How To Make Your Kids Care About The Environment

''If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.'' - Rachel Carson

Everyone who has lived with me in the past will confirm that probably the second most annoying thing about living with me, right after my OCD, are the little things I do throughout the day to save a bit of energy here and there. I’ll walk into your bedroom when you leave and switch the lights off, I’ll pour some water out of the kettle when I see that you poured in more than you needed, I’ll close the doors to certain rooms to heat them up faster, I’ll keep switching the shower to the eco mode - much to my flatmates’ annoyance.

Ecology is a subject that strikes particularly close to home in my case, in both figurative and literal sense of that expression as right outside my house in Poland there’s a river (Strwiaz) that, in fact, is the only river in Poland that doesn’t drain into the Baltic Sea, but to the Black Sea, for which it gets a fair share of attention from ecologists, fishermen and tourists alike. But back when I was a kid, all that river was to me was a playground - my main playground, actually. My friends and I used to build dams in there, skip stones, build rafts and have all sorts of adventures, but it was also there where I was first made aware of the effects of human activity on the natural environment.

As the area where I lived got more and more popular and more and more houses started popping up, the river started getting trashed; there was lots of litter where before there was none. The forestry people started cutting down trees that grew on the hill right above the river - not only were those trees my playground, too, but once they got cut down there was very little to stop the water flowing down the hill and into the river which eventually became impossible to cross in places where previously I could cross it no problem. And in the grand scheme of things this may not sound particularly disastrous but as a kid I was annoyed as hell! It was devastating. Suddenly, something or someone was messing up my favourite playing spot and I was as outraged as an 8-year old can be. And that made me curious - who does that, why, and how do I make them stop.

5 Reasons Why I'm Raising My Kids On Adventure - Photo: Shannon Robertson

I’ve always been lucky in terms of environmental education: a huge chunk of my early biology classes was dedicated to ecology and the problems of pollution and also my dad, always very aware of those types of issues, taught me to respect the nature and we would often go along the river and pick up whatever litter we could find (and 20 years on, he still does that).

Anyway, the bottom line of what I’m saying here is that, all those things made an impact on me, because they directly affected my everyday surroundings. Many studies have shown that the places where people first formed a bond with nature are almost always part of the regular rhythm of their daily lives and childhood being the foundation for relationships with the environment is a period of life where proper environmental education can have the biggest, longest-lasting impact, me being the living proof of it.

This highlights a set of certain issues that we as parents, teachers, instructors or simply concerned citizens face while trying to raise the awareness in kids and youth. There are quite a few out there but the ones that I find to be the most common are:

1) Non-relatable environment

There’s a lack of local context. Effective environmental education programmes need to be personally relevant to the everyday lives of kids and, like in my case, have to reflect something that’s happening in their own nick of the woods, their own backyard. They’re simply not going to care that a species of a bird they’ve never even heard of from a place they’ve never even heard of just went extinct. But tell them that there’s a global cocoa shortage and the chocolate prices are going to go up - now, that hurts! The problem is - quite often kids are not even being introduced to their local area, there’s very little exploration and appreciation for what’s nearby, so it’s hard to expect that they’ll show some genuine interest in what takes place around them.

This, to a certain degree, is followed by:

2) Lack of time

Various studies show that it’s a combination of multiple experiences rather than one life-changing experience or a 5 minute chat with an instructor that produces environmentally literate people and let’s face it: we haven’t always got time for that and we’ll never be able to completely transform a kid over a period of 3 or 4 days but there are still things that we can do at least get the ball rolling!

3) Lack of knowledge

Maybe you don’t even realize the problem’s out there, or maybe you do but you underestimate it or don’t know enough to realize how serious things are. Maybe you simply need to read some stats, read some data and then see how it makes you feel.

4) Insufficient motivation

Well, you know, I know there’s something going on, the coral reef disappearing and species being wiped out or whatever but what am I supposed to do about it? Why should I take it upon my shoulders to change anything? Those kids have got dedicated outdoor centres and summer camps that focus on those things, they’ve got global organizations, they’ve got schools, they’ve got books. It’s not my duty to teach them about the environment.

