Instilling a love of the earth in children before asking them to save it.

On a recent trip to Ireland, when we drove by the school I went to between the ages of 5 and 12, I was transported back to happy memories of school concerts with friends, singing classes, which were always a favorite and my eager yet not always so fabulous attempts to learn the recorder! But, it was the nature walks that I found myself reminiscing about in particular and the fun we used to have as kids, making up games and playing together in the school grounds. In those days, the closest we probably had to a play structure, were carefully laid out sticks that we used to play jumping games with. A strange nostalgia for those innocent days came over me including when we would sit on the grass at lunch time in the earlier years, making daisy chains for each other and play with dandelions and buttercups. I can’t tell you how many times we asked each other, “do you like butter?,” as you held a buttercup under a friends’ chin. According to folklore, if you saw a yellow reflection on the skin, it meant you must definitely like it! Those fun activities as well as the nature walks, where we observed flowers, collected acorns and conkers and looked to see what birds we could see and match feathers to, provided hours of entertainment, creativity and feelings of serenity. These memories reminded me that not only did I feel intrigued by nature as a kid but most of all, I felt connected to it.

Sadly, these days and in recent generations, children are spending far more time indoors or in more controlled outdoor settings. I must admit that because of where we live, it has made it difficult to let our son have more freedom to get out and play. Our townhome faces out on to a busy street with traffic and there are no children his age, whereas when I grew up, I was fortunate to live in a cul- de- sac with a beautiful wooded area at the top of the street. Myself, my siblings and other children from the neighborhood would spend hours playing and exploring there, only being called in when it was time to eat or go to bed. Unfortunately, with mounting evidence that children are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature and having their needs often being over provided for and dangers guarded against, many children are growing up with a lack of a basic understanding of how the world works and capacities that are undeveloped.

With the times that we find ourselves in, with the issues of climate change becoming increasingly apparent, it is vital that now, more than ever, we try to bring back and instill a love of nature in our kids. According to the findings of Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature-Deficit-Disorder”, children that are disconnected from nature are less likely to be concerned about it. A lack of knowledge, joy and hands on experience with the wonders of the natural world, can mean they will be less likely to grow in to adults with an interest in conservation or environmental stewardship. If this is the case, the Earth will continue to suffer, as well as each generation along with it. However, if we teach children, from an early age, to enjoy and respect nature and have a love of it, these teachings will become their normal and they will be more likely to value and want to protect it.

Importance of exposing a child to nature at the right time and in the right way

Rachel Carson, a conservationist and nature writer whose influential book, “Silent Spring,” catalyzed the global environmental movement in the 1960’s, said that when a parent is guiding a child about nature, “it is not half so important to know as to feel, stressing the importance of paving the way for the child to want to know rather than putting him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.” She understood the importance of exposing a child to nature at the right time and in the right way, while their world is, “fresh and new… full of wonder and excitement.” She also recognized that for a child to keep this inborn sense of wonder, they need at least one adult who can share it so that they can experience all of the excitement and joy of the world together. In an article she wrote in 1956 titled, “Help Your Child to Wonder,” which was eventually made in to the book called, “The Sense of Wonder,” she describes how certain instincts children have for, “what is beautiful and awe-inspiring,” can be dulled and even lost before reaching adulthood. This is another reason why it’s so important that we introduce our children to positive experiences with the outdoors from a young age. Guided by their natural curiosity, along with age appropriate language and activities, it will lead to a love of nature, provide lasting meaning and will be more likely to ignite a sense of environmental stewardship.

Unfortunately, most children’s education programs about the environment approach the subject from an adult’s perspective, rather than a child’s view. As children only start to develop the ability for abstract reasoning around the age of nine, to approach abstract concepts too prematurely regarding topics such as, ozone holes, ocean acidification or rainforest destruction can lead to feelings of detachment and being overwhelmed. A fear and phobia to environmental issues can also develop for some. While these types of topics may be appropriate to start in middle school, it’s vital that the teaching given to the younger children is age appropriate and that they are allowed the opportunity to experience a loving, hands-on and fun relationship with the earth first. David Sobel, an environmental educator, author and proponent of nature-based early childhood education says in his article, “Beyond Ecophobia,” “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.” You can find more details of his website and books here which are full of resources, ideas and age appropriate activities.

With our children’s environments becoming increasingly urbanized these days and with their lives becoming more structured and scheduled by adults, it is fundamental that we not only instill an appreciation in our children for the outdoors but revive a love of nature within ourselves too. Of course, it’s important that parents should use judgement in what they allow their kids to do but the benefits of allowing independent play can outweigh the risks. Unfortunately, our society seems to be teaching young kids to avoid direct exposure to nature with many having phones at a younger age, flip down video screens for car journeys and other gadgets that can become quite addictive. While these are all okay in moderation, it’s important that we don’t let these types of media activities prevent our kids from having precious time to observe their surroundings in a more meaningful way. It can be easy to forget sometimes that a certain amount of boredom is important as it allows their minds to wander and daydream and can enable creativity and problem-solving.

