Human beings are one with the environment. We can’t barricade ourselves in a pristine compartment while the earth remains in another. What we do to the environment affects us individually and collectively, now and for future generations.
Helping our children to understand this concept is one of the most important things we can do for them. Children are smart – and they love to help. The best way forward is with an informed and involved population, and it’s never too early to begin that process.
MAKE ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION A HABIT
“The best way to teach children how to conserve is to start young,” says Stephanie Woo, CEO and founder of Montessori On the Double. “If composting and recycling becomes a habit at two years old, it will be a no-brainer as the child grows up. But some practical advice to keep in mind is something as simple as the location of the compost bucket and the recycling containers – they need to be accessible to young children.”
In her own home, Ms. Woo, keeps a compost bucket on the counter for the adults, and another on the floor for her twin three-year-old daughters to use when they’re finished eating. Woo and her husband teach their children how to compost vegetable and fruit scraps for their worm farm, which they keep on a low shelf for easy access.
“When children see how these things are done from a young age, and are allowed to participate, it's just natural for them to continue,” says Woo.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF TEACHABLE MOMENTS
You can turn something as simple as changing a light bulb into a teachable moment. Younger children may have never given any thought to the light bulb or how it works. Next time you buy or change a light bulb, involve your child in the process. Even very young children can understand the concept of small things making a big difference.
Jeffrey Bennett, Ph.D., a science educator and author of “The Wizard Who Saved the World (Big Kid Science),” says, “Replace ordinary (incandescent) light bulbs with ‘CFLs’ or ‘LEDs.’ Ordinary bulbs actually waste most of the energy that they use because they make a lot of heat in addition to light. CFLs and LEDs require only about one-quarter as much energy to make the same amount of light. Small things tend to seem, well, small, but if millions of people do them, they can add up to something big.”
Other teachable moments:
When you’re ready to discard something, ask your children if they can think of some other way to use the item, or if they can think of someone else who could use it.When you’re running the bath, talk about where the water comes from.Take notice of environmentally helpful programs in your neighborhood and in your child’s school. Find ways for your family to become involved.When grocery shopping, talk to your children about the importance of reading labels and what words like “natural” and “organic” mean.Let your children play outdoors and explore natural habitats. Talk about how people impact the environment. Help them create a small garden and make decisions about how to tend it.
ADDRESS THE “WHY” FACTOR
Even as adults, the more we understand the why of environmentally friendly actions, the more apt we are to help. As every parent knows, kids love to ask, “why?” The best way to get kids involved in conservation is to connect them to that why, says Society of Ultimate Living (SOUL) founder Karen Auld. “Once they’re connected to the why, you can’t stop them.”
While getting your kids to put things into the recycling bin, a little clarification can go a long way toward making it a lifelong habit. Ms. Auld offers a child-sized explanation. “When we don’t recycle, the trash collector takes the trash to a landfill. The landfills are getting too full and we’re running out of space.”
Your child may be fascinated to learn that a can may be used to make new products. “It’s amazing,” says Auld. “It takes less energy to produce a can from a recycled can than to make a new can.”
The concept of chemicals in our food and other products being hazardous to our health is a concept most children can understand. Explaining how those chemicals affect the environment may be a little more complicated for young children. Auld suggests explaining to children that the environment is a living organism and there are some things the living environment can’t handle.
“Chemicals can accumulate in the environment and be washed into a river. Fish are in the river. The fish get chemicals in them. We eat the fish. It’s a big circle of life. Kids get that concept,” says Auld. “What happens with chemicals in the environment circles back to us. We have to take responsibility for what we’re introducing into the environment.”
Education and empowerment are the gifts we must give our children, and the tools they will use to make the world a better place for generations to come.
Ann Pietrangelo is the author of "No More Secs!" and “Catch That Look,” a freelance writer, and a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Photo: IMG_1872 (Students learn about compost at Zephyros Farm) from collection of Jessica "The Hun" Reeder; Recycling Kid by Incase; Boy with Garden Hose by Monica R.