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How incredible to live in a time when the pendulum is swinging back to a more sustainable way of life; towards a future in which our children will take responsibility for the Earth rather than taking it for granted.
On any day, my three-year-old might help Daddy rinse beer bottles ready to be refilled, spread straw over the veggie patch or pass nappies to hang on the line. By the time he starts school he will be an old hand at recycling, frugal with water and well versed in the plight of koalas.
But while it’s one thing to train a child to sort rubbish, it’s another to have them understand why we do it, otherwise the whole cycle starts again. So how do we raise children to think like eco-warriors? It may seem obvious, but if you want your kids to grow up believing they must protect the earth and its resources, they need to get out and smell, touch and feel nature itself.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’. As he says, “A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rainforest – but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”
In addition to fostering a connection with nature, it’s our responsibility to provide the bigger picture by talking to children – in language they can understand – about why we turn off the tap when brushing our teeth or dig food scraps into the garden.
Early childhood is not the time for a lecture on exponential population growth, but you could explain that the Earth has limited resources and we all have to share. The key is to make it fun, experiential and age-appropriate. And it goes without saying that you yourself must model the behaviour you want to encourage – don’t you just love being told off by a toddler for forgetting your reusable shopping bags?
Here are some further ideas for nurturing environmentally conscious kids from the ground up:
- Toddlers provide plenty of opportunities to discuss how things should be done. “Turn off the tap, pick up that rubbish, only flush the toilet once!” Toddlers love turning lights off, putting paper into the recycling bin and feeding the worms or chickens. This is great age to start making connections between food and its source: eggs come from chickens, and biscuits from the oven, not just in packets.
- As they grow up and learn to share, kids can get a kick out of donating their old toys to charity, picking up trash on the beach or visiting a recycling facility. Creative activities include making masterpieces from junk (see www.makedo.com) or keeping a nature scrapbook just like Dirt Girl’s (see www.leafjournals.com.au).
- Tweenagers will enjoy a family activity such as Clean Up Australia Day or taking care of a pet from an animal shelter. Ten to 12-year-olds love a bit of competition, so set challenges like no-rubbish week or earning points for turning off lights when not in use. Shop at farmers markets together and organise clothes swaps.
- Tap into the teenager’s inherent sense of drama by telling them stories about triumphs and tragedies such as the Traveston dam and the Murray River. Encourage them to volunteer or join a community garden and show them alternate ways of living. Enforce tech-free days and have them walk, ride or catch the bus rather than being their private taxi. Send them out into nature with friends and trust they’ll come back safely.