By Scott Steen
With forests both in the U.S. and around the world under threat — and the health of the planet itself imperiled — raising environmentally literate and conservation-minded kids is more important than ever.
I recently received an email from the mother of a girl named Alexis Dilloway. Alexis helped create the Earth Lovers Club, a local group comprised of her and her friends that recruits others to share their love of nature and taking care of the planet. For her eighth birthday in January, Alexis had a forest-themed birthday party and asked her friends to make donations to American Forests in lieu of presents. She also donated $18 that she has been saving, including money she received from the tooth fairy for her two front teeth.
Alexis loves to be outside and says, “It makes me feel safe and good to be in nature.” This love of the natural world and her desire to be a good steward of the environment did not come by chance. It is a value instilled by her parents.
“We’ve always kept an open dialogue with our children about why we do the things we do and what we can do to be even better about protecting our planet,” Alexis’ mom, Emily, tells me. “As a family that spends a lot of time out in nature, we have made it a priority to care for the environments we love so much. I think that our honesty with Alexis about what could happen if we didn’t take care of our planet has just really sunk into her heart. For as long as I can remember, she has always had a strong desire to defend our planet and the creatures that inhabit it.”
Unfortunately, there are far too few kids like Alexis today and far too many things competing for their time. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that kids now spend 53 hours a week in front of some kind of screen. Even in 2000, a University of Michigan study found that children spent only 30 minutes in unstructured play outside per week. It is difficult to value something that you don’t experience.
Fortunately, there are countless ways parents can help nurture a love of nature and a sense of responsibility for the health and well-being of both forests and the planet. I recently asked a number of my colleagues here at American Forests for some easy ways that parents could enhance environmental literacy and instill a love of nature in kids.
Here are a few of their ideas:
- Simply and most importantly, spend time with your kids out in nature. Take them hiking, camping or for simple walks through a local wooded park. Make a game of identifying as many trees, plants and animals as you can. Identify the places where animals might live (dens and nests, for example). Use your outings as a way to teach your kids about the fragility of nature and their role as stewards. As Alexis says, “In nature, I watch out where I step, and when I see things, like wildflowers, I smell them and look at them, but always leave them for other people to enjoy. I also plant any chance I get and treat all living things with love and care.”
- Read nature and environment-themed books with your children. Recommendations include Todd Carr’s The Earth Book, Alan Zweibel’s Our Tree Named Steve, Joanne Ryder’s Each Living Thing and Frank Asch’s The Earth and I; and classics like The Lorax, Watership Down and The Wind in the Willows.
- Put your child in charge of household recycling and explain the importance of the three Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle. Give them responsibility for carrying your reusable shopping bags into the store when you shop and have them help carry (unbagged) items when reusable bags are not available.
- Teach children never to litter and to pick up trash to throw away whenever they can.
- Encourage your kids to pick a favorite tree to get to know by sitting, thinking, writing and reading under it — making it their special spot.
- Ask kids to identify five ways that their family can reduce energy costs or be kinder to the environment around the house. Teach them to turn off the water while brushing teeth and turn off the lights (and TV) when they leave a room.
These ideas (and many others) are simple, but every action you take now to create awareness in your children will create healthier forests and a healthier planet tomorrow. Alexis’ parents are blazing this trail and helping to create a kid who is destined to make a difference. “Even though her Earth Lovers Club is made up of only a couple of the neighborhood kids, we have praised her in her efforts to start a club with such an important cause and have been sure to remind her that even small kids can make big differences,” Emily Dilloway says. “We always try to provide her with the tools she needs to do the things her heart desires for our earth. We will continue to teach her about our planet and the resources it provides and what we can do to take care of it.”