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Raising children who care for our world.

No matter the distinctions we draw, the connections, the dependencies, remain. To damage the earth is to damage your children.

--Wendell Berry, 1996

If global warming has an upside, it may be the development of an enhanced awareness of our environment and the dangers we face due to our profligate and destructive habits. The ways in which most of us live in the industrialized world separate us from the natural world and hence make it difficult for us to understand and care about the planet that sustains us. But now, thanks in part to a scary new report from scientists studying climate change, we are being forced to confront our relationship with the environment. With a new Congress in session, environmental issues have become a much higher national priority, schools and colleges are buzzing with "green" initiatives, and even major corporations are coming to grips with the reality that our current energy resources are finite--and are being depleted rapidly. Plus, many of the energy creation and use processes are harmful to the planet. But what about parents? What can we, the people responsible for raising the next generation, do to support environmental awareness and sustainable living?

First, we can teach our children the 3Rs of the environmental movement: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle--in that order. The last of these is the most likely to be done; it's relatively easy to recycle and requires just a few extra minutes of our time. Even the youngest children can learn to rinse out jars and bottles, and to put those old newspapers in the recycling bin. Reusing is more difficult, as it requires a bit more effort and planning. For example, instead of using throw-away containers when packing lunches or traveling, we can take along washable cups or travel mugs. Something simple I've done for years is to bring canvas bags with me when I go grocery shopping. These bags mean you can cheerily say "neither!" when asked "plastic or paper?" and they also never, ever break, no matter how much you put in them! Reduction is probably the most difficult for a society that is driven by (over)consumption. Start with buying--and teaching your children to buy--only what you need. Children will learn that satisfaction can come from what you do and who you are, rather than what you buy.

These are just a few suggestions to help you reduce, reuse, and recycle. For more ideas, visit such Web sites as the NIEHS Kids' Pages at (www. with your children and make it a game to see how much your family can do to protect the environment!

A second step you can take is to help your children learn how to use less energy. Energy consumption, as through home heating and cooling and transportation, is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions and hence "greenhouse gases." We can teach children about the importance of maintaining the comfort of our living spaces while reducing environmental harm by installing and using programmable thermostats, withstanding the temptation to overheat or overcool, insulating and installing energy-efficient appliances, turning off lights and appliances when not in use, and so on. (For more ideas, see, for example, the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site at www.,with its "Practical Solutions to Global Warming.")

Parents also can teach children the benefits of walking, bicycling, using public transportation, carpooling, and otherwise minimizing the use of personal autos. Weaning our families from overreliance on cars can, in addition to reducing emissions, be fun and contribute to better health. Further, you can work alongside your children, using old-fashioned human-powered tools to mow, rake leaves, shovel snow, and wash dishes, to name just a few possible activities. Again, these actions will contribute to both your family's and the earth's well-being.

You also might want to consider growing as much of your own food as possible. Here are just a few reasons to garden:

* Eating locally is one of the most valuable acts we can do for the environment generally and to thwart climate change in particular. Each calorie of lettuce that we import from California (the typical source of supermarket lettuce) costs more than 30 calories in the transport! It requires petroleum both for transportation and refrigeration, and all that adds to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is the major source of global warming.

* Home-grown fresh fruits and veggies are far better for our health.

* Gardening is fun! It's good exercise, and the food tastes much better than anything you can buy because it's so fresh.

Last and perhaps most important, you can teach and model respect for and appreciation of the natural world. In his 1988 book Caring Spaces, Learning Places: Children's Environments That Work, Jim Greenman made this observation about the importance of nature:

Human beings evolved outdoors. Our bodies need sunlight and fresh air. Our minds need the experience and challenges that nature presents. Our souls need the day-to-day appreciation for the miracle of the world and all its complexity. Without a deep sense of awe at the vastness and majesty or the natural world that humbles us, and a simultaneous ennobling sense that we are intrinsically a part of that world, we are diminished.

Nicely said, no?

In the revised edition of his book, Greenman offers this plea for why children need a childhood rich with nature:

Our development as human beings is stunted without wide experience in the natural world. How do we become wise or spiritual without understanding our ecosystem and our place in it? How do we become sensual without an outdoor life and an appreciation for hot, wet, fragrant, silky, resilient, oozing, hard and soft, rough and smooth states of matter? How do we become physical and develop a sense of freedom without exposure to wide-open places to run and leap and climb?

I find his entreaty compelling and hope you do, too.

Similarly, in his cleverly titled book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2005), Richard Louv makes a passionate and well-researched case for the importance of nature play in children's physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual development. He states: "If, as a growing body of evidence recommends, 'contact with nature is as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep,' then current trends in children's access to nature need to be addressed."

Greenman and Louv implore us, for the sake of our children, to make sure that children are often and freely exposed to the natural world. There are some--admittedly a dwindling few--early childhood programs that make exposure to the natural world an integral part of their curriculum. When we lived in Sweden, for instance, the children went outside multiple times every school day, no matter the weather. And we visited a preschool in Oslo, Norway, where the school curriculum revolved around outdoor experiences. Imagine that! As parents, we, too, can make natural experiences integral to our children's lives. All it takes is spending time out of doors with eyes wide open and receptive minds. I believe that children who spend time in nature will be more likely to appreciate it and less likely to harm it. In this way, our world as well as our children will benefit.

The goal of all these suggestions is to live a low-impact yet rewarding life. Although the environmental problems we now face often seem insurmountable, and we may question whether what one person does matters, we can, in fact, make a difference--one day, one child, one action at a time. Children, of course, learn what they live, and it's our job as parents to help them live in ways that ensure the world is enhanced, not destroyed, by our presence. I will end with another quote, this one from Baba Dioum, a Senegalese environmentalist. I hope it helps you think about the potential power we have to effect change.
In the end we will conserve only what
 we love.
We will love what we understand.
We will understand only what we are


Berry, W. (1996). The unsettling of America: Culture and agriculture (3rd ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Greenman, J. (1988). Caring spaces, learning places: Children's environments that work. Redmond, WA: Child Care Information Exchange.

Greenman, J. (2005). Caring spaces, learning places: Children's environments that work (2nd ed.). Redmond, WA: Child Care Information Exchange.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. New York: Algonquin Books.

Leigh M. O'Brien is Associated Professor, Shear School of Education, SUNY Geneseo, Geneseo, New York.
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Title Annotation:For Parents Particularly
Author:O'Brien, Leigh M.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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