Children Are The Future Stewards Of Our Natural Resources — So Long As Their Parents Are Right Now

Toddler Picking Up Tree Branch — Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash
Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

Are parents talking to their children about natural resources and the issues they face? This is a question that has nagged me for some time. I’m not a parent, but I love kids. More specifically, I love what kids bring to the table: innocent hope and brutal honesty. So, when it comes to some of the issues I hold most dear, namely the management and consumption of our planet’s natural resources, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is my sister talking to my 6-year-old nephew about lowering his carbon footprint?” Probably not. So, I did a bit more digging into whether or not parents discuss topics such as water conservation, land degradation, plastic pollution, etc. with their children. And if not, why? The answers to these questions turned out to be a little more complicated — and hard to find — than I anticipated.

A cursory internet search didn’t exactly yield what I was looking for. However, one thing the internet did press upon me was the great importance of kids spending more time outside among our natural resources, specifically in forests and fields as educational settings. As a former high school teacher, this greatly intrigued me. And as a current writer, I exploited what few connections I have to uncover more answers, which lead me to David Sobel. In case you’re not familiar with Sobel, he is a renowned educator and author who has lectured, consulted, and written books on place-based education and the success of forest kindergartens. Place-based education is a term I was already familiar with having implemented some of my own during my tenure in the classroom. Generally speaking, it’s when educators connect their students and lessons directly to the local environment and communities in which the students live and play. Forest kindergartens, however, was a very new concept for me.

In Sobel’s article “Outdoor school for all: Reconnecting children to nature,” published in EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet (2017), he notes that outdoor schools and forest kindergartens are quite popular in Europe, particularly Denmark. Roughly 10% of Danish children attend outdoor schools (Sobel, 2017, p. 25). Denmark is not to be outdone, however. Thousands of children are attending outdoor schools in Germany, and the popularity of these schools is steadily climbing in countries such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Taiwan, says Sobel (2017, p. 25). As Sobel describes in a lecture given at Antioch University in 2014, at these schools, students are driven to the edge of the forest, field, or pond where they attend; lead to the daily learning location by their teachers; then spend their mornings and afternoons learning among the flora and fauna — no matter the weather conditions. They climb trees as they learn how to identify them and the animals that live among the branches, they wade into mud puddles and streams to identify invertebrates and fish, and they dig in the earth to find worms and discover the layers of topsoil and clay. To a child, this must be idyllic. This style of learning also helps develop cognitive, emotional, and social behavioral skills that are essential when building up that oh-so-topical and seemingly elusive personality trait — grit (Antioch University New, 2014) — the stuff that makes children resilient in the face of adversity. Studies have shown that children who participate in such programs have a much larger vocabulary acquisition and are also sick less often (Antioch University New, 2014). What parent wouldn’t want all of this for their kids?

It is precisely this type of education and learning through play that makes children stewards of nature as adults. In his previously mentioned essay, Sobel cites environmental psychologist Louise Chawla and professor Victoria Derr who have both studied extensively the positive impacts exposure to nature has on children in the short and long term. Chawla and Derr found that if parents want their kids to grow up understanding, appreciating, and advocating for natural resources, then parents need to let them/make them get outside and play in the dirt (Sobel, 2017, p. 24). But we don’t live in Europe. Good news! These schools are gaining in popularity in America. According to a survey conducted by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and the Natural Start Alliance, 250 outdoor preschools and forest kindergartens were in operation in 43 states as of 2017. Click here to view the entire report.

Alas, as incredible as outdoor schools and forest kindergartens may be, that still does not answer my immediate question: are parents and guardians discussing natural resources with their children in their own homes? And why is it so important that they do? When any new routine or lesson is practiced and reinforced at home, it sticks. For example, my husband and I have been taking our adorable and impulsive Labrador puppy, Lily, to a dog trainer for a couple of weeks. After week one, we realized immediately that by not reviewing and practicing the same commands she learned all week at training “camp,” she reverted to bad habits and bolting from us as soon as we let her off leash. I’m 40 — I can’t keep up with that puppy energy. So, we made the effort to incorporate her lessons and new commands into our daily routines, which has become the new norm. What Lily learns at school she now executes at home. Yes, dogs and kids are not the same (or are they?), but the point is that in order to turn any lesson into a habit, it is going to take some extra effort at the home front.

In short, parents cannot solely rely on schools to teach their children about water shortages and toxins, air pollution, and non-compostable materials, not even the forest kindergartens in all their natural glory. Even if children are being taught natural resources and environmental issues in school, that doesn’t mean it’s effective. How much do you remember from your days in school? Exactly. If a subject didn’t interest us, wasn’t taught by a teacher we liked, or was skimmed over due to schedule constraints, we pretty much forgot about it. As much as it pains me to say it, natural resources and the issues that they face can be boring topics. Or worse, depending on who and how the information is delivered, topics such as “the devastating effects of the massive amount of plastic pollution floating in our oceans” can traumatize kids. Imagine being a kindergartner sitting in your class watching a YouTube video of a man removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose with a pair of pliers. I saw that video when I was 38 and I still have nightmares about it. Yes, we want our children to understand that plastic pollution is a serious threat to the environment, but if that information is dropped on them out of context and/or with no real tangible connection to the natural world because they spend the vast majority of their time indoors behind screens, those kids aren’t going to feel connected to nature — they’re going to fear it. Children might use less water when brushing their teeth or request that their parents stop putting their sandwiches in Ziploc bags, but not because they truly understand what it means to conserve water and make sustainable choices. No, it’s because they are haunted by the images of suffocating sea turtles. This is not a long term solution. Apprehension does not excite or motivate people to make real change: it paralyzes them.

