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Raising Environmentally Conscious Kids

by Alan Fortescue

Alan Fortescue

Alan Fortescue is the Director of Education for Earthwatch Institute. Read more »

Just the other day I was rock climbing with a friend who told me about a discussion she had with her daughter (age 10) regarding environmental sustainability. Their discussion focused on the use of Dixie cups. The daughter was wondering if it was more ecological to use Dixie cups to rinse her mouth after she brushed her teeth at night, or whether she should use a glass, comparing the relative merits of the energy and materials used to create a single Dixie cup to the energy and materials used to wash a glass in the dishwasher. The two were disconcerted that there was no easy answer to their dilemma, and broadened their conversation into an exploration of how our society is often structured to prevent the answering of such questions. Knowing I was an environmental educator, my friend asked me what I thought--figuring I would know the "right" answer.

There is no easy or right answer to this question, but at that moment I was not concerned with answers. Rather, I just thought, Wow! Wow, because it was refreshing to hear about a parent and child engaged in a serious way with such issues. Even more encouraging was the kind of comparative critical thinking that was clearly going on between mother and daughter. The discussion filled me with confidence for the future. And yet, even as I basked in the knowledge that here was one very aware child with a mom who was an active part of her education, I knew such engagement is rare. Many parents are actively engaged in their child's education, but studies show few Americans are confident in knowing how to foster an environmental consciousness. A recent book entitled Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv highlights this phenomenon. Conducting interviews with kids across America, Louv documented how today's children are distanced from nature and issues of sustainability in a ways that ultimately lead to a devaluing of the environment.

If you read or listen the news at all, you encounter daily accounts about the widespread environmental challenges that we all must deal with. This trend is both disheartening and bewildering. Disheartening because we know our children will not share the same world we grew up in, bewildering because we feel powerless to do anything about it. So what do we as parents do? How can we raise environmentally conscious children and how do we best engage them with the issues of sustainability?

Fortunately there is a simple answer to these questions. Recent research has shown that more than any other factor, one thing does more to foster environmental consciousness than anything else; this is simply the act of getting children outdoors. As prominent environmental educator David Sobel eloquently stated, "one transcendent experience in nature is worth a thousand nature facts." It turns out that children who have an immersive experience in nature between the ages of 5 and 10, foster a deep love of the environment that they carry with them their entire lives. Aside from significantly increasing the likelihood that they will actively work to preserve the important life-giving aspects of the environment as adults, an engagement with nature has other positive cognitive impacts, from an improved performance in school to a greater involvement and concern for community well-being. A recent study of 300 of the world's most innovative thinkers and leaders showed clear links between childhood immersion in nature and an out-of-the-box creativity and tireless commitment to society.

So rather than teaching them about sustainability, I strongly encourage you to give your kids a primary nature experience that will instill them with an environmental ethic which will, in turn, inspire them to develop their own lifelong understanding of sustainability. As David Peri once remarked when talking about the pedagogy of native Americans, "when you teach someone something, you've robbed the person of the experience of learning it." There turns out to be nothing more important in the creation of a generation of environmental citizens than helping children learn about the environment by allowing them to experience it.

So, should you just let your kids loose in the wild?  Stay tuned!  Next week, I'll share the answer, along with tips on how to engage kids in the great outdoors.  In the meantime, how do you go about connecting your kids with nature?


Jeffrey writes...

I feel like most kids' activities are very directed these days--at least in the city where I live. It's one lesson, camp, after another. When I get my kids outside--which I try to do as often as I can--it's hard to get them to just explore on their own. They seem to be waiting for the direction they get in so many of their other activities. I'd love to hear folks' ideas about what parents (who aren't world-class naturalists) can do to spark interest.

Alan? writes...


I think you are not alone in your predicament. I will be addressing some of your challenges next week, but in the meantime, I would suggest becoming a kid yourself…so to speak. Something I do in similar situations is to try to remember the inner kid in me. Maybe, instead of seeing yourself as separate from the kids (the parent in charge), you might just jump in and start exploring something yourself, as if you were one of the kids. Without setting rules or directions, just jump in and start exploring. It may take some time, especially (as you rightly note) since our kids are generally told what to do or not do. But if you model free-inquisitiveness without rules, they can follow and learn from your example. It may not unfold all at once, but over time. Thanks so much for your excellent question.

