many children who would rather eat the strawberries that they’ve home-grown or foraged for in the forest rather than a cookie, because that’s what Mom likes to munch on. And, even in our Nintendo, iPod, plugged-in today, there are plenty of children who would opt for a creek walk or a bike ride over a TV program, because that’s what the big people in their lives like to do. As grown-ups (even at 31, identifying myself as such still makes me wonder when that happened), we have the important responsibility of leading by example. Helping our children develop eco-conscious behavior is the perfect example of when do what I do is so much more poignant than do what I say.
Recently, the clocks sprung forward, granting us an extra hour of sunlight each evening. Take advantage of it tonight! Grab the kids and take a walk before dinner. Ask them how they feel about the planet and what questions they have for you. Talk about what an amazing planet we inhabit and some of the gazillion reasons that make it so important to protect.
Get your garden on! Whether it be in your backyard, a plot in a community garden or taking a trip out to a local farm, show your kids where and how their food is grown. If they’re old enough, have a conversation about our national and global agricultural systems. If they’re still super-small stewards, play! Hey, even if they’re big, play! Get dirty, use all your senses and welcome spring.
Get involved in an Earth Education program. Donate books and DVDs about the Earth, energy and ecology to schools and libraries. Plan your vacations and weekend outings around ecosystems. And, keep talking to the children in your life about the wonders of our planet. Stay positive and lead by example. Show them that although we have significant work to do, it’s not all doom and gloom.