Over the course of several years my daughter has told me she wants to become many things. A princess, a cook, a model, a gymnast — the list goes on. But about a year ago, something changed. After a week-long tour in the Amazonian rainforest in Ecuador she asked me: “Mum, what do I have to be if I want to help to protect all the plants and animals in the forest?” I grinned.
Today, more than ever, it is of utmost importance that our children grow up knowing about the environment and having a sincere interest and desire to protect it. Climate change needs to be addressed and the growing generation has a very important role to play in this. If we as parents and caretakers teach our children the love of nature and instill in them the inherent desire to protect it, we are making vital strides towards that goal. But how do you teach a child to love something?
Baba Dioum, a Senegalese Forestry engineer made a very famous remark at the 1968 General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. He said “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” I wholeheartedly agree: We only protect what we love, thus a love of nature is the key to its protection. And we cannot love something without knowing it.
Most children in today’s society spend a horrifically minimal amount of time outsides.One survey even claims that many children in the US spend less time outside than prison inmates. Health problems in children like obesity, diabetes and Attention Deficit Disorder can be rooted in that. Studies have proven that spending more time outdoors is not only beneficial for children’s health, but also for their general wellbeing, supporting their social, emotional a cognitive development. Free and unstructured playtime is very important for children’s development and nature offers the perfect playground.
But besides these direct, personal, benefits of spending time in nature, an increased immersion in nature results in a sense of responsibility and stewardship for their environment. Children will tend to develop a much deeper and thorough understanding of the environmental issues we face today and likely have a willingness to do provide aid for such issues.
To get to that point, it is essential that children develop positive associations with nature. Positive memories of their time spent outdoors develops the desire to protect the natural environment. But to create said positive memories, children need more exposure to the outdoors than the majority currently receive.
Vanessa Bullwinkle from Project Learning Tree, an environmental education program, has a similar opinion: “Children who have more positive and enriching experiences in the natural world are more likely to become better-informed adult consumers and savers who are environmentally alert to their own lifestyles and practices. By exposing kids to nature, we grow their understanding and appreciation of the natural world, which is vital to raising the next generation of environmental stewards.”
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My daughter, Miriam, has grown up with a genuine love for all kinds of outdoor activities. Our favorite hobby together is hiking: She has walked through all different kinds of landscapes, from the Himalayan Mountains to the Amazonian rainforest, from the German mid hills to the Peruvian Andes. She loves being outside and when we don’t go out for a couple of days, she shows signs of withdrawal. Children will have different preferences, of course, but what boosted my daughter’s love for the outdoors was starting her early. I took her on her first 5-day cross country hike when she was 18 months old, and since then we have spent every possible minute in nature. She was able to be immersed, to touch it, to feel it , and to develop her own, special connection to it at an early age.
As a geographer myself, landscapes and their formation always fascinate me, so when we walk somewhere, my daughter can never get away without a little geology or geomorphology lecture. But while I thought at first that I was boring her (I simply couldn’t hold myself back), I soon realized that not only does she completely understand what I am talking about, but that it’s quite interesting for her. Now she sometimes asks me very specific questions about landscapes — I’ve even had to look up the answers in my old books from university!
his made me realize that children are able to understand much more complex processes and facts than adults sometimes give them credit for. It’s helpful to read up on the ecosystem one is visiting on a hike or on the natural history of the area one lives in — kids will likely be interested and able to understand it when it is told outside with a clear cut connection to the real world. Touching and seeing things first hand are key to memorizing facts. Additionally, it offers a great learning opportunity for adults to brush up on some long forgotten facts.
To understand the importance of any given topic, it is important for children to see the actual connection of this topic to their living reality. In today’s urban world, this is not always easy. Barbara Kosir from the blog Freeliving Adventures addresses this problem with her r program “Forest Pirates” in Slovenia. The Forest Pirates are a group of children between the ages of 2 to 8 that meet daily to spend a couple of hours together in the forest.
“We don’t just talk about the nature, we are living it”, says Kosir. She also explains that the kids in her group have developed a very good sense of stewardship for nature, even organizing their own projects to reduce plastic waste and inspiring others to do the same.
Informing and educating children about environmental issues while at the same time not overwhelming them with scary facts and making them feel like it is too late to do anything anyways is a challenge of its own. James McGirt, manager of PLT’s GreenSchools program, has advice for these situations “Kids who play outside, ride bikes, garden, swim in lakes and oceans, and camp will grow up to be adults who make environmentally sound choices. Gifting them with a love for the great outdoors also will put a positive spin on sustainability, rather than burdening kids with doomsday facts and future scenarios.”
But how does exposition happen? Obviously traveling and being able to spend extended periods of time outside are great ways of exposing children to nature, but in day to day life? Activities like riding a bike around the neighborhood, gardening, or checking out local birds have the same effect and are sometimes even more fun, because they are directly tied to the real living environment of the children.
And while the best way to teach children about nature is by being in nature, there are also some excellent online resources that can help children understand the complexity of environmental problems and challenges. One very good resource is the Climate Kids program from NASA where children can learn with facts, games and interactive features. Also, a visit to the local museum can be a very good starting point for conversations with kids about nature and the environment.
Knowledge about and exposure to nature are key elements to raise informed and engaged kids that love nature and have a stake in protecting it. Only if we find a way to instill this love in the next generation, we will have a fighting chance to combat today’s environmental issues.