Ever since she was a baby, Heather, age 5, has watched her parents routinely turn off lights that aren't needed and toss the day's newspapers, cans, bottles, jars, and other recyclables into a big, yellow bin — that is, if they can't find a second life for the discarded items in their own home first. Plastic packaging, pieces of cardboard, scraps of colored paper, bits of yarn, and small pieces of broken toys are typically dropped into a basket that the whole family rummages through whenever they need supplies for an art project. Recently, after spying a bit of shiny paper on the floor, Heather picked it up and said, "This is pretty. I'll put it in the art basket." Already, like parents, like daughter.
Heather's effort to recycle a scrap of paper rather than throw it away is a tiny gesture with a big message. It shows that even young children can learn about conserving materials and resources—and by extension, protecting the planet—in age-appropriate ways. It also shows that your child is so tuned in to your ways that it is easy to become an environmental role model. But because children are more apt to want to care for something they have a personal stake in, it's as important to expose your child to the natural world as it is to teach her ways to protect it.
This doesn't require week-long camping trips into the wilderness — although those can be fun, enlightening experiences for the whole family. Children can explore, appreciate, and learn about nature in their own backyards, in parks, in community gardens, and on trips to the beach or mountains. There's more good news: Giving your child opportunities to connect with nature can also help her develop crucial literacy, language, math, science, social studies, art, problem-solving, and research skills.
Exposing kids to nature not only gives them countless opportunities to learn about the earth, it can help them become better learners in the classroom, says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. "When your child is out in nature, she is immersed in something bigger than herself, rather than focusing narrowly on one thing, such as a computer screen," Louv explains. "Her brain has a chance to rejuvenate, and the next time she has to focus and pay attention, such as in school, she'll do better." Louv is also quick to emphasize that being out in nature doesn't have to mean a visit to a wildlife sanctuary or climbing a mountain, although, chances are, your child would love both those activities. "It's not about the kind of nature," he says. "It's about your child having the opportunity and freedom to explore what's outside in her surroundings. That can mean a city park, a farm, a patch of woods in a suburb — even a tiny rooftop garden counts."
Getting in Touch with Nature
Children are born to explore, and they are ever curious about their surroundings — as you know, they want to get their hands in everything! The following activities will help your child develop a deeper appreciation of the natural world:
- Get out there. Make a plan to take walks in your neighborhood — whether your area is urban, suburban, or rural. Sit in your backyard or stroll through the park. Look at clouds and talk about the weather. Observe the plants and trees, the birds and the small animals. Listen for bird and animal calls and learn to identify the sounds made by different creatures.
- Grow something! A wealth of learning opportunities can arise from something as simple as growing plants — indoors or out. Every experience will teach your child valuable lessons about the importance of light, clean water, and unpolluted soil for growing living things.
Consider Bobby's experience. As soon as he and his dad returned from a weekend away, Bobby eagerly checked the beans they had planted in small containers and set out on the sunny windowsill of their apartment. Bobby was dismayed to find that the shoots, which had been sprouting on Friday, were now dried up! Bobby's dad explained: the heat coming through the vents along the windowsill had dried up the water in the plants. They discussed their options: See if the plants would revive with a little water? Find a new place for the plants? Start over with new plants? Before settling on what to do next, they decided to go to the library and check out some books about plant care.
- Observe and experiment. Nature is a great starting point for building your child's science and experimentation skills — and it's fun. For example, you might ask your child what she thinks ants like to eat. Do they prefer sweet or sour foods? Now make a plan to test her hypothesis. You might find an area outside that doesn't get a lot of foot traffic, and leave out some sweet foods and some sour foods. Check back a while later to see if the ants have come. What foods are they eating? What foods are they ignoring? Talk with your child about whether the ants' food preferences turned out to be the same or different from what she originally thought and what you both learned from the experiment.
- Read all about it. When introducing your child to the concepts of nature and conservation, it's a good idea, as always, to start with what your child knows and what interests her. Visit the library and check out some colorful picture books about various aspects of the natural world. You can also use the books as a springboard for hands-on activities, and you will grow much more than your child's environmental awareness.
For example, reading Tell Me Tree: All About Trees for Kids, by Gail Gibbons, will build your child's literacy skills. But if you then select a tree in your neighborhood to visit every month and write down the changes you observe, you'll also build her science skills. Bring along a tape measure to chart the circumference of the tree every month and you're doing math. Make collages that reflect the tree's appearance in different seasons and you're creating art.
Protecting the Earth, One Kid at a Time
Outdoor opportunities and experiences grounded in nature provide a solid starting point for helping your child understand our give-and-take relationship with the earth. Your family, and even young children, can help make a big difference in protecting the planet by doing little things. Helping your child develop good habits early is key:
- Reduce electricity use. Talk to your child about the fact that energy is not an unlimited resource and that our lights, computers, TVs, and many other things we take for granted use up energy. Encourage your child to switch off lights that are not needed and to turn off the TV when it's not being watched.
- Conserve water. Kids can be taught to turn off running water when they brush their teeth and encouraged to take faster showers or baths in smaller amounts of water.
- Recycle together. Explain to your kids that every plastic bottle, cardboard box (such as a milk carton or a cereal box), aluminum can, glass bottle, and old newspaper and magazine is great for being recycled and turned into a new product. Older kids can take charge of sorting recyclables.
- Use reusable bags. Chat with your child about why plastic shopping bags are convenient, yet wasteful. Plastic is made from oil — a non-renewable resource. If 25 percent of American homes used 10 fewer bags each month, we'd save 2.5 billion bags each year. Bring your own bags to the grocery store, or buy some cotton string, hemp, or canvas bags.
The real key is to talk often with your children about the beauty of the earth and the importance of protecting it. As a parent, you have a powerful influence in helping your child understand the direct impact she can have in creating a healthier, cleaner environment for the future — starting today. Although Kermit the Frog may have said, "It's not easy bein' green," it's really not that hard, if we start small.