Next Generation Ecologists: Raising Our Kids to Care about the Planet

Today is Earth Day! How are you celebrating? This past weekend we were watching a nature documentary. Jealous of the photojournalists, I turned to my husband, “Can you believe that is their real-life job?” We started talking about what it would take to be an ecologist or photojournalist for National Geographic (the pipe dream of every nature-lover) and my husband shrugged, “Who knows, that may be our kids one day.”

I turned to my almost 3-year-old, “Do you want to be an ecologists when you grow up?”

He nodded, then added, “When I grow up, I want to make myself into a rabbit.”

We laughed together, but his comment reveals something unique to childhood: he sees no reason why he couldn’t grow up to be a rabbit. Rabbits are a part of this world and if he gets to choose what to grow into, he’s picking the rabbit. He sees the similarities more than the differences.

World-renowned Oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence Sylvia Earle has a saying: “No child left dry”. She intentionally focuses her advocacy towards teens and adolescents, reasoning that they are the inheritors of the planet and if they don’t care, then the earth is doomed. It’s the next generation that is going to make a difference.

Young children see themselves as a part if this earth. They are friends with the planet and believe they could grow up to be a rabbit, if they wish. How do we foster that empathy, that care for the planet, and raise the next generation of ecologists?

Connection and opportunity. Create opportunities for children to connect with nature and care for something outside of themselves, encourage them to think about how a plant or animal lives, what it needs, and how they could help (particularly if that “help” is to Leave No Trace). Model good “Outdoor Ethics” and encourage your children to do the same.

In her book Roots of Empathy, educator Mary Gordon writes, “if we are able to take the perspective of the Other, we will notice and appreciate our commonalities and we will be less likely to allow differences to cause us to marginalize, hate, or hurt each other.”

Children are already one step ahead of most adults as they don’t often notice the obvious differences between themselves and animals. Our goal should be to foster connections between our children and the earth and encourage empathy throughout their growing up years. As usual, Target is at-the-ready with some activities to help children see and empathize with the Others that inhabit this planet alongside them.

This week I picked up groceries at Target and as I passed their dollar-spot section, these gems caught my eye:

My preschooler was thrilled when I announced over breakfast that it was Earth Day and we were going on a backyard adventure to celebrate all of the wonderful things about the outside.

We played backyard bingo and he practiced his (limited but growing) knowledge of animal habitats to think of the best place to find the creatures on his list.

Of course, you don’t need to run to Target (flatten the curve! Stay home! #socialdistancing), but you can complete a nature treasure hunt of your own. Ask leading questions like:

  1. Where would an earthworm like to hide? Why do you think he would like it there?
  2. Why should we be careful not to pick too many leaves from this plant? What do plants use their leaves for?

Children may not be able to grow up to “be a rabbit”, but with guidance they can grow up understanding the responsibility that comes with being a member of the human race. By connecting to nature at an early age, children grow with an awareness of the impact they can have on the environment – good or bad.

On this Earth Day, why not celebrate with a walk outside to show your children there is life everywhere, and each little life deserves our respect and consideration.

“What we do with our babies and children today determines the future of our community, our country, and the world”

Mary Gordon, Roots of Empathy
Kid can barely walk and he’s already out in boots exploring the creek =)

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