I have spent the majority of my working life with children outdoors. I was an environmental educator for a number of years, tasked with the multi-faceted job of engaging young people with nature through any means possible. I went camping, hiking, and tramping through creeks with a string of teens in tow.
I also did stream surveys with 6th graders, identifying benthic macroinvertebrates and testing water for contaminants. I taught watershed stewardship programs in urban schools, toting dioramas and animal skins around to different classrooms. I paid special visits to preschools with snakes and turtles, gleefully watching as the kids came up and gently touched the creatures.
In all of these circumstances, the inevitable moral conclusion for us educators was to make sure we addressed environmental concerns with these kids and challenged them to make better decisions in the future. When I was teaching along the history-beleaguered Cuyahoga River, for example, I often found fantastic, relevant opportunities to talk about the environmental movement and the impact that humans have on water health. Even the most uninterested students ears perked up when I told them that the river they were looking at had caught on fire because of pollution.
Avoiding ‘Eco-Guilt’ in Environmental Education
However, a common side effect to talking to children (and adults) about the environment is something I often hear called “Eco-Guilt.” As a child of the 1990s, I knew this feeling well. My 10-year old self believed that I, personally, was to blame for the destruction of rainforests (even though I’d never seen one), and that the demise of endangered species was being wrought by my own hands. I tried to send my birthday money in to save a whale after watching “Free Willy,” and I threw rocks at the earthmovers that were cutting down the forest at the end of my road.
I had a huge load of self-imposed responsibility to “fix” what I saw as problems, but I only had a child’s understanding of the real issues. They were big, abstract, monsterish — but completely forgettable in my daily life. I had rocks to flip, holes to dig, and trees to climb.
But once I was able to really start understanding as an adult, my love of the environment and my desire for stewardship returned and I became an Environmental Educator. I remembered my childhood guilt, and wondered about the well meaning, but somewhat misguiding things taught to me by teachers and environmentally conscious adults.
I started wondering how fair it was to tell young children to take responsibility for worldwide pollution, endangered species, and toxic waterways. Honestly, when they are so young that can’t drive, vote, or make the majority of decisions for their own lives — what can they really do about it except feel guilt?
This thought crystallized in my mind when, while reading through an environmental education newsletter, I saw a 1st grader write in about how the thing that scared her the most was not monsters under the bed, barking dogs, or the dark — but global warming. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I think we can all agree that a 6 year old should not lie in terror at night because of the threat of carbon emissions. She can’t even spell the phrase, much less understand the complicated political, environmental, and industrial factors involved in the continuing discussion.
So, the more I taught about the environment, the less I wanted to impress the peril of dying polar bears on first graders. Sure, it is a really important issue, but for a child, I noticed that it a distant, far-away concept that really has no bearing on their immediate lives. Even if they do sense the peril, it is completely unfair to throw it upon their tiny shoulders, however well meaning. It’s easy to tell kids that they need to be “eco-conscious” and recycle because “it’s good for the planet.” But after being in this business for a while, I contend that it is far more important to cultivate an appreciation and love of nature in especially young kids, far before they are saddled with the feeling that they are culpable for the sickness of the earth that they have inherited.
The reason I, personally, started to care about the environment as an adult was because I got to play in nature as a kid. Being allowed to flip those rocks, dig those holes, and climb those trees made me care about animals, soil, and plants in a developmentally-appropriate way. It laid the foundation for me to cultivate a real desire for change, and now as an adult, the decisions I make to care for my environment are made from deep, tangible convictions, not disconnected duty.
5 Ideas for Nature-Based Education
So how do you encourage kids to love nature and start that good foundation without weighting them down with abstract guilt? I offer these five tried-and-true ways to consider.
1. Let children go outside and keep play unstructured
During my educational hikes with young visitors to the Nature Center, I always built in a “free time” for my students. I would set boundaries (usually telling them they had to keep me in sight) and let the kids run wild through the forest or through the field. They would play tag, flip logs and poke at worms, and roll down hills. For many of our students, it was these moments that were remembered and treasured better than my well structured lesson plan and carefully-worded exhortations.
With my own kids (once they’re old enough!) I will make sure that they have space to go outside and just explore. Sure, they’ll come back muddy, and there might be as creature in their hands (I horrified my mother by routinely bringing garter snakes in the house), but I know no better way to get kids eco-minded than letting them forge those connections in their own experiences. If we expect kids to grow up to be stewards of the environment someday, it’s got to start with love. And you can only really love something when the relationship isn’t forced.
2. Connect Them Locally
When I was a kid, I felt really bad about the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest, but there was little I could do about it at that point aside from learn as much as I could. I didn’t know that my own state of Ohio also had environmental problems, and these were ones where I actually do something to help!