Colleen writes...

Thanks so much for your article! My husband's family has a long standing tradition of camping while on vacation instead of staying in hotels. It's cheaper and it gives your family a better understanding of the environment that you're visiting. We try to carry on that tradition as much as possible with our kids, but not every location is suited to it.

Alan? writes...


Your story reminds me of a family I knew who would “move” out of their house in the summers and live in a tent in their back yard. In addition to saving on electricity (cooling, etc.), it gave their kids a real sense for how people used to live closer to the land, and with less gadgets (or the need for gadgets). In fact, this also reminds me of a GREAT PBS series called “FRONTIER HOUSE.” In this series, three modern families try to live like pioneer settlers in Montana. Well worth a watch if you have not seen it.

erin writes...

getting kids surfing, body boarding, kayaking or snorkeling helps them get an understanding of the importance of keeping the ocean clean and provides some physical fitness as a bonus!!

Kat writes...

I love that quote "when you teach someone something, you've robbed the person of the experience of learning it." That is my philosophy for homeschooling my children. Are children really learning in a classroom from a chalkboard or textbook, or from real-world experiences?

Alan? writes...


You ask a very good question. John Dewey, the founder of American experiential education, would be in agreement with you. I would be curious what others think. I tend to think a bit of both worlds, in and out of doors, is necessary in today’s world. Obviously, the outdoors should play a huge role in shaping our kids, but there is so much children need to learn today, that I think we cannot disregard the benefits of the traditional classroom. The trick is educating our teachers to know how to integrate both seamlessly—and that is a whole other large issue. Thanks for your thoughtful question.

Kathy writes...

We live on a farm with a small woods surrounding it. We set up boundaries for our children, and let then go. It is now muddy outside and my children love to make rivers in the mud, connecting the puddles. We have a Flowering Crab tree in our front yard that we can see from the window. The tree attracts winter birds that we can spot. My kids love to climb trees. In the summer we will go for walks or bike rides along our field road looking at tracks, bug, plants and stopping whenever something catches their eye. It also helps that I am interested in nature and love getting outdoors. Most of the time I just let them explore. I grew up this way and it did help foster my love of nature.

Alan? writes...

Kathy! What great ideas you have! Setting a boundary is especially useful. As our kids learn to explore, we need to be mindful of not pushing them beyond their capabilities. Bounding a safe zone for free exploration is a wonderful idea.

Tina writes...

Our girls have been out in the woods since they were infants. We would walk with them at a local nature center or in the woods in our back yard. We have them participate in the planting, weeding and harvesting in our small garden. It makes a difference. We watch many nature shows and talk about how what we do on a daily bases effects animals all over the world. We even have a save the polar bear jar. A penny goes into the jar everytime the turn the light off in a room or turn water off while they brush their teeth or soap thier hands. Simple things like this make them more aware of thier behaviors. Thanks for printing this article. - Tina

Alan? writes...


I really like the way you are integrating social responsibility into your children’s life. The penny in the jar idea helps convey a sense of responsibility for the greater worlds that is so missing in many kids today. What a neat, approachable way of instilling a profound social consciousness. It’s also a strong reinforcing pedagogical model. Humans, especially children, learn better when they feel like their learning has real world import. I also like that you are not “hitting your kids over the head” with worry and guilt and fear, but simply acknowledging that they can help something by taking a small action.

As for fear, David Sobel has an excellent book about Ecophilia, or the love of nature. He makes a very strong case for NOT scaring kids too young with things they cannot do anything about. I know a lot of k-6 teachers who try to integrate climate change into their learning, only to find kids are paralyzed with fear. Sobel suggests, as you are doing, simply letting kids get into nature and love learn to love it. Nice work and thanks.

Callia writes...

I have never used Dixie cups or a glass to rinse my mouth after brushing my teeth. The simple answer is to use your hand.

Alan? writes...