Recognizing that our son could do with some additional outside time, especially after the initial year of Covid in 2020, we signed him up for various programs throughout the summer and watched him thrive as he did a Stealth, Archery and Wilderness Survival camp, went fishing on several occasions and went wilderness camping with us as a family. While he has never been deprived of time in nature, (thankfully we live next to a small forest and frequently bring our dog for walks on a nearby trail) we felt he would benefit substantially from being exposed to activities with his peers in nature, to enhance his knowledge and experiences of the outdoors. Thankfully, he has asked that we sign him up for similar activities again next year!

We also have much to learn from Indigenous cultures about how they raise their children and their perspective on outdoor learning. For hundreds of years, Native Americans have maintained an intimate relationship with the environment, both physically and spiritually. Reliant upon their natural environment for survival, Indigenous people possess a wealth of knowledge about the environment and how to live in a sustainable way. Brought up, from a young age, with a deep respect for the earth, or Mother Earth as they tend to refer to her, most Indigenous communities believe that we are all inextricably linked with nature, that we are equal and interdependent, even kin. They have a human-nature reciprocal relationship with the environment where they show appreciation and give thanks to animals, plants, rocks, water and ecosystems for all they provide. To play, wander, dig and splash on the land as well as other nature-based experiences is an integral part of what they are taught to do and provides them with life-long learning. Spending time in nature while using all their senses is a part of every-day living for them. In their worldview the land is a “classroom” and is a privilege to be cherished.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes the crucial role the Indigenous Peoples and local communities, who have always cared for the forests around the world for generations, play in the vital struggle to combat climate change. They believe building ethical partnerships with Indigenous communities has an extremely important role to play today. The UN and researchers around the world have also acknowledged that in order to slow down our planet’s crisis, it is fundamental that we engage with, learn from and support Indigenous Peoples. If we can combine their education and environmental practices in relation to the earth with additional Earth-centered programs, it will help us learn how to further mitigate human impact on the land. Their love and deep connection to the earth can teach us to view and understand it more like they do and instill a sense of ownership for what we need to do, to care for and protect biodiversity. If parents, early childhood educators and caregivers pay attention to what we can learn from the Indigenous peoples around the world and connect with their way of learning, it will benefit and enhance our children’s learning hugely. Not only will they experience new and fun ways to appreciate the outdoors but they will gain exposure to understanding other Indigenous ways of learning about the Earth and how they experience the land in a holistic way. Cool Earth, a UK based, not for profit charity, that works to protect endangered rainforest, recognize that Indigenous communities are the most effective stewards when it comes to securing threatened rainforests. By placing Indigenous peoples and rainforest-based communities at the heart of their environmental cause, they follow their lead and learn by their example of how to treat and protect the land. Going forward, this type of approach to environmental action is what researchers, and the UN are calling for.

In a recent online talk, organized by EARTHDAY.ORG, where a panel discussed current gaps in climate literacy, one of the main topics was that children and teenagers need to be taught about climate change in a way that sparks hope. Bombarding them with bad news can lead to feelings of depression and lack of motivation. If we can show our children what is being done and what they can do to help themselves, it will make them feel less helpless. If you get those difficult questions, such as, how many years do we have? Teaching them about the movements, organizations, groups and figures that are working to help slow down climate change will help to give them hope. Encouraging them to get involved in some way so that they feel they are contributing, is also a good idea. For example, by involving them in incorporating eco-friendly practices in to the home and bringing them outside to plant vegetables or collect trash, etc. Whatever they are learning from us as parents, caregivers or from the class needs to translate to their real world. They need to see that they can have a real impact. When our children are ready to learn more about climate change, it’s important that we also equip them with learning tools to face the uncertainties and challenges of the future so that they can feel empowered. If we can teach them how to tackle climate change in a fun and engaging way with a focus on the solutions and innovations, it will empower them to act and initiate change so that they can see a better future for themselves. Every little bit that we do as adults and parents to assist our children in the fight against climate change will have the added benefit of giving us hope for their future too!

I have listed some helpful websites below that I came across while researching this topic, including Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program:

Roots and Shoots - recognizing that young people need to feel empowered and have hope, Jane Goodall, the English primatologist and anthropologist founded the Roots and Shoots program in 1991. A global movement in conservation, it is an example of one of the wonderful Institute’s out there that is equipping a generation of young people to become activated and empowered to make a difference in their daily lives.

Cool Planet Experience Rewrite program - "A programme on climate change based on hope not fear".

Cool Planet Experience - A wonderful place to bring the kiddos if you're ever on a visit to Ireland. It is the first of it's kind in the world to offer a fun and interactive climate action experience. There are plans for others to be developed over time.

Teach the Future - is an organisation that gives young people "the tools to engage with the future early in life".

Teach the teacher - 16 year old, climate justice activist, Aishwarya Puttur speaking at the youth-led event Mock COP26 in 2020 on the importance of climate education.

Cool Earth - Things you can do at home.

Rachel Carson's Books

Reuzi blog posts on sustainable living and how to involve the children.