I should clarify that I do not think schools are corrupting the minds of our youth and turning them into tiny anxiety bombs when it comes to learning about environmental sciences and issues. It’s all in the delivery and the message, and a lot of schools, educators, and organizations are getting it right. I do think, however, that we’ve reached a point in the timeline of this planet where it’s imperative for parents and guardians to make genuine efforts in incorporating these lessons at home, whether to bolster what their children learn at school or to begin introducing concepts to children who do not learn or have not yet learned about these topics in school. As Louise Chawla and Debra Flanders Cushing put it in their article “Education for strategic environmental behavior,” “… nature activities in childhood and youth, as well as examples of parents, teachers and other role models who show an interest in nature, are key ‘entry-level variables’ that predispose people to take an interest in nature themselves and later work for its protection” (2007, p. 4). If we want our children to care, then we have to take some very specific actions in order to get them there. It would seem teachers and schools are in fact promoting a more direct connection of students to nature, but are parents? And if they are, how are they going about it? And if they aren’t, why not? The plot thickens.

Frustrated that I was not finding more information on that specific query, I decided to conduct my own exceedingly informal online survey using my social media accounts to push it out. I was able to collect 100 responses from parents of children ages 0–18. Granted, this is a remarkably small sample and is in no way a completely accurate representation of the U.S. let alone the world, but hey, we do what we can with the tools we have. In the survey, I asked if parents have ever spoken to their children about natural resource issues such as air pollution, land degradation, water pollution, etc. Out of the 100 parents who took the survey, only seventeen said they have not/do not discuss natural resources with their children. Huzzah, my Facebook and LinkedIn connections are going to save the planet through their offspring! But here’s what I found to be the most fascinating (though not surprising) bit of information garnered from the survey: out of the 17 that said they have not/do not discuss natural resources with their children, most of them (11) selected they don’t due to a lack of understanding the topic. I even had one surveyee comment that they work in a daycare with 20 children ranging in ages from 2–11, and when they asked all 20 kids if their parents discuss natural resources with them, all of the children responded saying their parents do not. There are, of course, certain variables that should be considered with that information. For example, the daycare children may have never heard their parents use the specific term “natural resources,” but their parents may have discussed conservation with them and/or they may practice conservation efforts at home. However, given that nearly 65% of the parents who said they don’t talk to their kids about natural resource issues because they don’t know enough raised a large red flag for me.

What it boils down to based on this one tiny survey and my random asking around is that parents just don’t feel comfortable talking to their kids about something they don’t know enough about. At the end of the survey, I asked if parents practice natural resource conservation at home with their children. This time, 14 of the 100 answered “No,” with eight of the fourteen parents saying, once again, that they didn’t know enough about it. It doesn’t take a scientist to analyze these results. Parents (at least some) lack the knowledge necessary to have these conversations or put into practice these measures in their own homes. This is not necessarily their fault.

Liberal society has a tendency to villainize parents like this, labeling them as not caring enough about the environment or their children’s futures. But in reality, it’s us, the so called “environmental justice warriors,” who have failed them. Why? Because if we truly care that much, then we would be taking a much harder look at what can be done to change this pattern. It’s time to wake up, fellow tree huggers! The one-size-fits-all pamphlet-style activism and guilt-trip-laden social media posts have not worked. In order to help the children to understand, we need to figure out a way to get useful and applicable information to the parents and guardians of those children. Parents need information tailored to their immediate community and their household needs, and it must be readily available through various mediums and formats. And we have to get comfortable with the fact that we may never convince some parents that environmental woes take precedent over their immediate ones or that their kids would be better off spending more time playing outside. However, if we can find ways to make compromises and come up with creative solutions that benefit both the needs of families as well as natural resources, we need to accept those instances as wins. No more videos of suffering sea turtles and publications that ignorance-shame folks into apathy. The target audience won’t be bullied into activism, and once we’ve lost them, we’ve most certainly lost their children too.

In their article, Chawla and Cushing cite studies conducted in Wisconsin and Germany that point to the fact that adult pro-nature supporters and environmentalists attributed their advocacy of natural resources not only to their exposure to and playtime in nature, but also to key family members and role models (Education for strategic, 2007, p. 4). To that end, the responsibility of educating children about natural resources cannot and should not lie solely with educators or activists or parents. Parents, guardians, family members, and community members alike must all be invested and involved in order to truly make a positive impact on children. And as educators and activists, stewards and scientists, it’s up to us to develop more effective approaches to properly inform the adults responsible for raising our young future nature lovers about natural resources and the issues they face; to help turn those parents into influential environmental role models for their own children.

References

Antioch University New England. (2014, July 2). Not Your Father’s School — Early Childhood, Forest Kindergartens and Nature Preschools — David Sobel [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJQxIRhwbNQ&t=8s

Chawla, Louise & Cushing, Debra Flanders. (2007). Education for strategic
environmental behavior. Environmental Education Research, 3–4. http://eprints.qut.edu.au/50908/

Natural Start. (2017, November 17). Nature preschools and forest kindergartens 2017 national survey [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://naturalstart.org/sites/default/files/staff/nature_preschools_national_survey_2017.pdf

Sobel, David. (2017). Outdoor school for all: reconnecting children to nature. EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, 24–25.
https://www.davidsobelauthor.com/articles-and-film

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