An astute observation -- thinking out of the box -- there is always another way. And this is where our conversation went. Why is it that our society usually frames these types of queries in a “this or that” fashion, as if there were only two answers (a Dixie cup or a glass). You remind us that it is crucial to always think out of the box.

Jeanne Barzydlo writes...

I am a geocacher and it is a great way to get your children out into nature in a way that can be both as structured and unstructured as you need. It does require a GPS handheld device and some planning, but it can bring different ages together and incorporates math, spacial skills and creative problem-solving.

It will also build awareness in adults as they seek and find caches by the latitude and longitude posted on the website.

We even have a CITO program, Cache In Trash Out which helps keep areas litter free, and teaches, if it doesn't belong there, take it out...a more proactive approach to "don't litter'.

Derek writes...

Eversince I was a child I use my cupped hands to drink or rinse my mouth.

Jana writes...

As well as actually going outside with children, it's important to SLOW DOWN at least part of the time so they learn to notice what's around them. Sometimes they need some direction in terms of what to explore -- temperature, texture, sounds, bugs, leaf shapes, sunlight patterns, smells -- and they also need a good listener to pay attention and affirm their perceptions and share their discoveries. Just going outside isn't enough, especially if paraphernalia is the main focus, lots of noise, and hyperactivity. It's the RELATIONSHIP between child and nature that needs attention, not just being "outside" instead of "inside" with nothing else different.

Sleeping outside with children is especially rewarding -- when they wake up in natural morning light after being safe outside all night in the dark, and get that first cup of warm hot chocolate to sip while sitting in the dirt or on a stone -- the wider world becomes a better place.

Alan? writes...


Thank you so much for your thoughts! You remind us that learning is a process of connection and relationships, that “being outside” is equally about loving your children and guiding them—being THERE with them yourself, fully open to the experience. Thank you so much for your insight.

Ang writes...

I sometimes feel bad for my 4 year old, since we live in an urban area and don't have easy access to the kind of forests and hiking that I grew up with. However, we garden and spend time in our yard, and visit the beach regularly, so she's still getting an exposure to nature on an intimate scale, if not on a grand one. I love to hear her cry "awesome!" when she spots the neighborhood Cooper's Hawk, and runs to me in excitement when she's found a pill bug. I think - or hope - that so much of loving nature is cultivating the simple awareness of all the life that exists around us, just learning how to observe and to see.

Alan? writes...


I think so, in fact I think what Jana wrote above your entry speaks well to exactly the kind of experience you are giving your child.

Kate writes...

Since my grandchildren were born, I've made it my clear intention to get them out into nature as often as possible. Every summer we go backpacking in the Sierras to my special "baby backpacking" place. They get to run around and explore, play in the streams, climb on the rocks and sleep under the stars! Now in their teens they bring their friends along and carry my pack!

Missy writes...

We live close to an area that has lots of quartz, and I like to take my kids crystal digging. We have to trek through the woods to find the right place, and sometimes the kids get bored, but once we stop, they notice that each step offers a world to explore - if they just stop and look. Bugs, different textures of dirt, cool looking rocks, leaves, worms, wind, flowers, etc. It seems that if I point out one interesting rock, they can find hundreds more. That can keep them busy for hours. And at the end of the day, they have a new respect for Mother Nature...

Syed writes...

I think it is important to inculcate the importance of taking care of our environment in the children from a very early age. If our children begin to love the environment they can easily be convinced to act responsibly .

Mens Suits writes...

As we become more and more aware of the global climate crisis, it's more important than ever for us to raise our children to be environmentally conscious. Whether it's a simple walk in the woods or a major recycling project, there are a number of things you can do to teach your children to be responsible stewards of the earth.

Mens Suits

troubled youth writes...

Informative article with essential discussion. I feel, being a responsible parent one should help their kids to know about various things of their own and it is up to parents that at which stage they are going to help in detailed based on the kids capability. This is a very important discussion and parents need to help their kids on environmental issues and this help them to be their parents in future. It is helpful for parents to take certified professionals help to provide better teen parenting

teen parenting writes...

I feel it is one of the primary responsibilities of parents to teach their kids to behave well in the society and in the case of environmental activity, parents need to be more cautious to help their kids. It is helpful for parents to take specialist help for better teen parenting

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