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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?