Being given an opportunity to make an observable, tangible difference is a great way to kindle concern into action, and information into comprehension. I saw this after doing invasive weed removal with some Girl Scouts along a trail. They gazed over their piles of glossy buckthorn and garlic mustard, dirt on their knees, and there was both satisfaction and understanding in their faces. I don’t think a “talk” about the problem of invasive weeds would have made as real a connection as that moment of accomplishment.
There are plenty of chances for kids to start caring for their environment right where they are. Every Earth Day, there are often multiple opportunities to volunteer and help around you — many communities offer trash and stream clean ups. While this is a good place to get connected, there are plenty of things to help out throughout the year.
If you’re interested, look in the spring for invasive weed removal opportunities, bird counts, or research if there’s a Volunteer Naturalist program that you could learn from. And if you can’t find something and are feeling proactive…start something!
3. Go on An Adventure
Not every excursion outdoors has to be “educational” (even if it secretly is!). I loved getting to lead multi-day hiking trips and camping trips with young people. The novelty of being outside for more than a few hours, often led to fantastic conversations, beautifully quiet moments, and truly exciting adventures. A break from the concrete, asphalt and roofs of normal life often gave my students and campers a different perspective on nature and their place in it. Often times, they reached personal conclusions on their own, without my guidance or suggestions.
So, if you don’t mind spending the money, there are countless trips you could sign up for. Summer camps, white water rafting, zip line tours, and guided backpacking trips are often led by people who are very knowledgeable about the environment they’re working in, and often willing to answer children’s questions. But if you are willing to do a little planning, you can find many adventures for little or no cost.
Take an entire day and conquer a huge trail, being sure to pack enough water and food to keep you and the little ones energized. Try using a shallow creek as a path, and see how far you can get before it’s too deep. If you feel confident, go on your own backpacking trip, making sure to use Leave-No-Trace practices (and what a natural opportunity to explain the reasons behind it!).
4. Go To a Park and Meet a Ranger
I helped Cuyahoga Valley National Park visitors earn their Junior Ranger badges, and as a part of this fun process, children receive a little badge and get to be sworn in by a real National Park Service ranger. There’s no doubt about this—rangers in uniform are really cool to little people. Their eyes would shine as they saw these adults emerge from the forest, all official-looking, and then pepper them with questions about bears and trees and how their radio worked.
Every Interpretive Ranger I worked with was personable, kind, knowledgeable and very child-friendly (these are the ones that run programs and teach, as opposed to the law-enforcement Rangers who are armed and keep the park safe and the maintenance Rangers who care for trails, among other duties).
At the point I’m writing this, there are 410 national park sites in the United States. Many of them have the free Junior Ranger program available, as well as a whole host of ranger-led activities for any age group. In addition, your state may have nearby state parks or metro parks to explore. Our county has two annual hiking sprees, and we look forward to participating in this free event every year.
5. Do It Yourself
Children constantly copy what the older people around them do. My son, only 3 months old as I write this, is already starting to make sounds back at me when I talk to him. They watch and learn and do likewise. It’s sobering to realize how much of an impact we make when we’re not even aware that we’re being observed. For example — if I talked to a student all day about how important spiders are for the forest ecosystem, but, during a hike, complained about their webs and smashed them every chance I got, what is the lesson that would really be learned?
Recycling, reducing, and reusing in your own home, making a garden with your kids, caring for a fish tank, or playing outside together creates real connections and real opportunities to have natural conversations about the environment. Plant flowers to help bees, and watch them together! Try keeping a pheonological record of your backyard observations, and make it a game to see who can find the first tree bud, the first spring ephemeral flower, or the first returning great blue heron.
Make mud pies in your backyard, or dig a “hole to China,” just to do it. Keep a tally of how many bird species you can identify in the course of a year, and see if you can beat last year’s record. Catch fireflies, if they live in your area, and let them go at the end of the night. Build a campfire. Make rubbings of leaves and bark on paper with the side of a crayon and create art for your house. Watch for a clear, warm night in the summer and see if you can find shooting stars.
You don’t need some huge endeavor to make these connections with the environment — they can be simple, free, and fun. And the impacts can be life-long. The options are endless, and you can definitely benefit from it yourself! I hope that these suggestions can help continue the conversation between our kids and the nature they live in. Most of all, try to keep it positive with the little ones.
The message I received as a child was that “humans were bad, nature was good.” I think this is an incomplete statement. As a teacher, I found that how I used my words to teach children was just as important as what words I used to teach children. The words I eventually settled on using for all age groups was that people make change, wherever they go. They could be helpful or harmful, and it is up to them to learn how to make changes that allow life to thrive.
Consider books like Last Child in the Woods and In Defense of Childhood. There are tons of resources online for easy, no-cost ideas of how to play with kids outside and get them caring about the health of the environment, and I’ll wager there are free nature programs available in a park near to you.
Andrew and Michelle Shall runThe Redeemed Workshop, a handcrafted soap, art, and recycled good business out of their home in Akron, Ohio. Find them online at Simple Life Homestead, and read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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