5) Lack of role-models

Again - lucky me, I guess. I’ve always had my dad there and him being my dad and hero, I automatically assumed that whatever he did was right, but how many parents have this sort of mind-set, how many parents are so nature-oriented? Kids need role-models, parents, peers, communities, big people to take action, to deliver the right information, to bring them closer to the problems. Kids need people who have some kind of influence on them to explain to them that what they do affects things.

Get Your Kids Outside With Geocaching - Photo: Jennie Sprigings

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are also things that I believe we can easily do to counteract the above issues. Here’s my pick:

1) Promote direct experiences

Probably the biggest advantage of the outdoors over class-based learning is that the kids are out there, immersed in the experience. Even a park in the city centre can make for a fantastic venue. The plants and animals are not just pictures on the pages, they’re actually there. We can engage the kids’ senses - have them look at rocks, touch trees, smell flowers, taste leaves, listen to the wind. I think it’s key that they have that intimate, informal, intense experience; it’s key that they learn first-hand that things happen for a reason and that everything has its place. If kids don’t get that experience, it’s like their whole environmental education is missing context and substance.

2) Give opportunities for social interactions

One study with children showed that opportunities to play and socialise with a group of friends is a big reason that many of them value the outdoors as a venue for their games and that eventually turns into appreciation for the beauty of the places where they hang out. Even if it’s only for a few days of an extremely short summer camp, they’ve got a common learning space, they’ve got a network where they can learn from each other, they get a chance to socialize and build friendships and I think this can be a great motivator for engaging with nature.

3) Promote collective action

Not only kids, but people in general, are more likely to engage politically and environmentally if they have or think they have what is called “collective competence” - which is their ability to achieve goals working as a group. When we talk about oil spills, and CO2 emissions and deforestation it’s easy for the kids to feel disempowered and insignificant, but maybe if we could find a way to show them that when they do things together, they can make a difference. A friend was telling me the other day about a food waste programme she saw at a certain outdoor centre in Scotland where each day students would be shown how much food they’ve wasted after dinner or lunch and the staff had them work towards the end goal of zero food waste. And there you go: immediate, visible, positive change that gives them an instant sense of achievement - all thanks to a group effort.

4) Encourage active participation

Kids love being engaged and whereas in classes they may have to listen to the teacher more and read books and follow a top-down sort of structure, out in the woods the learning process is more bottom-up. They learn that nature can be relentless and unforgiving and yes, being wet makes you cold and being silly makes you bleed and being on the cliff edge makes you dizzy but it was all your decision - you weren’t forced to do it, you chose to do it. And they’ll remember that it was in the caves where they overcame their fear, and it was in the mountains where they tested their endurance and on the lake where they had to push themselves to learn something - and I might be stretching it but I think it creates a link between their belief of their capacity, their self-reliance and decision making and the outdoors, and I think that this also plays a role in teaching them to respect all those places where they made all those memories.

5) Pitch at the right level

So the material that students are expected to learn at school is created based on their age but not their character - and it would be hard to expect it to be different, but as their guardians we’ve got the opportunity to tailor the teaching style based on their unique personalities. You may be a parent of two boys of similar age but they may be completely different when it comes to how they learn, what they enjoy, what they respond to and the beauty of being a parent or an outdoor instructor is that we don’t have to follow a set of rules from a book - we can assess the kids’ character and based on that choose the best way to convey whatever information it is that we want to convey to them. Yet another advantage the open country has got over schools - more freedom, more flexibility.

Why Nature Needs Our Kids - Photo: Emily Kent

Neither of the above lists should be considered comprehensive as the subject of raising the environmental awareness among youth is a complex, multi-faceted problem and new research is being published every year, but it’s not more research that we need - it’s common sense and the courage to stand against ignorance and indifference and the sooner we learn it’s our responsibility to pass on the relevant knowledge, the better chance our kids will have to experience the same unspoilt beauty we enjoyed when we were their age. And they deserve it.

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