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It’s easy to get kids to love being outdoors. Visiting parks and beaches, taking walks in the countryside and playing outside have so many health benefits for parents and kids. Weather permitting (or sometimes not — who doesn’t love the occasional muddy puddle, wellies and all?), it’s important to connect with nature now and then. But how do you teach your little ones about the constant, invisible connections we have with the world around us?
Loving being outside is a great start, but you also have a wonderful opportunity to teach the difference between loving something for what you get and expressing love by giving.
1: Start by Noting Differences
One way to begin conversations, and get your kids thinking about our effect on the environment, is to start pointing it out. Have conversations about how trees, grass, and clean water make them feel. Contrast this whenever you come across litter, water that’s dirty or unsafe, or the noise and fumes of rush hour.
You can start with purely personal feelings and then move on to talking about the people around you. Talk about the way people act in different environments, how they seem to be affected by their surroundings. This is a preliminary step, so there is no need to get too deep. We’re just trying to develop an awareness of how people are interconnected with their environments. But if more questions come up, feel free to follow the line of inquiry!
2: Focus on Stories That Teach Responsibility
Be careful what you anthropomorphize and which fairy tales you tell. Telling tales is a great way to start teaching important topics early, but be careful that you’re not giving off the impression that things appear, or problems are solved, by magic without the involvement of the characters. Try contrasting Cinderella’s fairy godmother, who solves all her woes with the wave of a magic wand, to Dr Suess’ The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
It’s fine to make room for enchantment and happily ever afters, but fantasy worlds can be a powerful tool for teaching social responsibility.
3: Talk About Where Things Come From
I don’t need to tell you how unwaveringly curious kids are. It’s not always a good time for a lengthy discussion when a question comes up, if we answered every “where” or “how come” question fully none of us would get anything done. When you do have the time, don’t shy away from lengthy or difficult answers.
Start talking about where food comes from. Explore who grows veggies and where animals come from. The same conversations can be had about money, heat, power, and water. When we begin to introduce the idea into our kids’ lives that the things they use come from somewhere — someone’s work, or a finite resource — we lay the foundations of responsible consumption. Eventually, we can begin conversations that talk about paying for energy, and how saving energy can save money, which means more is available for the things we like.
4: Involve Them in the Kitchen and Garden
Finding ways for your kids to help in the kitchen is a brilliant way to start teaching them about food and the environment. Learning about the uses of food transitions naturally into conversations about how it’s produced and why waste is a problem. This is also a fantastic opportunity to talk about personal health — knowing what goes into your food and how to eat a balanced diet.
Another great way to start talking about protecting our environment is to involve kids in gardening activities. I find that a good way of introducing the conversation is, once again, to start with positive observations. Talk about how when you water and feed plants, the soil absorbs the nutrients, and then the plants do, which helps them to grow strong. Then introduce other ideas. What might happen when other things, harmful things, are absorbed by the soil? Introduce these types of open-ended questions and let the reasoning happen naturally.
5: Lead by Example, Give Back When You Can
If you’re passionate about your community, then why not involve your kids in volunteer activities that mean a lot to you? Community gardens, park cleanups, charity runs and walks, and other events can end up teaching you both about issues that have meaning in your household. Demonstrating a sense of community responsibility, citizenship, and environmental care through your own life is bound to have a residual effect on the way your kids see the world.
We might not be able to explore all the complexities of issues like global warming and its complex political and economic impacts with our kids, but we can lay the foundation for a thoughtful generation who loves the planet. Teaching love is part of what you do every day anyway, so extending it to involve our world should be a snap!